Recovery Language: Fuel for Positive Change

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Last week I posted about the power of recovery. This week, let’s dig a little deeper to focus on the language of recovery and how it is power fuel for positive change.

Greg Williams said in a recent interview with The Bubble Hour:

“I deeply, deeply believe that changing our language will change everything. Public policy is driven by public perception and public perception is based on how we think and how we talk about people.”

Why is language important?

Words matter. Anytime you start a sentence with I am, you define yourself by the words that finish the sentence. @bheretoday (Click to Tweet)

Say these two sentences aloud:

I am a recovering addict.

I am a person in longterm recovery.

Two things about the first sentence: 1) “Recovering” implies that a person continues to use drugs or alcohol, at least in the public’s mind, and 2) “Addict” is a negative, stigmatized word.

However, the second sentence–I am a person in longterm recovery–is considered person-first language. Plus, shifting from recovering to longterm recovery, moves public assumptions from current use to past use.

Believe me, this is not just about semantics or “tomato/tomahto.”

Recovery Community Messaging Training produced by Faces & Voices of Recovery emphasizes that we have to define our recovery because the public doesn’t understand it.  We need to say “longterm” because we need to describe that our recovery is ongoing.

When should you use recovery language?

Anytime, anywhere because the more you talk about recovery in a positive light–and share how recovery has improved your life–the recovery movement takes a step forward.

According to the Messaging Training, some words with a negative connotation are:

Survivor, addict, alcoholic, self-help, abuse or abuser, as in she abuses alcohol or he is a drug abuser.

Also, and this may surprise many people–you shouldn’t refer to addiction as a disease or as a health problem because that sets you up for a debate and takes the focus off recovery.

As you think about the circumstances where you might share your recovery–with family, workmates, neighbors, or in the media–consider this a reminder that you won’t break 12-step traditions about anonymity so long as you don’t refer to your 12-step affiliation. If you have any question at all about anonymity and advocacy, there’s a wonderful pamphlet that will answer all your questions.  Click here.

Create positive change

Ultimately, this new language and the telling of our stories will catalyze local and national change. The problem we’re addressing, as seen by the recovery messaging training, is four-fold:

  • Need more opportunities for people to achieve long-term recovery
  • Need more effective treatment and recovery support services
  • There are discriminatory policies
  • The public and policymakers don’t know about the reality of recovery

However, proper messaging by a growing group of individuals will address the solution:

  • A strong national recovery movement organized at the local, state and federal levels
  • Putting a face and a voice on recovery to break down misperceptions that will change attitudes (stigma)
  • Advocating to change policies (discrimination)

I’ll leave you with a thought from William White, author and recovery advocate:

I urge you to participate in these discussions and debates about language. This is not about superficial political correctness. It is about the future of recovery in America. It is time we embraced a new language that helps us talk about how we heal ourselves, our families and our communities. It is time we as a country abandoned a rhetoric that declares war on our own people.”

Photo courtesy of xenia

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  1. Jerry Brady says:

    Wow Beth GREAT GREAT GREAT !!!

    “Love The Center Of It All”

    So true and yet so simple that our words drive the world around us! So smile you have hit the NAIL On The HEAD in your words here today.

    Hope all has been well ?I will update you as to my journey soon !

    It is so cool to see “All Is Still Well With Our Higher Power at Our Side” . Self accountability is the “Center Of Power” ! Thank You Again Jerry 🙂

  2. This is wonderful Beth, to have some guidelines on what language will promote recovery in all of our communities. I know I always hesitate when I mention recovery is a disease, so that is interesting that it is being recommended that “you shouldn’t refer to addiction as a disease or as a health problem because that sets you up for a debate and takes the focus off recovery.”

    Whatever language promotes the positive side of recovery and the more we can make this all more clear to the general public, the better for everyone involved. Thanks for a great post!

  3. Hey it’s very courageous to blog bout it. I think with family and friend’s support plus the right attitude, one can overcome everything. Thanks for sharing the input which will be helpful to so many of us:)

  4. Beth says:

    I thought you’d be on board, Cathy! I love playing on the same team with you (except in the World Series, of course!)!

  5. This is just excellent, Beth. What a huge difference language makes. And it’s so important now within the context of compulsive behavior issues, as well as emotional/mental. As unbelievable as it is, we continue to battle for recognition, which is vital in so many ways. I mean, stigma is powerfully destructive enough. We don’t need to fuel it by using language the general public will turn against us.

    Excellent insight and perspective, Beth. Appreciate it…


    • Beth says:

      Hey Bill! The words we speak, the tone of our voices, our body language, even the pitch, are all part of how we present the language of recovery. I find it really fascinating and completely agree that those of us in recovery don’t need to continue to shoot our proverbial feet. Little by slow, as an old friend of mine says, we’ll witness the tide turning. I’m sure of it.

      Thanks for your continued support and comments!

  6. Such a critically important post, Beth – it’s imperative we do as you’ve outlined here and the more we all speak the same language, the more the general public will understand addiction is a treatable disease from which a person can recovery and live a fantastically wonderful life!

    • Beth says:

      Thanks, Lisa! I don’t think we should abolish the words addiction and disease from our recovery language because the reality is that addiction is a brain disease. Your subject matter so often intersects with the brain that you’d be hard-pressed to eliminate the words!

      However, when sharing our recovery story with people or organizations that don’t “get” the disease part or who might see it as inflammatory, we should stick to what we know personally–the joy and hope of our own recovery.

      These new ideas take time to implement but the more we get used to them, the more natural they’ll become.

      Grateful for all you do!

  7. P.S. – strange I should refer to addiction as a disease or a health problem in light of what your wrote, but it’s difficult not to… hum… I’ll have to browse through the links you’ve provided to see why that’s so – thanks again for this great post!

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