The label “addict” has power. That’s why I’m not giving it up.
Hi, my name is Claire and I’m a heroin addict and an alcoholic. I’ve been in recovery since July 6, 2007. I am one of 23 million Americans who lives with substance abuse disorder. I’m one of the lucky ones in long term recovery.
In the past decade, I’ve learned a lot about my addiction — and the importance of remaining vocal and visible in my recovery. I’ve seen hundreds of addicts and alcoholics relapse, destroy their lives, and even die because of the deep shame and social stigma around addiction. I’ve seen plenty of people try to distance themselves from the word “addict,” as though removing the label would take their problems away, too. And yet, as the recovery advocacy movement gains momentum, I believe it is more important than ever for people with substance abuse disorder to claim the word “addict.” Instead of rebranding addiction, or finding an easier, softer way to depict this potentially fatal mental illness, I think we need to face it head on.
By shying away from the word “addict,” we’re buying into the stigma that is attached to addiction. We’re giving in to the shame. Especially for those of us in recovery, we are disavowing a very important part of our identity. I’m an addict — a sober, recovering addict. That’s nothing to be ashamed of. Why would it be? If anything, it’s something to celebrate. What are the odds of me, a heroin addict, getting sober and staying that way for a decade or longer? Let’s just say that it’s more statistically likely that I’d be struck by lightning. While being attacked by a man-eating shark.
Let’s be honest: mental illness is a disease. In the case of addiction, it’s a chronic, incurable disease that carries a high fatality rate. And it’s making our whole society sick. Untreated addiction creates a massive burden on our social services, hospitals, criminal justice system, and police enforcement. Jails and prisons are packed with people (mostly black people) who failed the “three strikes” rule or were caught with a small amount of controlled substances. The “Just Say No” campaign is still alive and well, even though it’s been proven not to be effective. Misinformation, fear, and shame feed the cycle and prevent people from seeking help: less than 10% of people with addiction will go to treatment, and of that 10%, most will relapse.
I am one of the millions of addicts, in recovery and in active addiction who walk among you. Addiction is a frightening problem because it is literally around us all the time, even if we don’t see it. Our friends, family members, neighbors, coworkers, fellow parishioners cope with addiction. Often, we don’t see it until the illness has nearly run its lethal course. Remember: most addicts and alcoholics do not look like the rough-faced people who drink out of paper bags at the bus stop, or swear and spit at us when we don’t give them spare change. They look like your barista, your receptionist, your Uber driver, your best friend, your professor, your rabbi, your father, your wife.
Our disability is invisible. This is a double edged sword. On the one hand, it makes it very easy for those of us in recovery to “pass” in normal society. Unless I’m wearing my favorite sober-person shirt or standing on my soapbox, I look and sound like just another weirdo. Most people don’t look at me twice. This was different than when I was in active addiction, thin as a needle and so pale that you could see the veins going purple and green in my eyelids. On the other hand, it means that we die in great numbers because our illness isn’t recognized, or because we’d rather stay sick for years on end than ask for help.
It wasn’t until I started attending a 12 Step program in 2009 that I realized the immense power that the words “alcoholic” and “addict” held. When I identified myself as what I was, I felt the same surge as when I said out loud, “I’m queer.” Identification is powerful, and as recovery advocacy entered the mainstream, I saw other people experiencing the same discovery. By deliberately shedding the privilege of remaining invisible — of hiding, of saying “I’m not like those other addicts,” of owning my mental illness — I put myself on the front lines of this movement. I am an addict.
I, with many, many other people, demand to be heard. We deserve equal treatment. We deserve access to affordable, life saving healthcare. We do not deserve to be incarcerated because of our disability. We are not going to get there by reinforcing the status quo: as one writer insisted, “We are someone’s daughter, we continue to laugh, we continue to like jazz and cheeseburgers and comfy pajamas. We cry, we get so lonely, we hate sitting in traffic.”
Last time I checked, the insurance companies didn’t give a fuck about whether or not you like jazz. What they do care about is if you have a preexisting condition — such as addiction — that might potentially raise your premium. Likewise, I’m pretty sure that the police don’t care about how you identify. They’re more concerned at looking at your priors: the three DUIs on your record, for example, or the bottle of prescription pills on your front seat.
It’s easy to conceal addiction and recovery in plain sight, for many people. And yet, doing this is completely counterproductive. If we want to affect real change — not just “feeling more accepted” —we need to stop waiting for the mainstream to find us acceptable and give us the equal rights we so desperately need. For every person in recovery who whimpers, But I’m a precious muffin and I that’s how I relate to my substance abuse disorder, there are a hundred who die because they were too ashamed to go to rehab.
By speaking up and showing people what a real addict looks like, I’m helping to reclaim the word and redefine what addiction is. I don’t need another word. I need a society who respects my identity, exactly as I am.
By being bold, unashamed, and unapologetic about who we are — who we really are — we can help the people who will come into recovery after we do. Instead of asking to be assimilated, normalized, we need to speak up and demand equal treatment. This is the mission. It’s not time to mince words: it’s time to get to work. Our addiction means that we have different needs from normal people — and different, dangerous consequences for letting our illness remain active.
I’m an addict. I’m an alcoholic.
It’s a diagnosis. It shouldn’t be a death sentence.