Unavailing labels: my name is not “addict”

…by Matt Robert…

When I was finally ready to stop, I began the ignominious journey of failing at rehab after rehab. My resolve to stay clean was firm, but I often struggled with aspects of treatment. One of the most baffling things to me was how people were told to refer to themselves in meetings. “Joe– alcoholic/addict.” It never sat right with me. But virtually no one in the programs would sit down and explain it to me. Why should someone refer to themselves aaas the very thing they were trying not to be? I had to go to 3 or 4 meetings a day in residential treatment, and I noticed that this repeated, retrograde self-disclosure had unintended effects. When people were called to the phone, they often stumbled and said, “Hello, this is Jim– alcoholic.”

Early on I stopped adhering to this meeting routine. It made me feel worse, not better. I had no illusions about my problem and did not harbor the fantasy that I would be able to use again in safety. But the self-naming routine made me feel resistance, not acceptance. Sometimes, when it was my turn in the in-house meetings, I made something up:

chemical spill“Hi, I’m Matt. Chemical Recycling Dump.”

“Matt, Emotional Disaster Area.”

“Matt, Seething Cauldron of Broken Dreams and Missed Opportunites.”

It had never occurred to me that there were so many sarcastic, unsympathetic ways to refer to addicts. I started sifting through the alphabet for the day’s meeting moniker, (Altruistic, Atheist Addictoholic, Benevolent Bipolar Boozebag, etc….). I had to keep a sense of humor in all this. Otherwise, I was lost.

Finally, I began to piece together the reasoning behind the practice: by calling myself an addict it meant I was gradually accepting it, “faking it till you make it,” at least until my sobriety started to stick. This practice was supposed to keep my awareness on the problem— to keep it fresh, keep it green, keep it up front— to be a part of the community, and the fellowship, and not alone.

I could see the benefit of repeating the label as a pseudo-reality check when someone is in denial that there is a problem, when they’re still in the subacute phase of early recovery. But after we move deeper into recovery, I couldn’t see the pointI forget anymore. It was counterintuitive and, for me, counterproductive. By self-identifying, I was reinforcing my connection to a negative behavior that I was trying to replace with something positive. I realize this doesn’t happen for everyone who attends 12-Step meetings. I still attend AA/NA meetings, but because of the personalities, not the principles. It’s the people who I identify with. My principles are fine, otherwise my sobriety wouldn’t be. The most important thing about meetings is to find ones that we like— where we can relate to someone’s story, where we feel better when we leave than when we walked in. Meetings that make us want to stay clean.

I facilitate a group at an inpatient program for homeless women waiting to be placed in sober living situations. I’m there to tell them about SMART Recovery as another option, but my goal is not to push any particular agenda or approach. It’s to get them to go to meetings. Any meetings. We have an open discussion around that, which starts to resemble a SMART meeting. When I first started going , we collectively agreed on a way for everyone to introduce themselves. I would explain the skewed logic of labeling, and suggest that during introductions you could say your name, something about who you are or are working toward (not what you are trying not to be), and an adjective about how you are feeling that night. A similar approach is portrayed in the documentary The Anonymous People and is powerful and compelling: “My name’s Sue…and I’m a person in longterm recovery (…or early recovery…or trying to stay clean).” “I’m Jill, a mother of 4 who likes rock climbing. Tonight, I’m feeling hopeful.”

By the time we get around the room, everyone knows a little more about each other and where they are at emotionally that night. It often makes for a deeper, more meaningful discussion. People learn things about each other.

windowSometimes there are longtime AA members in the meeting who are resistant to this different way of self-introduction, just as I was resistant to the traditional AA self-introduction practice. I try to encourage them to remain open-minded (something also stressed in the Big Book). Try everything that seems to help, and accept suggestions. Because we never know where or when that opportunity, that moment of clarity, that motivational window will appear, and we don’t want to miss it.

55 thoughts on “Unavailing labels: my name is not “addict”

  1. Simon June 15, 2015 at 7:06 am #

    After spending many years at sa, Saa,slaa meetings and being frustrated by the people’s closed minds to different types of recovery methods….do what works for you. I finally had enough and left and eventually found smart recovery groups online, which were much more helpful.
    Great post Mat. You struck a chord with me.

