Labels in Addiction and Recovery

For some of us, there comes a time when we wonder if we are drinking too much, or using drugs too much. In our society, the next thought typically is, “Am I an alcoholic or an addict?”  This question naturally arises because almost everyone has heard, “You have to admit that you are an alcoholic or addict before you can be helped.” Because there is such widespread insistence that people label themselves with these terms, let us examine what these terms mean.

Addicts and Alcoholics: What’s In a Name?

alcoholic labelsThere are many individuals in the 12-step community (members of Alcoholics Anonymous, Narcotics Anonymous, Cocaine Anonymous, etc.) who call themselves alcoholics or addicts. These labels are considered important because they help members of the community (or fellowship, as it is often called) identify with each other, and identify the seriousness of the problem they share. There are also other descriptions of the problem, which may be described as “insanity,” a “character defect,” an “illness” or (in recent decades) a “disease.” Members of 12-step groups appear to overcome shame and gain strength for recovery by using these terms, at least with each other.

The labels alcoholic and addict give the false impression that there are two kinds of people. In reality, problematic substance use can be placed on a spectrum. Addiction problems are not either/or. At one end of the spectrum is mildly risky involvement and experimentation. At the other end of the spectrum is severe problems (including the diagnostic disorders substance abuse and substance dependence). No one starts out at the severe end, but some (not most) individuals get there over time.  Even individuals whose problems are substantial do not necessarily need to go to alcohol and drug rehab.

Sobriety With Caution, Recovery Without Labels

Once you believe that there are two kinds of people, and not a spectrum of problems, then you would understandably believe that 1) if you are an alcoholic or addict you need to abstain and spend the rest of your life “in recovery” and 2) if you are not, then you can do whatever you want with alcohol or other potentially harmful substances, without fear of consequences. In reality there are many ways to change addiction problems, and everyone who uses addictive substances would do well to pay attention to his or her relationship with them.

If you already call yourself an alcoholic and/or addict, and these labels are helpful to you, there is no need to change your use of them. But if you are not sure what to call yourself, you have the option of simply recognizing that you have problems arising from your involvement with addictive substances. It is not necessary to give yourself a label. Once you have recognized that problems exist, you can bypass the labels, and start making positive changes in your life.