10 Terms to Avoid When Talking About Addiction

Addiction affects almost everybody in some way or another. The disease is so widespread, it can come up in conversation often. But popular culture and learned language may have well-meaning family members and friends unknowingly using harmful or hurtful words.

The Vocabulary of Addiction Recovery
Have you ever wondered if you are using the proper terms to describe someone struggling with addiction or their experience? There are many variations to drug and alcohol addiction vocabulary, but all can be tied to efforts in being compassionate and helping to put an end to the stigma surrounding addiction.

We have compiled a list of popular terms people use when talking about addiction and recovery, why they should be avoided, and what we should be saying instead.

  1. Addict

When someone is struggling with an addiction, people may refer to them as an addict. But think about it this way: would you call someone battling cancer “a cancer”? No. People should not be defined by their addiction. Instead, refer to them as a person that is struggling with addiction and/or alcoholism.

  1. Clean

Instead of saying someone “got clean,” consider saying they are in recovery.  Stating that someone is now clean implies that they were previously dirty – something that largely contributes to the stigma surrounding addiction. Everyone’s addiction and recovery is different, and we shouldn’t be judging people based on where they’re at in their recovery journey; we should be acknowledging them for taking steps to find recovery and work to maintain it.

  1. Fault

People suffer from addiction for a variety of reasons, none of them a moral failing, so it’s recommended to avoid using terms like “their fault.” Addiction is a disease of the brain – a chemical imbalance – caused by mental health issues, prescription drug misuse, genetics, and more. Addiction and relapse are not voluntary choices made by individuals, and we should always approach discussions around somebody’s sobriety with empathy and understanding – not blame, fault, or shame

It’s important to always remember that no matter where someone is in their recovery journey, just starting out or trying again after relapsing, the language we use makes a difference. They are people and certain vocabulary phrases, words and comments can be extremely negative, even when you may not mean them in that way. We hope that raising awareness about these popular addiction and recovery terms and providing alternative ways to talk about and approach those struggling will help end the stigma surrounding substance use disorders.

  1. Abuser

People struggling with addiction are often labeled drug abusers, but the term abuser brings up images of violence, judgment and punishment. People should not be defined by their addiction in these terms. Using terms such as patient is a more positive way of referring to a person in treatment for drug or alcohol use.

  1. Habit

We all have habits, some good like going to bed early, and some bad, like biting our nails. The word “habit” inaccurately implies that a person is choosing to use a substance, or that they can choose to stop. It blames the individual and undermines the seriousness of the disease.

  1. Alcoholic

Another term with negative connotations is alcoholic, but the term can be more harmful to a person in recovery, or a person struggling with alcohol overuse. Using a phrase like “person with alcohol use disorder” shows that the person has a problem, rather than is the problem.

  1. Codependency

Codependency refers to a circular relationship in which one person needs another person, and the other person needs to be needed. In addiction recovery codependency is often associated with individuals who have loved ones in recovery. Often describing the family and friends who may be interfering with an individual’s recovery. The term can stigmatize the concern that family members may have for their loved one.

  1. Slip

Also referred to as a “lapse” it implies a one-time resumption of substance use, followed by a return to the original goal of abstinence or moderate use. Both slip and lapse are stigmatized due to meanings rooted in morality and religion and implies an accidental occurrence. Better terms to use would be “experienced a recurrence” of a substance or “resumed use.”

  1. and 10. Dirty/Clean

Dirty and clean are terms referring to the state of a person using or abstaining from drug use. These terms have pejorative connotations and experts in addiction treatment advocate for medical terminology such as a saying a person is in recovery or describing a test as positive or negative.

Additional Resources:

12 Terms About Addiction You Need To Know

When Does Substance Use Turn into Addiction?

If you or a loved one is struggling with addiction, call the New England Recovery Center today at 1-877-MyRehab.

Print Friendly, PDF & Email


Recent Articles

Print Friendly, PDF & Email
Go to Top