  2. jim maguire June 15, 2015 at 7:07 am #

    I have been involved in AA for over 33years ,sober that long also.My opinion about saying, ” I’m Jim and I’m an addict and alcoholic “, is “WHO CARES”. It’s a custom, tradition ,whatever and yea I am an addict and if / when I put a mind altering chemical in my body for any reason , even pain management my brain will say ,” ok Jimmy boy this is you Holmes, oh yea ,we need more of this stuff “. Doesn’t mean I have to do it.
    It’s not good or bad it’s just a physiological fact . Iv’e been through pain management and I know first hand. It doesn’t diminish me , not at all. It reminds me of what could happen, not what will happen. Is this necessary for my sobriety ? I don’t know , maybe not but it is so incidental to my world that I really never gave it a thought.
    I deal with a lot of disgruntled customers at work (people who had a fire or some damage to their home) . Some are just plain assholes ! I would like to tell a lot of them to f… off ! I don’t and that doesn’t diminish me ! We make decisions all the time of what to say and what not to say .
    As my Grandmother used to say ” who the f…k cares ”
    Jim Maguire

    • matt June 15, 2015 at 9:23 am #

      Thanks, Jim

      I agree, it’s just a tradition. I’m trying to explore the experiences that some people have with and without this tradition. We abandon traditions in this society all the time, if they are unhelpful or give people the wrong idea. As a person who struggled to get sober for years, I agree, who the fuck cares how I label myself, or even how others label or judge me. However, it’s well-known that how we refer to ourselves has a lot to do with how we feel about ourselves. Who the fuck cares? The newcomer, the most important person in the room.

    • Marc June 19, 2015 at 10:04 am #

      Hi Jim. I get your point, but I like Matt’s counterpoint. The way we identify ourselves DOES matter, especially for those with wobbly self-concepts, looking to others to see the reflection of who they are. You guys are such old hands at recovery, you probably don’t remember what it’s like to not have a clue who you are.

  3. Gary June 15, 2015 at 8:44 am #

    I really like this topic seeing that my “recovery” was rooted in the A.A. Program. Reflecting back I can see how important it was to identify with being an alcoholic especially in the early phase of “recovery”. However, though I attended meetings religiously for a number of years, it has been a number of years since I have attended a meeting. Without question, I felt I was much more than an alcoholic and actually felt that A.A., inherently, was suggesting to grow and discover more and more about yourself. In order for me to do this I felt I had to “let go”. For me, it was a kind of moving from enviromental support to self support. However, I will always be forever grateful to A.A.. I can see how some members in A.A. actually limit their growth because they cannot see beyond self-help and then there are those who shine regardless and are a beacon for others etc. As Jiddu Krishnamurti states; “Be A Light Unto Yourself” you are your own Authority.

  4. William Abbott June 15, 2015 at 9:04 am #

    This sort of labelling is a huge psychological downer. It tends to identify you as the problem rather than you, a reasonbly decent person in most instances, with a problem

    Change the verb to be to to have . Separates you from the problem and thus allows you to deal with it .

    For the old timer in AA, might not be a big deal. But for the initiate, adds to the bad feelings we already have

    Ever met a ” good ” alcoholic or addict ??

    • Marc June 19, 2015 at 10:06 am #

      Yes, that separation can be the edge of the wedge. Good points!

  5. Denise June 15, 2015 at 9:15 am #

    Hi Matt,
    Thanks for a thought-provoking and inspiring post. Clearly you are a very creative person…coming up with alternative labels for an addict. Given my own skewed relationship with 12 step meetings, sitting there thinking them up sounds like something I might do, and, at least with me, doing so would have been a form of resistance to what was happening in the meeting. I’m reminded of the few occasions when I went to meetings and had to find the “back door” of the church or wherever it was, I used to feel indignant, like, I’m not some kind of pariah, having to go in through the basement or the back by the dumpsters. But then, I’d remember I was dealing with history, i.e., the idea of “anonymous” and why the meetings are so often held in out-of-the-way places. And I’d realize that focusing on where the meeting is being held is another form of resistance to the process, which you so eloquently allude to in your writing. I particularly love the last sentence which really sums it up well…

    • matt June 15, 2015 at 2:02 pm #

      Thanks, Denise

      Yes, for me it was a kind of veiled resistance– not to the process but to the packaging. And sometimes more withdrawn group members would adopt it or something similar. It seemed to let them better express what they were feeling in the moment, and consequently participate more actively in discussions. I don’t know if it actually helped anybody, but the tone became more self-deprecating rather than self-loathing.

      I’m with you on the “anonymity” question, but that’s a much tougher nut to crack. The stakes are much higher for all recovery programs. Is anonymity holding us back, keeping us in the shadows, limiting the progress we should be making in effective modes of treatment?

      • Denise June 15, 2015 at 6:57 pm #

        The question of anonymity is a whole ‘nother discussion, which, like the other questions and discussions, is complex, beginning with the idea that when AA first began, it was a different era. In so many ways, society is much more open now. What each individual will share about him or herself and with whom says a lot about that individual, their own self-concept, and their relationship to others. I know that it’s tied in somehow with one’s feelings about being an addict (recovering or otherwise).

  6. Guy Lamunyon June 15, 2015 at 9:47 am #

    Matt, Marc and others,

    When we are pressed for such a label, SMART Recovery types say, I’M A SMARTIE ! ! !

