You are NOT an addict or an alcoholic
Updated: May 4
This is important, so I am going to repeat myself. You are NOT an addict or an alcoholic. You are a person. You may struggle with drug and alcohol use. You may have a substance use disorder. You may be addicted to something. But first and foremost, you are a person.
This is not just semantics, or a feel-good word choice. This is simply fact. And it matters because the way we see ourselves and the way others perceive us matters. The words addict and alcoholic not only have a negative connotation, it makes no sense why that would be the primary way a person is identified. People have cancer, they are not cancer. People have eating disorders; they do not become an eating disorder. People have anxiety, but they are not the living embodiment of anxiety (though I know it can feel that way). We show this courtesy to other issues and diagnoses, so why not to substance use?
Enough with the shaming
For far too long, the substance use treatment community, the mental health community, and certainly the criminal justice system has treated substance use differently than other diagnoses. Concepts like shame and failure have somehow become the backbone of treatment, rather than supportive constructs to help overcome feelings of shame and failure. You deserve better.
Most people begin using substances because it feels better than when they don’t. Drugs and alcohol help alleviate pain, suffering, and isolation. They often help people feel more connected to others and provide an escape. The search for relief is not a moral failing, but a natural human impulse. Very often, use comes from a place of trying to make things better for ourselves.
For some people, the use does become problematic and leads to a substance use disorder. For others, it may be gambling that becomes problematic. Regardless, imposing shame on people for trying to feel better tends to just make people feel worse.
Shame spiral cycle
When we feel shame, we essentially feel unworthy of connection—connection to others, to ourselves, to a meaningful life. Shame is a great tool for inducing use, not curing it. Most of us feel driven to use or engage in some sort of behavior to alleviate intense feelings of shame. So, you feel shame, then you use to lessen your suffering, then you feel shame for having used, a vicious, if not pointless cycle.
You deserve to be treated like a person
Every week, I see people who are struggling with substance use issues. So many of them are lacking in self-worth, self-compassion, and frequently have a poor self-image. However, there tends to be a substantial discrepancy between how they see themselves and how I see them. Sure, I see their struggles and I can often see they are in pain. But I also see the sense of humor, the talents, the resilience, the strength, the tenacity. These are not two-dimensional beings. These are complex people, therefore the solutions to their issues should be as dynamic and complex as they are.
Calling someone an addict tells you nothing about a person.
You should have the right to identify how you see fit. If you prefer to call yourself an addict, then that should be respected. However, consider why that fits for you. If it is because that is what other people call you or if you feel you don’t deserve better, then it may be time to rethink your self-appointed title.
When other people call you an addict or alcoholic, you reserve the right to correct them—especially people in the mental health and medical professions, because they should know better. They should set a better example and model respect. No matter how much you gamble, how much you use, you are still a person and you have the right to be seen for who you fully are, not just a reduction of your greatest struggle.
Be wary of people and providers who are reluctant to see you as a whole person.
Support if you need it
If you are struggling with gambling or substance use and need support, Substance Use Therapy is here. Whatever you are facing, you don’t have to face it alone.
Sources: respect, dignity, and compassion
About the Author:
Kimberly May, LPC-S, LMFT is a therapist at Substance Use Therapy in Austin, TX. Kimberly works with individuals, couples and families whose lives have been affected by substance use. By utilizing a harm reduction framework, Kimberly works effectively with people in any stage of use. In addition to substance use, she works with other issues such as anger, gambling, anxiety and grief. Contact today to schedule a no-charge, 30 minute, in-person consultation. *Note: telephone and telehealth sessions are currently available.