Unhelpful Recovery Terms

By Olivia Pennelle 09/22/17

We need to hold each other up rather than tear each other down for having a different conception of how we recover.

upset, thoughtful woman
Language can be a powerful tool and should be carefully considered when addressing sensitive topics like addiction and recovery.

Last month I came across a thread on Facebook about unhelpful recovery terms. This thread mentioned that using certain phrases—like dry drunk—to describe someone else’s recovery was unhelpful. Some believe it to be judgmental, prohibitive, exclusive, and narrow-minded. It implies a level of superiority to certain modalities of recovery; that someone who is abstinent is simply coasting along and still acting in a way that isn’t congruent with their—altogether subjective—perception of recovery.

That thread had over 350 comments in a 24-hour period.

It prompted me to think about just how supportive, compassionate, and accepting we are of others in recovery—whatever their path or conception of recovery. I’ve reflected upon these unhelpful phrases and have spoken to a number of people in the recovery community, including advocates who are trying to change how we refer to people with addictive disorders in a way that is more inclusive and supportive. While we are moving leaps and bounds ahead in breaking the stigma attached to addiction within our society, why is there still prejudice and lack of support from people within our own already marginalized community?

In both my experience and that of the people I have spoken to, we all recall hearing unhelpful and confusing phrases in the rooms of 12-step fellowships and recovery communities, such as: dry drunk, chronic relapser, character defects, and describing people who haven’t truly surrendered to their disease.

Some don’t understand why we need to reach a rock bottom before sobriety can be achieved. We’ve been told to stick with the winners—implying there are losers in the rooms of these fellowships. I am not alone when I say that I felt somewhat perplexed by all of this confining—and somewhat judgmental—terminology. How can someone who is working on their recovery be a loser?

Others are frustrated by the suggestion that 12-step fellowships are the only way to recover. Anyone seeking to challenge that is immediately ousted and ostracized.

Then there is the issue of how we refer to each other, sometimes using judgmental and derogatory terms to describe someone with a substance use disorder: alcoholic, addict, druggie, junkie, or someone being off the wagon? This language is not used in any other area of health care. It lacks compassion. Using derogatory descriptions is suggestive of someone being inferior—which only perpetuates the perception that addiction is more of a moral failing than a disease.

I asked others what they thought about unhelpful terms, misconceptions, and judgements used within the recovery community.

First, I spoke to Brent Canode, Chair of Oregon Recovers (a new cross-sector, statewide campaign to turn the tide on addiction in Oregon) who started this thread last month. I asked him to expand on the subject of unhelpful recovery terms. He said:

“Speaking of people with addictive disorders as selfish or self-centered is unhelpful. You hear that all the time, but it's actually just the opposite. Many suffer from a lack of self, or poorly defined self. Further, referring to MAT [Medication Assisted Treatment] as "recovery-lite" is judgmental and potentially harmful. I heard a tragic story at the Fed Up Rally in DC in 2015 from a father who lost his recovering son to suicide because he was ostracized from his recovery group for using suboxone.”

Another recovery advocate, and co-ordinator of a peer support program, said this:

“I think one of the most unhelpful recovery terms is the word program. We created a paradigm which says that unless someone is engaged in some sort of programmatic recovery they're doing it wrong.It robs people of the opportunity to have self-directed recovery, which is the strongest kind.” Adam Sledd

Writer and author Jamie Marich said this:

In Trauma and the 12 Steps, I write about these offending slogans as being unhelpful and not trauma-informed: Take the cotton out of your ears and put it in your mouth, our secrets keep us sick, think the drink through. Any misplaced spiritual slogan is used to shut someone up...”

Then there are the comments about relapse, and what it means—which differs entirely depending upon who you speak to. Some say relapse is part of the recovery. Others strongly disagree.

“Relapse shaming has been the worst experience for me. Ever. To say that "Relapse is not part of recovery" because there must have been a number of things that I did not do and I must have not done it right and I must have not followed the program or prayed enough. Having a PTSD episode is not a valid reason apparently, nor is addiction itself. Glad that my therapist agreed with me and helped me move on.” Maggie Shores

So, how should we refer to how others recover?

“I guess that nobody can define recovery for another person.. Maybe if that's a place to start practicing acceptance we'd be more compassionate. I value absolutely anything that helps someone to feel better (so long as it's not hurting someone else).” Jayne Gosnall

My view, which I think is shared by many, is that we need to hold each other up rather than tear each other down for having a different conception of how we recover. Having a different view, modality, or making alternative choices is not a threat to your recovery—it is simply a different way to achieve the same goal. Let’s celebrate that people are recovering and hold their hand along the way. It is hard enough to recover, without stigma, judgement, and unhelpful terms.

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Located in Portland, OR, Olivia Pennelle (Liv) is an experienced writer, journalist, and coach. She is the founder of the popular site Liv’s Recovery Kitchen, a site dedicated to helping people flourish in their recovery. Liv is passionate about challenging limiting mentalities and empowering others to direct their own lives, health, and recovery. You can find her articles across the web on podcasts and addiction recovery websites, including Recovery.org, Workit Health, Ravishly, Recovery Campus, and The Recovery Village. Liv was recently featured in VICE. Find Liv on Twitter, Facebook, and LinkedIn

Liv also co-hosts a podcast — Breaking Free: Your Recovery. Your Way. Listen here.