In recent years, there seems to be more public discourse about the usefulness of labels. I’ve noticed this in terms of sexuality and gender, but also around addiction and mental health. There is more room for people to decide whether or not labels suit them.
Naming an experience or identity can feel useful for some people. It can help them understand themselves better, remind them they are not “abnormal,” and connect them to others who have had similar experiences.
For instance, identifying as an “alcoholic” is a big part of connecting to one another in AA. But you don’t have to be part of a 12-step fellowship to use these words. I have alcohol use disorder and feel identified with the world “alcoholic,” but haven’t gone the AA route.
On the other hand, some people find labels stifling. When it comes to addiction, they can make people hesitate to get sober. Labels like “alcoholic” come with such a specific set of ideas; sometimes people spend so much time trying to figure out whether they meet the criteria, they miss the opportunity to start changing things. Several people I interviewed for our Sober Stories series said they waited a while to quit drinking because they weren’t sure whether they were an alcoholic.
Not only is addiction progressive, so that in the time spent wondering if the label fits, things can get worse; people have many different (and equally valid) reasons for getting sober. You don’t have to hit rock bottom to realize substances are detrimental to you.
Then there are labels put on people from the outside. Some of these are stigmatizing and harmful, like “junkie,” “crackhead,” or “lush.” But even words people might call themselves, like “addict,” are not necessarily what you should call them.
When talking about other people, it’s important to be cognizant of the words you’re using. The National Institute on Drug Abuse recommends using person-first language like “person with addiction” or “he has alcohol use disorder.” This emphasizes someone’s humanity before their addiction. People can call themselves whatever feels comfortable, but how you refer to them should respect their personhood.
Labels can feel useful for some people and not others. It’s okay to ask someone how they want to be addressed when it comes to their addiction (and anything else). Listen to and respect people’s autonomy. Doing so helps destigmatize addiction and reinforce the important truth that everyone’s recovery is unique.
If you are struggling with a substance use or mental health disorder, there is help and hope. Amatus Recovery Centers offers high-quality treatment for mental health disorders and addiction in facilities across the country. Our staff—many of whom are in recovery themselves—will help you learn who you are without substances and build a great life in recovery. Call an admissions specialist at 410-593-0005.