Life in Recovery

Finding Language for your Addiction Recovery Process

The language we use impacts how we view ourselves, and can affect our recovery. People in recovery can have very different viewpoints on how to describe themselves and their struggle. Traditional language focuses on identifying as “addicts,” due to the importance of admitting the problem. Many see addiction as a lifelong condition. Others find that after a period of recovery they don’t self-identify as addicts, because, to them, it limits their understanding of their value as human beings. We can find and use language that helps us be honest about our present state, but that also supports our full flourishing as a human being. You are more than a diagnosis, and more than a condition or disease.


Recovery Language Matters

Words have power. Words that are tied to our understanding of ourselves have particularly strong power. Along the the journey of recovery, we may experience people that use a range of different words to describe themselves. Some, perceiving a lifelong risk of relapse, self-identify as addicts, and plan to continue to do so. Others may use that word in a present or past tense, but also use other language describing themselves as “a person in recovery” or someone who “had an addiction.”

The Importance of Admitting a Problem

When addressing an addiction or mental health issue, admitting its existence is essential. It’s a requirement and important step in every significant approach to treatment recovery, because it’s hard to solve a problem that a person won’t admit exists. There is such power, and freedom, in the moment of self-identification. For many of us, much hope and peace comes the first time we’re able to self identify, whether with the words, “Hi, my name is _____, and I am an addict” or “Hi, my name is ____, and I have an addiction,” or others, in the presence of a group of supportive listeners. We no longer have to hide. We get to experience connection and acceptance in the midst of this vulnerability, and the embrace of others that reminds us that we’re not alone. Connection does not require perfection. Experiences of acceptance and receiving love can reach new depths as we speak honestly and vulnerably.

A young, african-american man writes down his recovery journey after he learned how to describe his struggle with addiction

Valuing Different Types of Recovery Language

Individuals that ascribe to a lifelong identification as an addict, or as having an addiction, recognize the risks associated with the condition. Sadly, individuals with many years sober or clean can lapse or relapse, and in short time, experience severe consequences, including death. Programs and methodologies that emphasize this approach emphasize the challenge that the brain condition of addiction presents, and the chronic nature of the struggle for many.

Other people and groups may use self-describing language that emphasizes a journey out of the condition. Some find continued emphasis of identity as an addict, particularly after years of sobriety, as limiting to their human flourishing. They may use words like “recovered,” “in recovery,” or “had an addiction.” Most will identify with or emphasize other descriptors, whether due to hope or peace they’ve found, or a role like “husband” or “wife,” “father” or “mother.”

Related: Peter’s Story: The Power of Vulnerability and Play

Choosing Our Words

So what recovery language should we adopt? Finding a community that resonates with us is most important. Our community will likely affect our language. It’s important for each of us to own the existence of whatever challenge we’re facing or growing through, and from that place, to experience acceptance and connection via vulnerability. We should not underestimate the sneakiness of addiction; it is a brain condition where breakthrough and growth can come in shorter timelines or take years. A label is never a good justification for a choice around behavior. Choosing language to justify unhealthy or unwise decisions is not helpful. As we move forward, using language to self-describe that brings hope and fulfillment to us is important. We can find recovery language that resonates, and honor and value the choices of others to do the same.

A woman writes down her story of overcoming substance use and addiction in a journal, using her own recovery language

No matter what label we use for ourselves in the recovery process, our innate value as human beings remains. We are more than our current condition, and more than the sum of past choices made in or through addiction. It is life-giving to remember and recognize other aspects of who we are– a mother or father, a son or daughter, a friend, a valued human being. There is a future in front of us, and the potential for far more inside of us than we can imagine.

*Note: Be thoughtful about who you share this information with, particularly early in recovery. If their response is not one of acceptance and grace, find someone else to share with. Support groups of any flavor are great places to find people who will embrace you with open arms.



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