Therapists: Check Your Language When Discussing Addiction and Recovery


An area that I feel is extremely important when working with patients in early recovery from addiction is making sure we are using empowering language about addiction and recovery.  Language about addiction and recovery goes back decades.  However, some of this language was born out of the idea that addiction is a moral defect or weakness.  Consider the statement “clean and sober”.  How many times have we heard a patient say this?  Or a therapist say this?  When you consider what the opposite of “clean” is, being “dirty”, does that mean that someone who is not yet sober is dirty?  Absolutely not, which is why we have to change how we talk about addiction and recovery. 

We have to remember the amount of shame that some patients experience in early recovery.  Men and women can both experience shame.  Part of our job as a therapist is to help patients build back self-worth.  Using negative and shaming language with patients in early recovery can reinforce a cycle of messages that devalue self and increase feelings of shame. 

I like to compare addiction to other chronic diseases because it highlights how much we still hold addiction to moral standards versus medical standards, when compared to other chronic diseases.  Let’s consider cancer.  When someone is currently undergoing cancer treatment and has symptoms of the disease, then it is appropriate to say that they have cancer.  However, when someone is in remission from cancer, do they normally say that they still have cancer or are still sick?  Of course not.  Consider the emotional detriment that would cause if it was an accepted practice for people in remission from cancer to tell people they were still sick or still had cancer.  I would imagine this would impact emotional and mental health negatively.  I bring up this example of cancer to compare it with addiction recovery.  Many people feel they have to call themselves an alcoholic or addict even when they are in recovery.  For some, this may feel right for them.  However, for those with low self-worth or those with pervasive self-devaluing thinking, this could be very damaging.   I understand it is important for a patient to come to an acceptance that they have an addiction, however, we can help our patients come to this acceptance in ways other than reinforcing a label that results in feelings of shame for some patients. 

It is important for patients to know that they can choose to call their recovery whatever feels best for them.  Maybe this is “I am a person in recovery”, or a “person in long-term recovery”, or a “person in stable recovery”.  When someone in remission from cancer says “I have been in remission for this much time”, it instills a feeling of hope for the future.  Our patients in early and long term recovery deserve to experience this feeling of hope as well, just as much as a cancer patient.  Let’s help them feel that way. 

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