    Saying this in AA/12 Step meetings drives them CRAZY ! ! !

    The 12 Step people devalue intelligence (‘You best thinking got you here’, etc.).

    I had shirts made for participating in local recovery oriented events – the front says SMART RECOVERY and on the back is I’M A SMARTIE!

    Guy Lamunyon
    SMART Recovery
    Northern Arizona

    • matt June 16, 2015 at 11:35 am #

      Hi Guy

      I kind of approach it same way as I do getting pressed for other labels…I’m a SMARTIE pants or better, I’m a SMARTASS…Self-Management And Recovery Training And Social Support…

      • April July 25, 2015 at 3:56 pm #

        Love this post, and the comments! I am finding more people I identify with here, with the diversity of views, than I do in my local AA. Are there any conferences y’all go to (outing myself as a recovering Southerner…) ? It would be so much fun to meet up!

        One of the reasons I never stuck in AA before was that I felt alienated by the label. I’ve never doubted that I had a problem with alcohol, but talking about it all the time struck me as exactly what you said it was: reinforcing of negative behavior.

        I would love to attend a SMART meeting, but the only ones in my local area (Philadelphia) seem to be located at treatment centers where you have to be a client to attend. This is sad, and reinforces the worst thing about AA: it’s the only support system that is widely available.

        I agree with Matt… I go to AA more for personalities than for principles. I like the people at the particular meetings I attend (only gay meetings in the Gayborhood of Philly, even though I happen to be a straight woman), but I disagree with/am horrified by much of what I hear. I wonder about the true newcomer who will be turned off, as I was many times over the years. I’d like to find a local place where I could form friendships with other thinking people who actively choose not to use harmful substances (I despise the term “recovery”) and also actively choose to use their brains!

        • matt July 25, 2015 at 6:51 pm #

          Yes, April…

          The term recovery sucks because we aren’t getting back to our previous state before the addiction but negotiating change to a new chapter in our lives.

          And you’re right. There don’t don’t seem to be any open SMART meetings in the greater Philadelphia area. You could inquire to the main office as to why there aren’t any open meetings in a big city like Philly. Or better yet, you could take the training to become a SMART facilitator and start your own meeting with like minded folks.

  7. Jim maguire June 15, 2015 at 9:48 am #

    Matt, like I usually end up saying to my wife , ” your right” ! I was only thinking about myself . How unusual , duh. The newcomer is a great point and I agree . I think I still need some work on my ego . It keeps budding in 😏
    Jim maguire

    • Marc June 15, 2015 at 2:35 pm #

      Hey, you can’t control what grows in fertile soil. Don’t be too hard on yourself. Your interpretation is important too.

    • matt June 15, 2015 at 6:03 pm #

      You have one of those wives, too? A blessing and a curse…but mostly a blessing. We all need to work on our ego. It’s knowing we do that’s half the battle. Thanks for this

  8. Richard Henry June 15, 2015 at 9:55 am #

    People tend to believe what they hear themselves say…

    Bullying as we all know is harmful to others, it could be cyber bullying, labelling, name calling, intimidation or out, and out confrontation. It’s all a form of bashing that puts the fear into others. If we haven’t directly done it, maybe we have thought about it. Like thinking to yourself “What an idiot”… That guys an ass-hole etc.
    In the same way “Labelling” is harmful, even to call someone a “Bully” can be unproductive and only be a means to reinforcing that activity. I try to stay away from “Profiling, Labelling, Name Calling, Bullying… If your not within the criminal system of law and have been charged and convicted of such a crime, you can’t presume someone’s guilt. Leave the diagnoses to the professionals… Judges, Psychiatrists, Doctors, etc… they are trained to make those decisions, and even then they make mistakes.
    Us as human beings tend to believe what we tell ourselves, about who we are, and by what we do. So when you say to yourself “I’m a bad person, I’m a failure, I can’t do this, or that, you come to believe it.
    In the same token when you call yourself an Alcoholic, or Drug Addict, “What are you telling yourself”?
    I was at a certain point in my Substance Abuse where I believed I was an Alcoholic, and was reinforced through AA that it was the first step in admiting my powerlessness over drinking.
    For me to admit this, was very difficult, but at one point I did, and I think as a result in this belief I used it as a “No fault” security that in when I Relapsed back to drinking it was easier for me to say… Yep! “I’m an alcoholic”, “I get drunk”, “I fall down”, “I mess up”…
    What should I have been saying to myself?
    Yes I drink, I have a habit of drinking to much, but that dose not mean I’m “Powerless” I realize in the eyes of many it makes me an Alcoholic, but I believe I can “empower” My decisions, My choices and overcome this bad habit, and I have come to realize I may need help to do it.
    To self empower means: To deriving the strength to do something through one’s own thoughts and based on the belief that one knows what is best for oneself.
    Therefore “How could I be Powerless”?
    Calling myself an Addict or Alcoholic, to me only reinforces that Powerlessness, it’s like I’m “Bullying” myself, “Diagnosing” myself, “Labeling” myself, and like I said the more I tell myself that which is what I am, the more I believe it…
    Alive or Dead in my opinion God is the only one who can judge me, not even I can judge my wrong doings, or my bad habits they are, what they are, I can only see them as what they are and choose to take control through self power and make change.
    We can “Take Control, “Make better decisions, ” These are in what I believe, “If it’s to be, It’s up to me”…
    Quit Bullying yourself…
    Happy Thoughts Happy Heart, Happy Life..

