Are the Words 'Alcoholic' and 'Alcoholism' Outdated?
Eleven years ago, I got arrested for my first driving under the influence (DUI) charge. Long before that original DUI arrest, I knew I had a problem with alcohol. I knew that blackout drinking a few nights a week was not healthy. But I never spoke up or asked for help because I was terrified of being labeled an alcoholic. Facing the truth meant I would be diagnosed with alcoholism, an incurable, highly stigmatized disease.
Immediately following my arrest, the criminal justice system prescribed 90 12-step meetings in 90 days. Upon entry, as a requirement to share, I had to say, "Hi, my name is Kelsi, and I'm an alcoholic." Like it or not, I had to absorb that unwanted label.
'Alcoholic' and 'Alcoholism' Are Language Barriers to My Healing
Something about the words "alcoholic" and "alcoholism" makes my stomach churn. By introducing myself as "an alcoholic" for 90 days, instead of getting better, I became even more consumed with shame and fear. All I could see was a powerless, defective version of myself, detaching from what made me special and unique. The word "alcoholic" felt like a barrier to healing.
The definitions of the words "alcoholic" and "alcoholism" vary, making them unreliable. Alcohol use happens on a spectrum. It's too rigid to think of alcohol use as either alcoholic or nonalcoholic because most people drink. These days, professionals prefer the term "alcohol use disorder" (AUD) as it creates a less-judgmental, nuanced conversation.
The word "alcoholism" implies a persistent, untreatable disease. I was taught, "once an alcoholic, always an alcoholic," but I don't think that's true. I believe in neuroplasticity and science. With time, brain patterns do reroute, and cravings do evaporate.1 To suggest that my "disease" is forever doing pushups in the parking lot while I no longer imbibe doesn't make sense. With time, my sobriety strengthened, not my addiction.
How I label myself impacts how I feel and how quickly I heal. If a doctor presents a cancer diagnosis in an optimistic and gentle tone, it promotes a hopeful recovery. If not, the opposite is true.2 The same goes for an AUD diagnosis. Using criminalization and a toxic label as an AUD diagnosis made my early attempts at sobriety short-lived.
Redefining and Rediscovering Myself to Promote Healing
When folks get addicted to other drugs, we don't label them cocaine-aholics or nicotine-aholics. We don't say they are forever doomed to the disease of heroin-ism or caffeine-ism. I would argue that there is no such thing as an alcoholic or alcoholism. These are outdated terms that lack compassion.
While I recognize that I was dependent on and had a severe problem with alcohol for many years, I am allowed to divorce the terms "alcoholic" and "alcoholism." My relationship with alcohol didn't change until I found a community that encouraged me to redefine and rediscover myself. To begin healing, I traded the alcoholic label for, "Hi, my name is Kelsi, and I am a dog mom, a gardener, a writer, a daughter, a barista, a sociologist, an introverted early bird, a tea enthusiast, a wannabe astrologer, and a kindhearted human."
Neuroscience: The Brain in Addiction and Recovery | National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism (NIAAA). (2022, May 6). https://www.niaaa.nih.gov/health-professionals-communities/core-resource-on-alcohol/neuroscience-brain-addiction-and-recovery
Shashkevich, A. (2017, March 8). Patient mindset matters in healing and deserves more study, experts say. Standford Medicine News Center. https://med.stanford.edu/news/all-news/2017/03/health-care-providers-should-harness-power-of-mindsets.html
- Zayed, A. (2021, October 4). 12-Step Program Techniques and Success Rates. Addiction Resource. https://addictionresource.com/treatment/12-step-programs/
Cronkright, K. (2023, February 20). Are the Words 'Alcoholic' and 'Alcoholism' Outdated?, HealthyPlace. Retrieved on 2023, December 8 from https://www.healthyplace.com/blogs/debunkingaddiction/2023/2/are-the-words-alcoholic-and-alcoholism-outdated