Being labeled by your illness, whether it’s cancer, diabetes, or alcoholism, carries with it the negative implication that you are your illness. Though that’s not the intention behind a label like “alcoholic,” for some, the strong stigma associated with the term is enough to prevent them from entering a recovery program, especially a 12-step program like Alcoholics Anonymous.
Though the word describes someone suffering with an addiction to alcohol, the stigmatic definition reflects a weakness of character, as our former understanding of the disease of alcoholism indicated some matter of choice.
The Powerful Impact Of Labels
It isn’t that labels always cause harm, but studies do indicate they have a profound effect on humans and our intentions. One study involved randomly selected students who had scored similarly in IQ testing. Academically, these students were no different from one another, but 20 percent of the group was then labeled “bloomers,” indicating they had shown greater proficiency over their peers. While this 20 percent did not receive any additional tutoring over their peers, later testing revealed the labeled group raised their IQ by an astonishing 10-15 points compared with the non-labeled group. The only difference between the two groups? A label.
Now, imagine a label which indicates an illness. In 2006, I was diagnosed with blood cancer. Immediately, in support groups and by peers, I was labeled, “a cancer survivor,” despite any known outcome. I didn’t think much about it until someone inadvertently and innocently referred to me as a “cancer victim.” I felt like I had been punched in the gut.
For decades, cognitive psychologists have been studying the impact of language and labeling on the human psyche. They quickly determined that labels don’t just describe something; they inform what we see.
Labels Determine What We See
One of my favorite linguistic experiments involves the use of simple imagery. Researchers divided people into two groups. They showed each group a set of images. Both groups viewed exactly the same images, but beneath the images were different labels. For example, one group saw a rectangle with a triangle atop it labeled “House.” The other group saw the exact same image, with a different label, “Envelope.”
The two groups were told to memorize these images because they would be tested on their memory two hours later. When “tested,” the two groups did not draw the images they had seen, but rather what the labels suggested they had seen. While the images included only the two identical, distinct shapes, the “house” group had added a door or window, and in some cases a chimney, while the “envelope” group added a stamp, or inverted the triangle and overlayed it over the rectangle.
Each of these experiments on the power of labeling indicate a profound impact on how we view the world around us. Groups like “Alcoholics Anonymous,” who involve the label in their title, were founded at the time these linguistic studies were in their infancy.
“I am an Alcoholic”
Asking individuals participating in programs like AA was not a deliberate attempt to demoralize them; the purpose is to remove all other labels and put everyone on equal footing. Whether or not this ultimately has a negative impact is not known. Alcoholics Anonymous has been a powerful tool for many in seeking and achieving long-term recovery. At the same time, this label may be a barrier for some individuals in need of treatment.
For some, the label alcoholic deflates any sense of empowerment they might otherwise feel in their recovery journey. For others, use of the word can be humbling. For one person, it connects them with the negativity, and for another, they connect to others in the same boat through the word.
Depending on how you associate with a label, it can have a powerful impact on how you view yourself and your recovery experience. While the disease of addiction does not go away (one of the reasons AA insists the label), some five or 10 years into recovery may feel inhibited by the label, while others might still identify as alcoholic as a means to remind themselves that the threat to sobriety is still present.
Working Around The Stigma Of The Alcoholism Label
The stigma surrounding the word alcoholism comes from an archaic understanding of the disease. The stigma attached to alcoholism suggests everything the disease is not; a choice by someone to drink. The stigma can also prevent someone who is seeking employment from being able to obtain that employment. Sadly, in other cases, medical care may be affected. And moreover, someone who is afraid of being labeled is likely to avoid care.
There are many types of treatment someone can undergo that do not necessitate use of the label “alcoholic.” These include cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT), motivational therapy (MT), and some secular groups similar to AA, but who do not necessitate use of the label.
A Rose By Any Other Name…
Regardless of whether or not you identify with the label, alcoholism is a real disease and if you need help, there are ways to cope without finding yourself under the thumb of a word like ‘alcoholic.’ If you are worried about close friends and family referring to you in a way that evokes negative feelings, then it is okay to ask people to refrain from using the term. In fact, if there’s a phrase that evokes positive feelings regarding your recovery, then ask them to replace the word alcoholic with that word or phrase.
In fact, studies have shown that just including the word “recovering” before “alcoholic” can improve outcome. A recovering alcoholic is reminded of how far they’ve come, rather than labeled after the disease.
Get Help For Alcohol Addiction Today
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