A recent piece in New York Magazine reports on a medical journal editorial about the kind of language commonly used when speaking about addiction. The argument is that terms like “clean,” “sober,” and “addict” offer a moralistic connotation and imply that the person struggling with addiction is 100% at fault for their illness. Some experts in the field of social work and addiction feel that this kind of negative language can undermine an individual’s success in recovery. I say come the f*** on.
Don’t Patronize Us
Full disclosure: according to an online quiz I took this week, I am only 60% liberal so keep that in mind when I say that I hate when people baby addicts. Of course, I am just as frustrated by narrow-minded folks who think addiction is simply a series of poor choices. Although neither of these standpoints are accurate or helpful, I suppose it’s easy to see where each side is coming from. And since dishonesty and manipulation are both common characteristics of addiction, it’s really hard to know which end is up.
But here is what I will tell you—there are addicts who don’t respond well to authority (I’m one of them) and many have gone back to using as a result. That is very unfortunate but until that person is willing to put their ego aside, realize their life is on the line and give sobriety another try, there isn’t much (or anything) anyone can do for them and no amount of flowery language will change that. In fact, it has been my experience that people who take a huge issue with labels like “alcoholic” and “addict,” or alcoholic vs. addict, or have to call God a “she” and order a gender-neutral Big Book don’t typically stick around. Why? Because they aren’t in acceptance of where they are at and think the solution is to change a 79-year working model to fit their “unique” circumstances. And to me, petitioning to change labels like “clean” and “sober” falls under this same brand of bullshit.
An Excuse to Cry Helplessness
Listen, if medical professionals want to start calling their heroin addict patients “opiod intolerant,” that is up to them. But I can tell you right now, terms like “junkie” aren’t going to become the new “gay” of the addiction world. While having a disease isn’t anyone’s fault, per se, at some point it does become the adult human being’s responsibility to treat their illness if they want their life to improve. Removing labels that may seem harsh to someone with a PhD is not going to encourage addicts to do what it takes to recover; it merely co-signs their bullshit excuses for not doing the work.
Incidentally, I would assume the only people who have a problem referring to themselves as “clean” are the ones who aren’t able to. Staying sober can be really challenging and I think you would be hard pressed to find someone out there who has climbed the mountain of recovery and doesn’t want to personally acknowledge the hurdles they have overcome. Clean is the opposite of dirty and that is exactly why it’s great.
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