Opinion: Person-First Language and Recovery Don't Mix

By Christopher Dale 03/21/18

Being sensitive to stigmas is a noble cause, but avoiding a micro-aggression isn't a viable excuse to risk fracturing a tried and true foundation of recovery: total accountability.

Man holding finger at mouth indicating "shh."
Goodbye gutter-dwelling addict, hello highly regarded "person with addiction."

My name is Chris, and I'm an alcoholic and an addict.

I do not suffer from "Alcohol Use Disorder," and calling me a "person with addiction" is about as useful as noting my status as a "guy with a lamp" or a "gentleman with a necktie." I'm not "with" addiction any more than I'm "with" my son. I have addiction - it is my responsibility. I carry it. I own it.

I'm an alcoholic. So are the two men I sponsor in Alcoholics Anonymous. And if they start declaring otherwise, they'll need to find another sponsor.

Welcome to the latest PC overreach, my fellow addic... um… persons. And though it didn't surprise me one bit when helicopter-parented, Me, Me, Me Generation Millennials started transforming institutions of higher education into places where classic literature needed trigger warnings, even I didn't anticipate that the micro-aggression police would start cracking down on the language—and through it the principles—of recovery.

Before we go further, we must address the donkeys (D) and elephants (R) in the room. Amid our hyper-polarized political climate, seemingly any controversial subject sends us scurrying into our confirmation biased, positive feedback-driven red and blue corners.

So before you dismiss me as a curmudgeonly conservative Republican—a heterosexual white man threatened by the empowerment of historically oppressed groups—hear this: I am a progressive Democrat. If you're interested in my liberal bona fides, Google me.

And before the comment thread below becomes a flurry of snowflakes, realize that left-leaning outlets and medical professionals have been throwing stink bombs into safe spaces for quite some time.

Now without further ado, let me explain why PC mission creep is a danger to (stigma alert!) addicts and alcoholics.

Well-Intending Failure

This menace began, like many menaces do, with good intentions. The Recovery Research Institute is, according to its website, "a leading nonprofit research institute of Massachusetts General Hospital and Harvard Medical School, dedicated to the advancement of addiction treatment and recovery." Esteemed credentials, even more estimable mission.

The organization's website has become the go-to source for the Addiction-ary, a venture ambitious enough to warrant its own mission statement:

If we want addiction destigmatized, we need a language that's unified. The words we use matter. Caution needs to be taken, especially when the disorders concerned are heavily stigmatized as in substance use disorders.

Fair enough. Unified language certainly helps the medical community be precise in its descriptions of patients, and addicts are a set who've been historically denigrated—persecuted even—due to widespread public ignorance of our shared disease.

This effort jumped the shark, however, when it went from medical to media. Last June, the Associated Press updated its official Stylebook—a wordsmith's glossary adhered to by thousands of print and web-based publications, including (usually) The Fix—to incorporate person-first language, described as "a linguistic prescription structuring sentences to name the person first and the condition or disease from which they suffer, second."

Immediately following the AP's groundbreaking decision, the new language was championed by Maia Szalavitz, author of Unbroken Brain: A Revolutionary New Way of Understanding Addiction. The lead paragraph of her celebratory essay speaks volumes:

"For years, people with addiction have wondered when the media would recognize our condition as a medical problem, not a moral one; when they would stop reducing us to mere 'addicts' and speak of us in the more respectful and accurate 'person-first' language that has become common for people with other diseases and disorders."

Goodbye gutter-dwelling addict, hello highly regarded "person with addiction."

This notion is well-intending, a respectable desire to destigmatize an understandably stigmatized disease. But what Szalavitz and the Associated Press decision-makers are missing is that addiction has circumstances distinguishing it from other diseases, and even other mental health disorders.

That differentiator is this: Addicts must take full, unabashed responsibility for their actions in order to arrest our disease, and to parlay initial abstinence-based progress into sustainable, long-lasting recovery. And to do so, we must own this recovery—labels and all—rather than sidestep it for the sake of hurt feelings.

The Language of Enablement

Alcoholics and drug addicts are about the last people that should be given an out. Many of us dodged, deflected and scapegoated our way into catastrophic, near-lethal bottoms before finally admitting that we had a serious problem and needed help. You give us an inch, we'll take several yards.

And that's exactly what calling an addict a "person with addiction" is doing: giving cover to people whose disease thrives on cover. It's one more way for an addict like me to detach from his disease and avoid the most crucial passageway to sustainable recovery: taking complete and repentant responsibility for his actions, both before and after the drinking and drugging finally ceased.

The idea that this strictness is derogatory or castigatory is a wildly inaccurate extension of PC culture, one that endangers health at the expense of feelings. Being sensitive to stigmas is a noble cause, but avoiding a micro-aggression isn't a viable excuse to risk fracturing a tried and true foundation of recovery: total accountability. To that end, “person with addiction” is a “phrase with negligence.”

I tell newcomers what I was told as a newcomer: Don’t trust your feelings, especially early on, because you may feel your way to a bar or a dealer. Let that onion peel away layer by layer rather than take a Ginsu to it. Put some of those feelings on the shelf, and let’s do some stepwork—and through it, some healing—first.

Let’s build a foundation to stand against the flood of feelings sure to come in both trickles and tidal waves. Want to save your life? Then let’s get to work.

What I don’t say is this: Welcome to AA. Here are your complimentary set of kid gloves.

Why? Because soft-pedaling is dangerous when dealing with alcoholics and drug addicts. "Person with addiction" is a phrase that places more importance on self-esteem than... well... self. Recovery and addiction are life-or-death scenarios; I would argue that an addict's heartstrings are far less vital than his heartbeat.

“Person with addiction,” then, is an attempt to combat ignorance that is, itself, ignorant. Because more than anything, this phraseology shows a lack of understanding of what's most important to alcoholics and addicts: sobriety. In this case, it is the language of enablement, and it's flat-out dangerous to a set of people who, historically, will look in every other direction to avoid staring directly into the mirror.

To borrow a newfangled PC term, then, I see “person with addiction” as a micro-aggression against fully embracing responsibility for our actions and ownership of our shared disease. It drives a wishy-washy wedge between the tough truths addicts must face about themselves along the long, often tumultuous road to recovery.

For addicts like me, mincing words is a slippery slope to becoming mincemeat. My name is Chris, and I'm not a person with addiction. I'm an alcoholic and an addict, and I always will be.

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Chris & Nicholas Dec 2017.JPG

Christopher Dale is a recovering alcoholic and freelance writer who frequently covers sobriety, parenting and politics. His work has appeared in Salon, The Daily Beast, New York Newsday and Parents.com, among other outlets. Follow him on Twitter at @ChrisDaleWriter.