    • KC June 15, 2015 at 10:49 am #

      We’ve very same experiences.

      I have tried to forget ever going to an XA meeting especially the first one, which was an AA mtg. I have never, nor have I since, wanted an adult beverage as badly as I did after listening to all the experiences (similarities/difficulties) which were suppose to benefit me, the newcomer.

      I had this same experiences, to varying degrees, over 7 yrs of going to mtgs all over USA.

      I wish someone anyone had written or said somewhere, “XA is based almost solely on early 20th century fundamentalist fringe religious cult-like beliefs with very sketchy, if not false science based fact for which to base its failure or success.”

      If XA groups were honest this would be said at every single meeting before and after as part of the prayers.

      And what you have wrote is exactly right…happy heart, happy thoughts and happy life…to which I would add…having infinite compassion for myself and others.

      Namaste and thx to all

      • KC June 15, 2015 at 11:17 am #

        CAVEAT EMPTOR: I have not had a single XA meeting “relapse” in over 7 years, either. I have achieved 6 months of continuous abstinence from the DOC.

        Objects in Mirror Appear Closer/Larger
        No Warranty(s) Implied
        Past Performance does not guarantee future results
        Buy Before Date

    • matt June 16, 2015 at 7:57 am #

      “People tend to believe what they hear themselves say…”

      Yep. From the Little Engine That Could, to the fabulously successful business executive. Positive, and negative. “I think I can, I think I can, I think I can drink…” Starts out reward and ends up punishment, and the self-bulling you so aptly describe just perpetuates the cycle.

      Thanks for bringing this up Richard. I think the notion of powerlesness can be a red herring that either drives people away from seeking treatment, or used as a reason to relapse (because I have a disease and I’m powerless over it. ) Of course people aren’t “powerless,” otherwise no one would ever get sober. In the end, people get “sober” because they grasp a conception of addiction that makes sense to them, whether it’s powerlessness and acceptance, or empowerment and choice. It all boils down to the same result. Whatever it is, we have to stop and find a better way.

  9. Chuck June 15, 2015 at 10:00 am #

    My name is Chuck, alcoholic drug addict and all around screwed up individual. My problem is Chuck. I am also the only solution (with help from others).The key for me is to never forget what I am and when labeling myself to do it with a sense of humor. Although I do care about what others think of me, in the rooms of AA it matters less, because I know that the others there like myself, are not a hot bed of mental health and they need to know that they’re not alone. Can’t take myself too seriousely but need to take my journey seriousely.

    • matt June 16, 2015 at 7:27 am #


      I like the last line of your post. It sums up a great strategy for living a happy, productive life…

  10. Lovinglife52 June 15, 2015 at 10:03 am #

    I think this is a great post. I found it helpful to identify with a group in the early stages of recovery and calling myself an alcoholic in meetings did help this. I felt I was with people who were the same as me.

    After a while I wanted to move and empower myself and take responsibility for my actions and life in a more independant way. I was grateful for the support in the group but was finding it limiting. Today I choose to view myself in a different way and would rather call myself a runner or a guitarist as that is what I do today. I am in my 9th year of continuous abstinence and this is what I am comfortable with. For me, my “alcoholic” life was in the past and not today.

    It is up to the individual to chose their path and values in recovery. There are a lot of judgemental types out there that think it has to be done their way. I do not think this is the case and have found different ideas and support methods have helped me at different stages of recovery. For some it is a huge battle, and beating addiction may be their biggest achievement, so if they want to call themselves an alcoholic for life, I am fine with that.

    • matt June 16, 2015 at 8:05 am #

      Yes! Whatever works for whomever it works for. Recovery is a process not a product, and it can be one of our most valuable experiences in that it shows us something about ourselves we may never have seen otherwise…

  11. Cheryl June 15, 2015 at 11:01 am #

    To Matt and others, I could not agree more that introducing myself as less than what I am is hugely harmful and a projection of harm. I firmly believe we become what we project. Labeling can be a dangerous road to travel. Lets get some un-learning and critical thinking going here! When I use labels I re-label in a way that serves me and others.

  12. KC June 15, 2015 at 11:39 am #


    Thanks you’re playing a great tune here, as what we all do is create art. Your’s being particularly poignant for me.

