Is labeling yourself an addict or alcoholic harmful or helpful?

Updated: Aug 7

Is Labeling Yourself an Addict or Alcoholic Harmful or Helpful?

If you've ever been to any kind of 12-step meeting then you've probably noticed that before

anyone speaks, they introduce themselves with their name and then addict or alcoholic. For example, I would say "Hi, I’m Amber and I'm an alcoholic". Then you’d share whatever it is you wanted to share.

Have you ever wondered why people say that each time? Or, whether or not it’s harmful or helpful to do so?

These days there’s a big push to destigmatize addiction, which I think is great. But, as part of that push there are a lot of people out there who don’t want anyone to use the terms addict or alcoholic.

I can definitely see both sides of this dilemma.

Many people have negative stereotypes connected to the words addict and alcoholic. They get a really bad image in their head when they think of people with addictions. They think of the worst case scenario. Basically, they’re thinking of end-stage addiction. If this is the image you have in your head, it makes it really hard to identify yourself this way (especially if you’re addiction hasn’t gotten to that level)

If you’re going to school or work every day, it’s going to be really difficult to believe you could be struggling with alcoholism when you imagine an alcoholic as someone living under a bridge.

Many people can’t come to terms with the fact that they have a problem because their life doesn’t seem to match up with these stereotypes. It’s difficult to get people to accept a diagnosis of alcoholism or addiction when they haven’t lost everything.

(By-the-way, there isn’t really a diagnosis called alcoholism or addiction. The official term is Alcohol Use Disorder or Substance Use Disorder.)

In some ways some ways I can see that this label is harmful

but in other ways it's actually really helpful.

So, let's take a look at the other side of this argument.

Most of us have an automatic assumption that goes along with saying someone is an addict

or an alcoholic. The assumption is that a person who is an addict or alcoholic can’t control their drug or alcohol use, which means they need to give up the substance completely.

This is actually another reason why people resist the diagnosis. They don’t want to let go of the substance. They want to try to manage it, but keep it in their lives. I personally think that more people are reluctant to accept the diagnosis due to this reason as opposed to the stigma of addiction.

When you accept that you’re an alcoholic or addict you accept that you must abstain from the substance.

Accepting that you need to abstain is a very beneficial thing. In this way, the label of addict or alcoholic helps you see the problem and the solution more clearly.

If you're identifying yourself as a problem drinker then you're probably thinking you just need to get it under control (or cut it back). The problem with this thinking is, if you have a moderate or severe Substance Use Disorder, you’re not going to be successful with your moderation efforts. As much as it sucks, it’s the truth.

Trying to minimize the issue with a softer label can contribute to keeping us in denial about what steps we need to take.

I’ve seen people suffer for years because they can’t accept that they’re an addict or alcoholic.

They try everything they can think of trying to manage the issue. Sometimes they find short term success, but it always ends with catastrophe. Once people accept really are addicted, they have a much easier time finding recovery. They stop bargaining with the issue and start getting better.

One big reason why people in 12 step meetings always identify themselves as an addict or alcoholic is because they want to stay clear on the issue. They want to remember that drugs and/or alcohol will control them (not the other way around). This constant reminder is one of the ways they stay focused on their recovery.

At the end of the day, it really doesn’t matter what you call it, but it does matter that you understand the true nature of the problem. You have to come to terms with the fact that you can’t consistently manage your substance use.

If you want to know what level of Substance Use Disorder you (or a loved one) have, click here to download the official criteria, or watch this video next:

Amber Hollingsworth

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