The Use of Labels: Alcoholic and Addict

Labels can have powerful effects on our conscious and subconscious beliefs about ourselves and the future actions we engage in. This can be seen well in the world of sports when we think about transcendent athletes such as Michael Jackson, or Tiger Woods. Their belief and self-talk that they are the best to do it was a major factor in the various moments they found themselves in when being neck and neck with an opponent. Labels can often have a self-fulling nature, and can work for us, or against us.

I am often asked about the use of common labels in recovery such as alcoholic and drug addict. It is my belief that anyone can use whichever labels they find helpful for themselves, while I do not personally use either of those labels when referring to myself (as someone who had an opiate addiction) or others. In the 12-Step approach, identifying as an alcoholic or addict is actively encouraged with the intent of pushing people through their denial of the problem and as an indelible reminder of where their addiction took them. This identification can be helpful for some, and for others it can feel disheartening and triggering.

Chemical addiction is a spectrum disorder, with distinctions between mild, moderate and severe. There are associations of the stereotypical “addict/alcoholic” living on the streets, with no family, job, resources or self-care that come to mind for many of my clients which discourage the use of these labels on themselves. All one needs to do is attend a 12-Step meeting and they will be given plenty of examples of others similar to themselves, yet there is still an adverse response when using this label on themselves or when loved ones use it on them or encourage them to accept that is what they are. The Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, fifth edition (APA, 2013), is the clinical book used by mental health professionals to diagnose mental health disorders. Addict and alcoholic are not words used to describe substance disorders, instead, they are called alcohol use disorder, opiate use disorder, stimulant use disorder etc.

While someone may have a dependence on alcohol, they are not an alcoholic. They are struggling with an alcohol use disorder, and if they are no longer meeting that criteria after a full year, then they are in sustained remission (APA, 2013). Labels are powerful, and when taking a self-empowering approach, which I am a proponent of, it can be helpful to ditch the use of labels and instead acknowledge that there has been a dependency on a substance and lifestyle that is no longer working. When asked if I am an addict, I tell people that in the past I struggled with problematic substance use, and today I do not. I encourage clients to use whatever verbiage works for them, as I have worked with many clients in a 12-step program who chose to identify with the words addict/alcoholic. If you find power in those labels, who am I to tell you to not use them! On the other hand, if you feel repulsed or put off by them, know that you do not have to use them, and there is plenty of evidence that their use can be detrimental to progress for many. Afterall, what does an addict/alcoholic do? They drink and use, relapse, hurt those around them, fail to live up to their commitments, and struggle to succeed in life. Those labels can often run through one’s mind right before a relapse, with the mind saying, “well you are an alcoholic so you might as well take that drink, after all, that is what you do.”

Working in a self-empowering program, people are taught to focus on their strengths and the goals in which they want to achieve. Instead of focusing on not drinking today, we strive to focus on the things we want to achieve for the day and aligning our behaviors with our identified values. These are skills and philosophies that we teach at Realize Recovery, both to individuals and to loved ones who may only know the mainstream 12-step alcohol/addict philosophy. Please keep in mind, this is not a demonizing of the 12-step program, as it worked and continues to work for many people, it is simply an alternative perspective to be used in conjunction with the 12-steps, or as an alternative.