    As a father of three daughter, I would suggest in your work -which you probably are doing- is warn women about the past history of XA male on female predation.
    If my daughter’s or any female asked me about XA attendance I would very vigorously stipulate women attend women only meetings at least at first.

    Also, I would say XA mtgs are not for life, nor are they the most healthy for the majority of people who attend (plenty of good research for this).

    It appears you are displaying very good professional ethics, e.g. disclosing your affiliations up front and continuously, but I would be sure to fully disclose the the other downside to group affiliation with a group like XA and being part of a ethical community.

    I hope you strive to maintain caring communications with the people you facilitate for. IOUs like your are helping form a much more healthy experience for people.

    Good job, thank you for writing and posting.

    Best regards to all.

    • matt June 16, 2015 at 7:20 am #


      I’m happy this struck a chord with you. And the “13th Stepping”, the preying on the vulnerable you mention, it can happen in any recovery context. We all have to keep our eyes open, and support the weaker ones without ulterior motives, so we can all mend our broken places.

      I do think it means a lot to residents in these programs to see someone who cares enough to come in, listen, share their time and experience and be of service. That’s a foundational tenet of XA’s that is helpful for any mental malady, and one we could certainly use more of.

  13. Aleah June 15, 2015 at 2:23 pm #

    Thank you for this. I believe the application of AA principles and steps originally relied heavily on a certain alcoholic prototype: male, affluent, successful, ego-driven, white, Christian, etc.. It just happened to be these men were largely in need of humility and surrender. Not every alcoholic fits this mold, or is in denial in early sobriety. So, while the principles are positive, the applications and methodologies need to evolve as the “typical alcoholic” is no longer relevant. We are diverse, complex beings with a wide range of backgrounds, strengths, cultures, stories, etc.. I personally feel like people should be free to self-identify as alcoholic or addict, if that’s what their recovery requires, but it should not be mandatory or suggest that someone’s recovery isn’t strong if he or she doesn’t like the labeling approach.

  14. matt June 16, 2015 at 6:53 am #

    Well said, Aleah

    We’re in the 21st century now, and in a very different place, culturally, socially, medically… We don’t use technology or hold on to a lot of ideas that were common in the mid-20th century. We use things that are more effective and efficient. Why hang on to this?

  15. Fred June 16, 2015 at 8:23 am #

    I have a different take. When I go to 12 step meetings, I adopt the label of the meeting that I’m at with joy. It’s my way of honoring the group and its traditions, and participating as deeply as I can. By adopting that label for an hour, I attempt to set aside the many aspects of my life that might separate me from others – my demographic and socio-economic situation, time in recovery, etc. For that hour, I have something in common with everyone in the room and that is the main ground on which we’ve chosen to meet. By identifying as an addict, I’m demonstrating my willingness to connect with everyone there as an equal in the spirit of shared experience. I have come to believe that addiction is (among other things) a substitute for and impediment to human connection. By saying that I’m an addict in the context of a 12-step meeting, I’m making myself more available for that real human connection. That helps me and I think it helps the meeting.

    In addition to being an addict, I’m a husband, father, athlete, hard-of-hearing, novice guitar player, left-handed, and on and on. None of these labels define the whole me, but in different contexts, those labels can be useful and I adopt them happily when they are.

    Fortunately, I’ve never fallen into the traps that Matt and others here have. I’ve never felt that the “addict” label “held me back” or kept me stuck in the past or gave me an excuse to relapse. I was never bullied or pressured to say any particular thing by way of introduction in meetings. (I notice many in the meetings that I go to who play around with the way they identify themselves – no one minds). I even appreciate the role that identifying as an addict can play in reminding me that it would be best for me to stay abstinent, even though I haven’t used in 9-and-a-half years.

    I’m glad that SMART recovery exists for those who have trouble with the 12-steps. It would be an interesting research project to investigate how a person’s dominant personality traits align with his or her ability to benefit from any particular method of recovery. Until such a mapping exists, perhaps the main message for those seeking help needs to be “There are many paths to the new life you’re seeking. Your journey will be exactly like no one else’s. Keep trying, with an open mind, until you find what works for you. If you want to talk about it, I’m here for you.”

    • matt June 16, 2015 at 12:25 pm #

      Hi Fred

      I think all this is on a continuum. I have probably been to more AA meetings than SMART. And some practice it in a ceremonial way, not just going through the motions. It’s a beautiful thing and I respect the traditions when I’m there, as with any other culture. It’s a ceremony that reminds me to cherish my sobriety like the precious jewel that it is. There is as much variation in 12 Step meetings as there is in SMART meetings. I’ve been to some way crappy SMART meetings, in my opinion (some I was facilitating.) I’ve also been to SMART meetings that were disrupted by some long term AAers who were supposed to be observing for an addictions class. Also, with some who were very respectful. It didn’t make me feel one way or the other about AA. I follow the instructioins that are set down in the Big Book. I keep an open mind, take what I need and leave the rest. Nobody’s putting a gun to anybody’s head. It’s not the meeting or the program. It’s the people in them.

