Are We Speaking the Same Language?
When the fellowship of Narcotics Anonymous was founded in 1953, the founding members made a profound change in focus and language in the first Step of the 12 Steps adapted from Alcoholics Anonymous. They recognized that addicts were not just powerless over a particular substance but were powerless over the disease of addiction. They had the wisdom and foresight to recognize that this insidious disease manifests in many ways beyond just the abuse of drugs and that recovery from this disease involves more than simply abstaining from their use.
In 1986, the NA Basic Text was revised to emphasize the importance of a common language of recovery. The terms “sober” and “sobriety” were removed because it was felt they were too alcohol-specific. Addicts tend to refer to “getting clean” and their time of abstinence as “clean time.” Addicts in NA do not use the term “clean and sober” because they recognize that alcohol is just another drug. I mention this only to emphasize the importance of the words we use, the language we speak.
The Bible makes reference to the tongue being a small organ but like a rudder, able to steer and guide a great ship (James 3:4-5). Just so, NA recognized the importance of speaking the same language. It is a matter of identification and connectedness within the fellowship. But does it serve addicts well in terms of their relationship with those outside the fellowship? Does it serve addicts well in their attempt to get others to recognize addiction as a chronic illness? Does it serve society well in terms of removing the stigma from addiction?
Addiction is a disease that is sometimes compared to diabetes – there seems to be a genetic factor, there are many different causes, it is sometimes self-inflicted, it is chronic but very treatable, has a comparable relapse rate, and has a predictable course if left untreated. In this regard it is also similar to hypertension. And yet those illnesses, and many others, have a different language. While addicts refer to being “recovering” or “in recovery” (never “recovered”), people battling other chronic illnesses might use the term “in remission” or even “healed.” People battling cancer often refer to being a “cancer survivor” or being “symptom-free.”
Addiction is a disease whose symptoms are a little different. External or obvious symptoms might include, in addition to abuse of drugs, things like job or school problems, family problems, financial problems, and legal problems. Internal symptoms, which may be less obvious, might include denial, craving, low self-esteem, poor impulse control, all-or-nothing thinking, detachment from feelings, need for instant gratification, self-centeredness, rationalization, low frustration tolerance, and a tendency to over-personalize.
If symptom reduction, which is a response to the indicated treatment, is what defines remission from the disease, why do addicts continue to identify themselves as addicts? My concern is that this identification serves to justify continuing to manifest the internal symptoms of the disease. Might it not be better for addicts to consider themselves “in remission,” “a survivor,” or even “healed?”