Words matter because the way we use them matters. When we assign to words painful, intentionally hurtful associations, we take perfectly good words, and drown them in stigma. When we use words as weapons, people will do everything they can to distance themselves. Denial prevents healing. When we reject the words because they have been weaponized and stigmatized, we move further from recovery. Our denials and rejections become a self-fulfilling prophecy of pain. We get stuck.
I’m a recovered alcoholic, but you probably already know that. Naturally, you might be thinking this article will be about the words “alcoholic” or “alcoholism” based on my introductory paragraph about weaponized words dripping with stigma. You are not wrong, but we’ll get to those words in a minute. This isn’t an alcoholism problem. It is a much bigger societal problem. So let’s start by considering some non-alcoholic words.
My wife, Sheri, and I, run a nonprofit in Denver named, Stigma. We do a lot of work on addiction recovery and prevention. But our organization is also heavily involved in homelessness and hunger relief in Denver as well. We work with a lot of loving people who increasingly reject the words “homelessness” and “hunger” in favor of words like “unhoused” and “food insecure.”
We get it. Homelessness is completely stigmatized by a society that doesn’t understand the factors that contribute to many of the challenges humans face, and sometimes uses the word as a demoralizing descriptor to kick people when they are down. Parts of our society – big and powerful parts – look down and look away because homelessness is complex and multifaceted, and they lack the creativity and will to find practical solutions. They take the “not on my lawn” approach, and create a them versus us mentality. Well hell, when I put it that way, who would ever admit to facing the challenges of homelessness. Our society is too busy blaming the victims to understand the factors in individual cases. Owning the homelessness label is no longer a request for help. It’s willingly lowering yourself into societal purgatory.
What about the words, “hunger” and “hungry?” In a recent discussion with active participants in the effort to feed the hungry, we were cautioned to stop using those words because they are stigmatized and painful to the people who don’t have enough to eat. Again, we get it. Those words have been weaponized by an uncaring society determined to look the other way. Our society has yet to demonize the term, “food insecure,” so let’s say that until it, too, has been corrupted and stigmatized. Just to clarify, if a person’s food supply is insecure, it leaves them feeling hungry.
How about all of the crazy words we’ve weaponized over the years. “That guy’s insane!” “Look at her straightening everything on her desk. She’s so OCD.” “Are you listening to me? What, do you have ADHD?” “I think he’s schizo.” “She’s so up and down, she must be bipolar.” I heard one of my favorite comedians use the word, “retard,” last week. In fact, he defended it with some really painful jokes about how the people to whom the term applies aren’t offended because they aren’t smart enough to understand they’re being teased.
Oh, they understand. We humans have an uncanny ability to perceive when we are being marginalized and othered even when the stupidity of the person doing it limits his ability to realize what he’s doing.
Words matter because the way we use them matters. “Bipolar” was not added to the English language as an insult. “Hungry” is so succinct and descriptive, that it’s a real shame it has to be replaced by a phrase that often requires an explanation.
I’m as guilty as anyone of stigmatizing perfectly good words in our language. I have ignorantly thrown around words in the interest of getting a chuckle without considering the impact on the people to whom the words legitimately applied. I try not to do it any longer, but I’ve done my share of damage in the war to bastardize words. Take the word, “bastard,” for example.
Why do we do it? Why does our society twist words in this evil manner?
I can only speak for myself. In my case, the answer is fear.
“That guy’s an alcoholic. He can’t keep his shit together. He’s drunk at 9am.” I’ve said things like that, and it has brought me great comfort because when I compared myself to the person I was disparaging, I compared favorably. Even at my worst, it was always easy to find “some alcoholic” who was in worse shape than me. As long as I wasn’t as bad as them, I couldn’t be an alcoholic. And you know what that meant, right.
Pointing out other alcoholics gave me permission to keep drinking.
And that’s why the way we use words matters more than the words themselves. Admitting to a drinking problem, alcoholism, or being an alcoholic, a drunk, a lush, or a wino is an unthinkably destructive self-categorization. It is a last resort. So we don’t choose it. We choose, instead, to keep right on drinking.