      I think our understanding of recovery is now helping to support a more individual approach like the one you allude to, but not by “matching” people to appropriate treatment regimens for their particular personality characteristics, but drop-in, consumer driven centers. Centers that are staffed by persons in recovery that offer an array of services to support people who come in wanting help, showing them their options, and assiting them with decisions. Also having SMART and AA meetings under the same roof so people can try either or both. Something that recognizes and supports the diversity of people in recovery. All that will still be there without the apparently noxious labels that seem to really bother some people. I hope for a time when all these approaches are consolidated into an amalgam, and everyone can have the wonderful feeling of belonging that you describe above— in the spirit of shared experience and healing, human connection.

      • Fred June 16, 2015 at 1:00 pm #

        This sounds like an ideal approach – one doesn’t need to “match” people to a path, one needs to let people find their own path. Very nice! I’m glad you’re doing what you’re doing.

    • jim maguire June 22, 2015 at 3:43 am #

      Fred, nicely put ! A great attitude to have. Im going to adapt your mindset. If you lived in Ct Id ask you to be my sponser. Thank you. Jim

  16. Liz G June 16, 2015 at 12:50 pm #

    Matt, I’ve been “following” this blog for at least a year and have wanted to commend you (and Marc) for the provocative and trail-blazing work you do. This blog and watching Marc’s TED talks, et al, have been crucial to my sanity. More than any other, ‘tho, this blog speaks to my current state of mind. Like a lot of people, I began my recovery journey in the fellowship of NA and allowed myself to take advantage of its resources. But, like many people, I found it had built-in obsolescence, that it denied some of the best parts of my essential self, and have found more traction with SMART recovery. My “metaphor” for 12-step fellowships is the “Emergency Room triage and ICU”. Living indefinitely in the hospital, one lives in fear of illness and pathology, of being exposed to “c. diff” and MERSA, long after the desperation is over. It’s necessary in dire situations, but one cannot (nor should not, IMHO) live one’s life as a quarantined patient. There may be times when I will want/need to go back to NA, but right now I see myself as complex, interesting, trustworthy, and capable of making healthy decisions. I feel it’s important to live in the world, not apart from it, to build up my “immunities” by exposing myself as much as possible to a wide array of stimuli. I wholeheartedly agree that labels like “addict”, or adjectives like “powerless” prove far more detrimental than positive. No one person can be reduced to single-note labels, e.g., “gangbanger”, “addict”, “transgender”. It’s hard to make sense of the complexities of human behavior when there are so many of us on the planet. But it’s our job as big-hearted human to make the effort to understand. Thanks again! Liz

    • Marc June 19, 2015 at 10:56 am #

      Hi Liz, What a thoughtful and uplifting comment. And how nice to think that we’ve been part of the “wide array” you immerse yourself in. That’s a radically different kind of “brotherhood” isn’t it. Make sure and see Matt’s comment, below, as well.
      Very best,

  17. matt June 17, 2015 at 7:20 am #

    Thanks, Liz

    I like your comparison to triage in the ER. Sometimes the most important thing is to stop the bleeding. A paper cut and a gaping wound require different sorts of attention. But once you’re back on your feet, it’s time to get back out in the world, because it’s not going away. The battle continues, and/or one can eventually find peace within oneself. Whatever addiction is, it’s a developmental process, and it’s important to discover what works for you, so you can cope and grow and finish your job as a big-hearted human.

    Good luck, Liz…and to all

  18. Ron June 18, 2015 at 7:11 pm #

    Great subject.. I have not introduced myself as a addict for several years now and merely use my name for several reasons.
    Im not sure what an addict even is in the context of how it is defined by NA relating to drug abuse in the past tense.
    Im not quite sure what the DISEASE of addiction even is as the definition appears to be fluid in how it is applies to neurophysiology vs. a set of predisposing behaviors.
    It totally ignores actual disease states whereby addiction is merely the manifestation or compensation for manageable comorbidities.
    Nowhere is it written that identifying yourself as an addict is required.
    Identifying in some slick fashion such as I am an addict named so and so is usually followed by some slickly packaged regurgitated trite platitudes which are the epitome of insincerity.
    I believe it is entirely possible that a non ADDICT whatever that may be can succumb to an addiction… and just as possible actually heal.
    I have discovered the power of integrity in my life .. my words matter..what I declare myself to be is a possibility to live into.. it should not be a lifelong sentence.
    I am so much more than that.. addiction is part of an old but remembered past.. not present nor future.
    It makes others demonstrably uncomfortable as I refuse to be seduced by a sheep mentality and be coerced into drinking Kool Aid as I truly exercise the suggestion that i take what I need and leave the rest.
    It seems to bother others that I truly believe that healing as in curing is possible for me. Not all addictions are the same nor are all addicts.. groupthink appealing tho the lowest common denominator is dangerous. Not taking as personal stand for myself and who i am was part of the problem in the first place….
    I could go on and on…identifying early on may be helpful.. but recovery like life evolves and I refuse to be confine myself within the covers of nonscientific anecdotal literature forever though many of the principles I learned early on still maintain me such as self inventories and spiritual awarenesses..regarding powerlessness..I find myself much more focused on means of personal empowerment.
    Thanks for letting me share..lol


