Never Call Someone an "Alcoholic" or "Addict"

Five reasons why, plus other ways you can help destigmatize addiction forever.

Posted Sep 10, 2018

     My name is Adi and I am not an addict.

     I am not an ADHD sufferer. I am so much more. And I don’t expect failure for myself; I expect success. F*** shame. Sure, I work hard every day to overcome the parts of myself that frustrate and complicate me — but who among us, diagnosed or not, can truly say otherwise?

I caught some serious flak for this statement in my TEDxUCLA talk, as people thought I was putting down traditional treatment approaches, such as AA. But it was a way to put down the use of that damn “addict” label. Labels can have a huge impact on someone with an addiction, as they typically come with expectations and can alter not only the person’s performance, but also the way other people view and treat them. Labels can be damaging, and now there’s research to support my point.

At the University of Pennsylvania, a new study into addiction and labels found that when people use the terms “addict” or “alcoholic,” they are often associated with a strong negative bias. This invokes a negative attitude toward the person rather than the behavior, and these attitudes are hard to shift. In comparison, researchers found that using “person-first” language (for example, “person with an addiction”) resulted in less negative bias.   

Why do people with addiction get labeled addicts?

Addiction occurs when an individual compulsively engages in a behavior, such as drinking, drug-taking, porn use or gambling. A person with an addiction is likely to feel like they are losing control, experience side effects of their use, and find it hard to stop, even if they want to.

Addiction is not the same thing for everyone. The cognitive, behavioral, and physiological symptoms and impact of an addiction will vary from individual to individual. Some people will continue to function at a high level (such as some hard-drinking executives), and many won't suspect they even have an addiction. While for others, the impact can be devastating, from breakdowns in relationships to loss of employment and financial instability. 

Unfortunately, only one in ten people with an addiction will reach out for professional help. I’ve previously discussed the research I undertook at UCLA, and how shame and stigma were identified as some of the biggest barriers to entering addiction treatment.

Shame and stigma stem from the labels placed upon people. While labels may be useful for services, clinicians, and treatment programs to know who to target and how to help someone, those labels are not so helpful for the person seeking help. Once a person believes they are an “addict” or an “alcoholic,” then they believe they have to spend their whole life trying to abstain and recover from the addiction. They believe every stereotype they’ve ever heard about “addicts” and “alcoholics” and apply those to themselves — lazy, untrustworthy, liar, sinner, uncaring, unemployable, and many more attributes become accepted when someone starts wearing these labels. On the other hand, people who use alcohol or substances in potentially harmful ways and aren’t labeled an “addict” can continue to live their lives without fear of the all-powerful stigma that comes along with these words.

5 reasons why you should never call someone an addict

1. It creates stigma and shame. As I’ve mentioned above, when you call someone an “addict” or “alcoholic,” it is shaming and can be a barrier to treatment. People with addictions often have underlying difficulties with how they view themselves and are sensitive to the judgment of others. Labels that are stigmatizing stop people from reaching out for help, and this stops them from working on the shame that probably underlies their addiction in the first place.

2. Shame leads to a negative self-concept. When a person with an addiction is shamed with labels, it comes as no surprise that it leads to them thinking and feeling negatively about themselves. When we feel terrible about ourselves, how likely are we to achieve our goals? Very unlikely. Shame keeps people in the spiral of addiction. Ironically, this is what traditional treatment options hope to prevent, but often inadvertently make worse.

3. People see themselves as the problem. When we label someone a “drug addict,” it removes the human perspective of examining a person with an addiction. The person is seen as a problem, not an individual. It also makes it hard for the person to see themselves as someone who is struggling, rather than as simply damaged or defective.

4. It creates helplessness. It can lead to negative self-talk, such as: “If I’m an addict, then I’ll always be an addict.” Helplessness keeps people turning to alcohol or substances, even though they know these things are bad for them, because there don’t seem to be better options. However, if that individual sees themselves as "someone with an addiction," then they may also envision themselves as "someone without an addiction."

5. It ignores all circumstances. There’s a cognitive bias known in psychology as the "Fundamental Attribution Error," which states that we see our own actions as being driven by circumstances, while seeing others’ behavior as being driven by their personality. Think of the last time you were cut off on the freeway by a speeding driver . . . “Asshole” was the first word to enter your mind, right? But if you’ve found yourself cutting someone off, you’d say you’re “in a hurry” or “didn’t see them” and attribute your actions to the situation. Now think of how this applies to those you label as “addicts.” By labeling them as such, you ignore the role of their circumstances and attribute their actions fully to their built-in personality.

How can we destigmatize addiction?

It’s clear that the language we use around addiction is powerful, and when used incorrectly, it can leave individuals with an addiction feeling powerless. We need to change the way we view addiction, how we label addiction, and how we treat people with addictions. We can do this by using person-first language and offering people choices in treatment.

What is person-first language? It’s simply removing terms such as “addict” and “alcoholic” and reducing the associated negative biases. Instead, we can say “a person with a substance problem,” or “a person with an alcohol addiction.” This may seem simple, but it makes a big difference. It separates the person from the addiction, which not only reduces shame and helplessness, but also increases a person’s self-efficacy by empowering them to seek help.

Over the years it has become clear to me that we need a path to recovery that is wide open — where everyone can seek and receive help without shame and stigma. I wrote The Abstinence Myth book and created the IGNTD Recovery Program, based on these premises:

1. Eliminating abstinence as a barrier to receiving help (you don’t have to quit alcohol or substances before accessing IGNTD!)

2. Recognizing the need for an individualized treatment approach

3. Accepting that addiction is not static, and all addictions are not the same

I believe in empowering people to make positive changes in their life, rather than making them feel powerless and ashamed of their addiction. I know the power of this approach personally. I want you to get honest with yourself about where you’re at in your life right now. And I’m not just talking about the addiction — I mean every aspect of your life, in particular those aspects that have led to and maintained the addiction. Those are the areas that need to be addressed before you can start recovery. The process of radical acceptance is core to my IGNTD Recovery Program, as it helps you come to terms with your past and your present, without judgment. Complete acceptance of your struggles will allow you to move forward with a clear mind and the motivation to make positive changes in your life.

So, if you know someone who has an addiction, stop using the “addict” label. Try to reframe how you view them by using person-first language. If you are someone with an addiction, you should try this out too! And, seek out a treatment approach that is shame-free, judgment-free, and suits your individual needs.

References

Ashford, R. D., Brown, A. M., & Curtis, B. (2018). Substance use, recovery, and linguistics: The impact of word choice on explicit and implicit bias. Drug Alcohol Depend, 189, 131-138. doi:10.1016/j.drugalcdep.2018.05.005

Williams, J.R., National Institute on Drug Addiction (1976). Effects Of Labeling the "drug-abuser": An Inquiry. Monograph Series #6. From https://archives.drugabuse.gov/sites/default/files/monograph06.pdf