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Labels in Sobriety

Recently, I saw a post from someone who was livid because someone else used Alcohol Use Disorder (AUD) to define their problem with alcohol. The poster could not understand why someone would use such a phrase, and they went so far as to make fun of the person who used AUD to describe their relationship with alcohol. The poster's rationale was this, "It is called alcoholism and you have to own it to fix it." I guess this person was trying to say using the phrase AUD is wrong because... why? It didn't fit their definition of alcoholism? The person was not recovering in the "right" way? Why is the term Alcohol Use Disorder any different from the term Alcoholic? The truth is, it doesn't matter what you call your problem or relationship with alcohol. As I said in my response to this person's comment, I do not believe we should judge anyone's journey. We are all different people which means we all have different ways of approaching our problems. We should respect each other for who we are as people not by what labels we have chosen to define us or our problems.


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While I may use the terms in my writing, I no longer consider myself an addict, sober, or in recovery. I simply do not drink

A while ago, I wrote a series of blogs called, Label Free Sobriety. In the series, I tried to work through the myriad of negative terms we use to describe our problems with alcohol, the way we recover, and who we are as people who have found ourselves addicted to alcohol or any other substance or behavior. Interestingly enough, labels are words and we do use words to describe our realities so it can be a little bit of a grey area. For instance, not long ago I was accosted by someone saying my beliefs were "clearly" from the 12-step vein. If you have followed me for any amount of time, you know this is far from the truth. The accuser's reasoning was that I use the words addict, sober, and recovery in my blogs. Well, I am talking to people who consider themselves to be addicts, in recovery, and on a sober journey. I am using the words to relate to them at their level, it is called inclusion. Nevertheless, while I may use the terms in my writing, I no longer consider myself an addict, sober, or in recovery. I simply do not drink. There is a difference, and the difference is massive.

While some people may say actions speak louder than words, I believe words are just as powerful and on some level, even more powerful. The reason I say this is because words, while they may not have a large initial impact, can have long-lasting effects over time. This is especially true when they are used consistently and repeatedly. Here is an example. I teach special education. Some of my students have come to my classroom with the belief they are stupid. They did not come up with that belief on their own. Nobody just decides they are stupid. The belief is encouraged and cultivated over time by people who are supposed to love and care for them. They have heard the negative words associated with intelligence for so long, they have begun to believe them. Not only that, but their beliefs then began to manifest in their performance. Their performance drops lower and lower until someone eventually steps in and begins to tell them they are smart, creative, capable, and good students. In time, these positive words associated with intelligence begin to sink in and they begin to believe them too. Unfortunately, for some, the damage created by the negativity can be too much to overcome. This is a sad reality we have to face in education, but it does not have to be the only reality. The way we change it is by changing the way we talk to students who struggle in education.

The same is true for addiction.

As long as we label ourselves and our experiences in negative ways, we have very little choice but to garner negative beliefs about ourselves and our experiences

People often approach sobriety with the same negative misconceptions and preconceived notions of recovery. They have heard all too often how difficult, impossible, excruciating, boring, and miserable recovery is. They have heard and admitted they are an addict and they have succumbed to the idea they can never fully recover from their addiction. They can only live one day at a time and hope for a positive outcome with each passing day. Listen, this is a long-standing and traditional way of thinking about alcoholism and addiction. It has worked and is working for many people all over the world. As I have said many times, I applaud and even admire anyone who can maintain their sobriety with this mindset. However, if you walk onto the path of sobriety and recovery with this mindset, is there any possibility of any other outcome? No. My partner and I come from the mindset of, "Don't tell me what to do." Tell me I will be an addict the rest of my life and I will vehemently, though respectfully, go out of my way to prove you wrong. While I did not originally approach my alcohol-free life with this in mind, it fits my personality quite well, so I am going to hang on to it as a mantra.

The point is, as long as we label ourselves and our experiences in negative ways, we have very little choice but to garner negative beliefs about ourselves and our experiences. An argument is often made that the negative labels in addiction help keep us accountable. It reminds us of where we have been and keeps us afraid of going back. While this may be perceived as true for some, it is also true and widely accepted, this negative and fear-based mindset is less effective in the long term. Studies have shown the efficacy of the most widely known programs for alcoholism who use this mindset to be 25% at best and as low as 5% at worst (

We cannot physically or emotionally keep up the fight or flight response

for prolonged periods

There are a lot of reasons why doctors and psychologists believe this to be true but I want to tell you why I believe the negative and fear-based mindset doesn't work. I may not be a doctor or psychologist but I have some experience in negative, fear-based thinking. The negative, fear-based mindset is a fight or flight response to danger and it is exhausting. The fight or flight response uses reactive measures to combat a problem when there is no time to formulate a more effective response. In a physical response to fight or flight, adrenaline surges through the body creating an excess of energy, the body uses this energy to either fight or flight. After the perceived danger is gone, the body tries to return to a normal state but the muscles are drained and have to recover for a short period before returning to normal. Emotionally, our minds act in a similar manner. We cannot physically or emotionally keep up the fight or flight response for prolonged periods. We have to rest and in rest we are vulnerable.

A positive, growth-based mindset is preemptive rather than reactionary. With this mindset, energy is put into preventing dangerous scenarios from occurring and therefore negating the need to react in a fight or flight response. We do this is by using positive labels in the way we describe ourselves and our experiences. Rather than say we are worthless, we say we are worthy. Rather than say we do not deserve to be loved, we say we are deserving of love. Rather than say we are forever an addict, we say we were/are currently addicted. Rather than say we are sober, we say we are alcohol-free or we do not drink. Rather than say we are forever in recovery, we say we are recovered. Why does our verbiage matter so much? Because every time I say I am worthless, I am correct (in my mind's perception). Every time I say I am forever an addict, I am correct ( in my mind's perception). Here is the cool thing. This works both ways. Every time I say I am worthy, I am correct. Every time I say I deserve love, I am correct. Every time I say I was addicted, I am correct. Every time I say I am alcohol-free, I am correct. Every time I say I am recovered, I am correct.

How are you going to label your experience?

The more we use positive language to describe ourselves and our experiences the better chance we have of actually believing and consequently enacting those beliefs in our daily lives. I named my original series of blogs about this topic label-free sobriety, but I should have labeled them positive sobriety labels. We are going to use words to label our experiences one way or another, what matters is what kinds of labels we choose to use. If we use negative labels, we have a high probability of having a negative experience. In contrast, if we use positive labels, well then... you decide.

How are you going to label your experience?

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