  19. matt June 19, 2015 at 9:51 am #

    And share you did! I must say your views on this hit many nails on the head. I agree that the disease and “curability issues are red herrings with flawed terminology that can infect the philosophy and widely held views. I don’t think anyone can or needs to be cured anymore than we can be cured of life. The healing comes when we can renounce our afflictions and move on to find a better way. Thanks so much for your input…

  20. William Abbott June 19, 2015 at 10:56 am #

    The label and the anonymity are related. It is understandable in light of when AA started and the ” shame ” factor was huge.

    Id think it would best be considered optional .. but its persistence and insistence is now out of date and a retardant to getting rid of stigma and shame and all the rest that is crippling the ability to deal with this problem in more effective ways ( Im speaking of the US here)

    And AA’s inabiity to change is one of the reasons i am ” negative’ overall about the grip the program has on recovery still .

    The sooner that people get the courage to step out of the ” closet” , the sooner we will be able to realize a sound and rational approach to this social problem and
    ( stay tuned for more on this) is NOT a disease .

    Bill Abbott

    • matt June 19, 2015 at 11:24 am #

      It’s an important point, Bill. But labels can be jettisoned without many repercussions. The anonymity thing is more complicated and central to getting people to meetings. SMARTRecovery maintains anonymity, as do all reputable meetings and treatment programs. I agree with you. We know the proportion of the population affected by this is much too large to be hiding in the shadows anymore. So how are we gonna do this? Political lobbying? Get big corporations involved as a movement to limit lost work time and increase productivity? How can we expedite this?

    • Ron June 19, 2015 at 12:36 pm #

      I soundly agree..by insisting on the prescriptive confining dogma (Which incidentally compares more to a religion than not despite protestations to the contrary) the herd mentality is reinforced as well as constantly promoting fear of relapse. Living in fear is not the freedom from addiction I seek and to perpetuate the unsubstantiated label of addict or alcoholic in order to circle the wagons is not conducive to personal growth freedom and empowerment.
      I find the resistance to change despite scientific advances in all facets of addiction medicine almost cult like as if were any particular tenet to be questioned or disproven, the whole premise would crumble..

  21. William Abbott June 19, 2015 at 11:52 am #

    How about all of the above and more.

    Anonymity is essential and needs to be protected. But after awhile , especially of learning some self empowerment skills as we promote in Smart Recovery, some may be encouraged to start to talk to others – as many as will listen and as often as one can– that this is a problem for which there are solutions , and that anyone can recover in whatever way they wish to define it .

    As you have often heard me say- ” If you are willing to put in the time and put in the work, you will recover ” !!! Patience, Practice, and Persistence !!

    • matt June 19, 2015 at 12:24 pm #

      It’s true. There are probably as many roads to recovery as there are to addiction.
      And it takes a lot of patience, and definitely practice…But persistence just sounds like more intensive practice, which could be a good, or a bad thing for a number of reasons. Don’t want to keep running up against a brick wall, we want to go around it. I like Patience, Practice and Perspective. Once you are able to change your perspective, that’s when the real “recovery”, the real change happens.

  22. Liz G June 19, 2015 at 1:55 pm #

    Hi everyone,
    One of the benefits of not labeling ourselves as “addicts” is that we stand a better chance of “playing with others,” e.g., with “straight/clean non-addicts” when we get around to re-integrating back into society. Without labels we don’t burden those “normal people” with the traits of perfection, or lack-of-trauma, etc. We are more like them than we were given to believe. They aren’t – as a friend of mine who hit upon the realization that he’d been ‘brainwashed’ for 15 years in The Program -“Jan and Mike Brady, any more than we are the two characters in ‘Panic in Needle Park'”. Without those mythological differences between “straight” and “curvy” people, we can be more empathic.

    As I engage with other people in SMART meetings, I’m very aware of the differences between us, demographic and experiential. No one at a SMART meeting ever has to preface their share with this qualifier: “Well, my drug of choice may have been different than many peoples’, but we’ve *all* had the same milestones in our active using.” No one ever has to be reminded to “love each other even if we don’t like each other.” I like that we can give one another feedback, practice supportive “active listening” in the course of the meetings, spontaneously, and not have to wait ’til after the meeting has ended for a “miracle of fellowshipping” to occur. I like that I don’t have to shoehorn my narrative into something else.

