The language we use to talk about addiction and recovery perpetuates the stigma and shame individuals and family members impacted by addiction have always felt. Once an individual is known to be struggling with addiction, all that they’ve ever been and might ever become is (in the eyes of society) reduced to a single label; a label that dehumanizes and stigmatizes.  No longer are they seen as a son or daughter, parent, sibling, spouse, colleague, student, etc. For all intents and purposes, the very essence of who they are, their experiences and their accomplishments are forgotten.  They are simply labeled alcoholics and/or addicts — nothing more; nothing less.

In a widely shared Huffington Post blog, addiction policy expert, filmmaker (“The Anonymous People” and “Generation Found”), activist, and social entrepreneur Greg Williams addressed this very subject. He wrote about the power of language to “create a perceptual underclass of nearly 20 percent of American adults (22 million suffering and 23 million others in recovery)’ by labeling them as addicts or alcoholics. “It’s no surprise,” he continued, “a significant portion of those in need of help don’t reach out for it.”

It’s Time to Change the Language of Addiction & Recovery!

Contrary to what has been said about sticks and stones, words can and do hurt, but they can also heal. It all depends on which we use. The wrong words can convey shame and feelings of hopelessness and unworthiness – all of which can contribute to struggling individuals and their families choosing not to seek help. Conversely, the right words can inspire hope, promise, healing and new beginnings. We must choose our words carefully.

We will never succeed in conquering the addiction crisis until we stop labeling those struggling with addiction as “alcoholics” and “addicts” and begin regarding them as people with a chronic disease. When we do, we’ll stop dehumanizing them, we’ll erase the stigma, and make it easier for those individuals and their families to seek, find, and sustain recovery.

Adopting recovery-focused language can change the way our lawmakers (and society as a whole) perceive the disease of addiction. The right language can increase understanding of addiction and recovery, and make recovery both attractive and attainable.

In “The Language of Recovery Advocacy,” (June 7, 2014) William White writes,

“It is time people in recovery rejected imposed language and laid claim to words that adequately convey the nature of our experience, strength, and hope. We must forge a new vocabulary that humanizes AOD (Alcohol and Other Drug) problems and widens the doorways of entry into recovery. We must forever banish language that, by objectifying and demonizing addiction, sets the stage for our sequestration and punishment. We must counter the clinical language that reduces human beings to diagnostic labels that pigeonhole our pathologies while ignoring our strengths and resiliencies. We must also reject the disrespectful and demeaning epithets (e.g. retreads, frequent flyers) professionals sometimes use to castigate those who need repeated treatment episodes.” William White

Change is occurring; albeit slowly. Friends of Recovery – New York has joined with other leaders in the modern recovery movement to promote a new and positive way for those in recovery to talk about themselves. Originally created by Faces & Voices of Recovery, the language begins as follows: My name is ______ and I am a person in long-term recovery. What that means for me is that I haven’t had to pick up a drink or drug in ___ years. As a result, I’ve been able to (mention a few gifts of your recovery).

Change is happening within New York agencies as evidenced by the NYS Office of Alcoholism & Substance Abuse Services’ (OASAS) Commissioner Gonzalez-Sanchez’s remarks at recent Alcohol and Substance Abuse Providers (ASAP) Conference in Saratoga during which she mentioned OASAS would be moving away from the terms “behavioral health” and “substance abuser” so as to emphasize the importance of addressing addiction as the disease it is and not leave room for lesser interpretations.

The Recovery Research Institute at Massachusetts General Hospital even launched an online petition calling on Congress to remove the word “Abuse” from US institutions addressing addiction.

It is up to all of us (as champions of the recovery community) to do our part to effect positive change. Change that will shift society’s perspective about the disease of addiction and the power and promise of Recovery. That begins with the very words we use to describe ourselves and our journeys.

To that end, FOR-NY is working within existing and emerging Recovery Community Organizations throughout the state to bring the “Our Stories Have Power” messaging workshops to the front lines. We need to empower and equip all Recovery allies to carry recovery-focused language into all of their conversations.

To read more about the changing language of addiction and recovery, click on the links below.

For a thorough review of addiction and recovery-related terms, see the Recovery Research Institute’s Addiction-ary.