Several years ago, I was finishing a class I taught called, “Writing for Empowerment,” when the Executive Director of the facility in which I taught called me into her office.
“I’ve gotten some questions from clients about the material you’ve been teaching,” she said. While she and I always had a good relationship, she was more stern than usual and sat in what can only be described as an authoritarian position.
“Really?” I said. In the three (3) years that I taught, I had never had anyone complain about the core of my teachings.
“Yes, but let me ask, is it true that you teach that the terms ‘addict’ and ‘alcoholic’ are harmful?”
“Well, yeah, I guess. To be more specific, I think the terms become self-fulfilling prophecies. They aren’t neutral, but are loaded with negative connotation,” although I answered her, I was a bit shocked because I thought she reviewed and approved of my curriculum. I was a bit shocked to be explaining something that’s basic to what I had always taught.
She smiled and eased back into her chair. It seemed that she was understanding my point and was about to let me leave. I was wrong. “Well,” she started. “We are a twelve-step facility and identifying as ‘addict’ and/or ‘alcoholic’ is a basic requirement to our clients. Telling them otherwise is confusing their treatment. I’m going to need you to stop teaching that.”
And that was the last time I was in the facility. I left because every piece of psychological empowerment confirmed that language is not neutral. However, even to this day, it appears that 12-step programs continue to persist negative bias through enforcing that members use “addict” and “alcoholic’ as identifying terms. But I have been vindicated in an article called, “Stop Talking ‘Dirty’: Clinicians, Language, and Quality of Care for the Leading Cause of Preventable Death in the United States.”
This groundbreaking article confirms my teaching. It basically says that using negative terms only creates bias against those seeking treatment. The authors state, “even among well-trained clinicians, exposure to a term such as “abuser” creates an implicit cognitive bias that results in punitive judgments that may perpetuate stigmatizing attitudes.” The cognitive bias implies that those who are addicted are somehow responsible for their addiction and are to blame for its progression. As a solution to this desctructive bias, the authors propose using terms that imply person first language such as saying that a person has a “substance use disorder.”
Anyway, I am happy that I was right all along: “Addict” and “Alcoholic” are harmful terms… The full article is here:addictionLanguage