    I am glad for SMART recovery’s florescence in Chicago because when I faced the crossroads of leaving NA hearing that tired prophetic epithet: “Well, NA is not for everyone,” it didn’t have to mean “Well, it’s either our way or the ‘highway’,” or a choice between 12-step recovery or certain relapse into addiction. NA is not for everyone at all times, and right now, I feel really good about knowing that I do, in fact, a choice between “heaven and hell, ” namely jettisoning that paradigm altogether.

    Have a great Father’s Day, everyone!

    • matt June 20, 2015 at 4:41 am #

      Thanks, Liz

      You address a crucial issue that drives the proprietariness of programs that claim to be the sole crucibles of the truth and honesty essential to effective recovery. People are vulnerable early on, and they need a safe place to unload the very personal, very human burdens in their lives. In the process of marinating in that honesty they can move to the point of being honest with themselves about their addiction. It’s about eliminating fear, not feeding it. When you have to shoehorn too many narratives, you get blisters, not relief.

      (And Panic In Needle Park! A great flick and a great parable of addiction, featuring a pubescent Pacino scuffling in New York. Definitely a must see in addiction circles.)

      • matt June 21, 2015 at 6:52 am #

        …and yes!!…”playing well with others” is what helps us re-integrate back into society and normal life…Because it’s what makes us human.

  23. Jill Lacy June 25, 2015 at 10:50 pm #

    Here’s my latest on addiction :http://wp.me/p3lO5H-2i
    Thanks for your honesty.

    • matt June 26, 2015 at 6:01 am #

      Thanks for this contribution, Jill. When we finally get to a place of feeling safe, and open to whatever works, people will feel comfortable enough to begin the journey or rebuilding there lives, exploring the possibilities, and ultimately living them toward developing their inherent potential…

  24. Mark P. July 3, 2015 at 11:28 am #

    Fascinating discussion. I am not a huge fan of the labeling and at the same time if that is what works for some people, they certainly should continue to do it.

    To label oneself an addict for the remainder of their life in my view sets the bar way to low. It limits the possibilities of the true transformation that can take place. In my 10th year of recovery, I have no desire at all to go back to my past and I don’t feel I was cured of anything. I changed my behavior. It was incredibly hard, but the journey has been and will continue to be incredibly rewarding.

    I believe the biggest problem in transformation (recovery) is expectations and creating a plan. Most of us want things to happen a certain way and when the plan is altered, changed or does not go according to how we wanted it, we revert back to the old behavior. As an example, “my best friends cousin said AA was the absolute way to go, so I am going to AA and that is going to be the thing for me” Month later, back to drinking, hate AA, hate the sponsor, hate step 10 whatever”.

    Choose your path with an open mind, every hour or every day, expect the unexpected, and see what works for you. Most of all, listen and don’t believe you have all the answers.

    • matt July 17, 2015 at 5:19 pm #

      Thanks, Mark

      So true and this last paragraph is the thread that runs through all successful transformations (recoveries) and is what gets people to the other side.

      • matt July 17, 2015 at 5:19 pm #

        …and beyond!

  25. April July 17, 2015 at 1:40 pm #

    Love this post! I’m an epidemiologist who used to suffer from a substance abuse disorder. I don’t see my addiction as defining me, but as a part of my history and something I have to work on to prevent from becoming an impediment to my future. Repeating the label “alcoholic” never struck me as good sense… telling ourselves we are something just makes us more of that. I agree that in early recovery getting past denial is key, but I think something shifts when one really takes Step One and realizes that we can never safely use again. Then all the talking about using days seems to me to be of questionable value. Thanks so much for your thoughts!

  26. matt July 18, 2015 at 8:30 am #

    Yes. It’s so important to start where you are and face the obstacles we have from this point moving forward. We know we use the stuff the way we use it, and can’t use in safety anymore (although our addictive voice sure tries to convince us otherwise early on.) Rehashing the past, not just remembering it, can nurture resentments and keep us stuck there. And the whole point of this enterprise is to get “unstuck” and move on with our lives. Thanks so much for this pivotal reminder, April.

  27. Mia Randall August 8, 2017 at 3:06 pm #

    I absolutely love this post. I am in school to become an LPC and attended an AA meeting and the very first thing that stood out to me is the reclaiming by EVERYONE of being an “Alcoholic”. While I understand the principle, my solution-focused, positive self-talking mind found it hard to stomach. It broke my heart to hear every speaker (65 people) say their name and identify as an Alcoholic. What do you suggest someone who is going into a practice of counseling addicts knows and understands most about the program of AA?

    Thank you for this post, it’s evident that years later it is still relevant!

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