“You’re an addict,” the rehab counselor says firmly as she locks eyes with her young client. “And what’s more, you will always be an addict for as long as you live.”
Factually, her advice is correct. Addiction is a chronic disorder.
But does labeling a person “addict” do more harm than good?
“Whoa!”, you may be shouting at your computer screen right now. “Don’t you agree with the 12-Step Tradition?”
I do. Read on and I’ll explain.
It’s What We Tell Ourselves
During my years in the mental health field, I’ve worked in many settings including inpatient crisis, rehab, intensive outpatient, and private practice. A good portion of my work has been with persons suffering from chemical and behavioral (aka, process) addictions.
From time to time I’ve had to speak with a client who messed up for one reason or another while in treatment. Here’s the response I’ve sometimes gotten:
“What do you expect? I’m an addict.”
At that point we have a little discussion about how that person is a whole human being. That there’s more to him than just addiction. That it’s on him to behave as a responsible citizen. And that he can no longer use his addiction as an excuse not to.
You see, as a Cognitive-Behavioral therapist I believe that what people tell themselves about themselves and about the world, directly affects their attitudes and how they behave.
For example, let’s say I have a client who’s struggling with depression. Would you agree that I should help her adopt a belief that she’s a person of worth who can find peace and contentment?
If so, you’d be right. Positive self-talk leads to positive attitudes and behaviors.
But what if I told her to keep telling herself: “I’m a depressive.” You think that would help or hurt? If you answered the latter then you’d be right and I’d need to pursue another career.
Now think of the negative connotation the word “addict” has for most people: slothful, self-indulgent, untrustworthy. Why would we ask people recovering from chemical or behavioral dependency to adopt this as the main way they describe themselves?
Whole Person Perspective
Which brings us to the 12-Step Tradition. I believe in it and strongly encourage my clients with addictions to regularly attend meetings and get a sponsor. Groups like Alcoholics Anonymous, Narcotics Anonymous, Gamblers Anonymous, and others, can be an integral part of recovery.
In the meetings, it’s absolutely appropriate—and necessary—for members to openly acknowledge their addictions by declaring, “I am Joe, and I am an [alcoholic/drug addict/gambler, etc.].” That’s where you go to get real. Drop guilt. Get invaluable feedback from your peers who’ve been there, done that.
As a professional counselor, however, I have a different yet complimentary role. My goal is to help clients achieve personal growth. To become all they can be. Which is why the only label I use is:
Yes, their addiction is and always will be a part of them. But it’s not the only part. Being human means they must view themselves as whole persons—with strengths, weaknesses, likes, dislikes, values, goals and dreams. In other words, a whole person perspective.
What Not to Say at a Party
Here’s an example from my own life. I have high blood pressure, which I control with diet, exercise (when I can tear myself away from the office), and medication.
But outside of work, in a social setting, I sure don’t go up to people and say, “Hi, I’m Jim and I’m a hypertensive.” That’d sound pretty bizarre and would probably get me a corner in the room all to myself.
More to the point, “hypertensive” only describes a part of me, not the whole. I’m also a husband, son, uncle, animal lover, and my interests include going to the theatre, history, the beach, and old buses (don’t question, just accept), to name a few.
Removing the “addict” label carries with it the obligation to act as a responsible and mature citizen. And that includes taking responsibility for working your recovery program every day and reaching out for help when you need it. Just as it’s my responsibility to manage my condition properly so that I don’t vaper-lock while behind the wheel of my car doing 65 mph down the highway.
Whole human beings take care of themselves. We take our blood pressure medications, go to work, pay our bills, and actively work our recovery programs. And we celebrate ourselves for who we are. The good parts as well as the challenging ones.
It’s a daily walk we all should gladly take with our heads held high.
James Genovese, LPC, LCADC, is the founding director of Milestone Group, LLC, a full-service counseling and psychotherapy practice located in Atlantic Highlands, NJ. He specializes in treating depression, anxiety, post-traumatic stress disorder, and other behavioral health issues. He is also a fully trained EMDR provider. You can contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.
© James Genovese, LPC, LCADC, NCC / Milestone Group LLC (2012)