Language matters

“Hi, I’m an addict” is a common introduction in a Recovery support meeting or even in a counseling session. Other phrases like “junkie” and “druggie”, or “ex-addict” follow closely behind. The language of Recovery too closely mirrors the language of addiction.

Many of my patients see “relapse” and “failure” as synonymous with Recovery. As I listen to them define themselves in these self-recriminating terms I often wonder if these are not a conditioned, misguided effort to defend the perception of inevitable failure. Perhaps they serve as a warning to others and a reminder for those in Recovery… “Well, of course I relapsed, I’m a junkie, it’s what I do”.

“The Addict” needs no reminder of what a life impacted by addiction looks like. Many of my patients have attempted sobriety multiple times, some have lost everything that was important to them, and many have dealt with the grief and loss of friends, family, or peers who have died from alcohol or drug overdoses. These are the realities of addiction.

“…the language we use in Recovery has a long history, forged over the last 300 years.”

What is the difference between “the addict” and “the person in recovery”?

“The Addict”, “The Junkie”, etc., categorizes the human being in front of us by the addicted life they have lived and survived. A better term to use would be a “person in Recovery”, it acknowledges strength and offers hope.

Why is this important?

We all want to be seen for the human beings we are. We all need hope.

Many of my patients come in with years of chronic pain from injuries, illness and failed surgeries, histories of prescription medications, and multi-layered medical symptoms. In addition, a person’s trauma history can span the spectrum from childhood to adulthood, civilian and military. I see patients from all walks of life and socioeconomic levels in society; addiction, disease, mental illness, biology, and trauma does not discriminate.

When we use the term “Addict”, even if that person is ourselves, we essentially take this person in Recovery and minimize the weight of an entire life history that resulted in their circumstances. And we ultimately dismiss the strength and courage it takes to be in Recovery.

As a society, the language we use in Recovery has a long history, forged over the last 300 years. In modern Recovery, this language is out of touch, and not relevant or helpful. Instead it promotes isolation, which becomes harmful to the person in Recovery.

“The opposite of addiction isn’t sobriety. It’s connection. It’s all I can offer. It’s all that will help [you] in the end. If you are alone, you cannot escape addiction. If you are loved, you have a chance.”
(Johann Hari, Chasing the Scream: The First and Last Days of the War on Drugs)

How does language contribute to isolation and harm in Recovery?

We all understand that Recovery is not an easy or smooth process, and there are many barriers to be overcome!

Human beings are relational creatures, we crave connection and acceptance with each other and in our communities. Because of this, Recovery does not happen in isolation. Rather, it is a journey that thrives in the presence of a healthy support system.

How we define our world, ourselves and others influences the language of our culture and behaviors. Our perceptions and beliefs guide the choices we make to include or exclude, they determine the social groups we engage in, and where we assign value.

Addiction is associated with devastation. Recovery is a place where the individual is learning to find restoration and healing. While we should acknowledge the sum of our experiences, do we let it define us in our search for change? I believe this is the decision we face daily in Recovery. We have to acknowledge the impact language has to cultivate change or foster stagnation.

The person in Recovery can experience isolation and be marginalized, simply by the power in our words. The stigma that addiction carries naturally assigns negative societal values, limiting the recovering individual’s access to support, and the strengths gained from social connection. 

“The language of addiction needs to change in Recovery. It needs to become one of love and acceptance that promotes healing, and restoration.”

Why do we need to change our cultural language in Recovery?

We are in a time of crisis in our society, a time when our families are vulnerable and devastated by loss.

Shatterproof recently highlighted data from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) reporting 72,000 Americans died in 2017 from drug overdoses, the most recorded in a single year. They estimate that drug overdoses contribute to an average of a 197 deaths per day.

Now more than ever, our words need to focus on inclusion and acceptance for those in our communities who most need it, offering them respite, and letting them know they are supported. The language of addiction needs to change in Recovery. It needs to become one of love and acceptance, one that promotes healing, and restoration.

“We are the sum total of our experiences.
Those experiences – be they positive or negative – make us the person we are, at any given point in our lives.
And, like a flowing river, those same experiences, and those yet to come, continue to influence and reshape the person we are, and the person we become.
None of us are the same as we were yesterday, nor will be tomorrow.”
(B.J. Neblett)

Where do I start?

Hazeldon and the Georgia Department of Behavioral Health and Developmental Disabilities (DBHDD) recently sponsored a training in Atlanta on “Creating and Sustaining a Culture of Recovery”. It emphasized the need for change with the harmful, socially-ingrained language that is such a part of our Recovery treatment models.

At this training, the CARES program through the Georgia Council of Substance Abuse (GCSA) provided each participant with a handy reference to help us start changing the language we use with those in Recovery (below). This is a good place to start. I use it as an aid in my journey of “recovery” from the harmful and out-of-context language of addiction.

Let’s pull together as a society and support those in our families and communities. We can start by changing how we use our words.

Say This Not That

Recovery gives us hope of restoration, and every person in Recovery is a life saved. Language and words are powerful in this process, use it wisely.

“Words are, of course, the most powerful drug used by mankind.”

(Rudyard Kipling)


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