There are lots of bright, caring, respectable, and loving people fighting hard to help people in the recovery community who reject words like “alcoholic” and “alcoholism” in an effort to avoid the stigma that keeps people stuck. They choose instead words like “gray area drinking” and “sober curious.” I get it. You don’t have to make a dastardly, unthinkable admission to find benefit from sobriety. Not only do I get it. I agree. And this way of thinking is reaching people. It is helping people. Sobriety is becoming an attractive movement, not because so many people are admitting to their alcoholic label, but precisely because they are rejecting it. This is a good thing. People finding health and salvation from the incarceration of addiction is great, no matter what you call it.
But here’s the problem (you could feel a “but” coming, couldn’t you). When we change the words, we just move the target. We don’t actually solve anything.
How long do you think it will take for the food insecure to feel othered for admitting to that label? Do we have any hope at all for “unhoused” to remain unstigmatized because it is so much more humane than the word, “homeless?”
Clinical professionals don’t use the word, “alcoholism,” any more. They call it “alcohol use disorder.” The only hope for that phrase is that it is a mouthful to say, “Look at that guy suffering from alcohol use disorder sleeping in the gutter.” It’s a good thing we have an acronym. “Sober up you sloppy AUD.” Think you’ll never hear that sentence? I think it’s just a matter of time.
And fear will turn drinkers against the sober gray area-ers, eventually, too. “What, you’re not drinking with us? What are you, gray area?” Or, “How’s that sober curious thing going? Did your curiosity lead you to how lame sobriety is, yet?” Haters are going to hate no matter what we call it. They are too afraid of having any attention drawn to their drinking to let you get away with sobriety. They will stigmatize the words – any words – no matter how often we change them.
That’s why I own the label, “alcoholic.” What are they going to do, tease me about my alcoholism? I just called myself an alcoholic. It’s pretty hard to shame me with a word that brings me no shame.
And that’s the antidote, isn’t it? How do we crush the stigma? How do we de-weaponize the words? We own them all on our way to healing and enlightenment.
“I was an alcoholic. But now I don’t drink because I’ve learned the truth about alcohol. I notice you’re still drinking. What does that say about you?”
We win the war of word weaponization by draining the power of the stigma. Giving society more targets just results in more weapons, more stigma.
It’s the same thing with our outdated and unwinnable approach to battling the disease of alcoholism, or alcohol use disorder to be proper. Treating the addiction isn’t working. Prevention is the key. Helping the fallen get back on their feet is a hell of a lot harder than teaching people how to avoid the fall in the first place. But talking about prevention makes me a prude or a prohibitionist. More words. More weapons. More stigma.
Another thing we humans and our societies are good at is making things more complex than necessary in the interest of preserving the status quo. We are as afraid of change as we are afraid of anyone noticing how much or how often we drink. If you don’t think our society uses complexity to keep us stuck in the status quo then I’m going to have to ask you to explain the reasoning behind our archaic U.S. tax code to me.
If you are sober curious, feel your drinking is a gray area, have concerns about your consumption, or ask yourself, “Why not go dry?”; I have a question for you. Do you think the inexactness of the words is protecting you from the fact that your life will be better, in the long term, in sobriety?
Or is the inexactness just protecting you from the stigma.
I was an alcoholic. Now I’m not. Now I’m permanently sober. I’ve learned enough to know a return to drinking is not an option for me. But I’ve also learned enough to have no desire to consume a poison anymore, so sobriety brings me welcomed comfort.
No matter what you call me, I’m comfortable. You might think my stand on the word, “alcoholic,” makes me arrogant. I agree. But I’m comfortable with that label, too, because this opinion was hard-earned, and I’m fighting a war using my words. And I’m sober enough to shamelessly tell it like it is, without apology.
I’m also not alone. I am part of a growing coalition focused on crushing the stigma and de-weaponizing the words. If you’d like to join us, there is plenty of room for you. If you are a high-functioning alcoholic looking for support and connection in early sobriety, please check out our SHOUT Sobriety program.
And if you are the loved one of an alcoholic who knows how much pain the stigma has caused in your life, please join our Echoes of Recovery group.