Ditching the “Addict” Barcode: The LPP way
We at the Life Process Program don’t diagnose you as an alcoholic, addict, or anything else. Instead, we ask you to inform us about your life concerns. We then trace these back to your behaviors, particularly with addictive objects, uncover your motivations and values for and against your addiction, and then work with you to disentangle these connections so as to help you find positive life replacements.
But we never label you. You are more than a label, just as your life is more than an addiction.
Business before technology was tedious. Long lines and the grueling task of manually pricing every item caused many shop owners in major cities to barely break even. This problem continued for decades until a man by the name of Joe Woodland revolutionized the market with the invention of the barcode. Woodland’s efficient shortcut not only sped along transactions, but it became the global standard for discovering whether a product sells. The benefits of simplifying purchases are clear, but what about the way humans transact with their environment? Could something as simple as a label explain the way we interact with the world? Most people would agree that human psychology is far more complex than a label can capture. Not only does human experience elude what tags are capable of encapsulating, it is detrimental to use them the wrong way.
The following are three reasons why we at the Life Process Program don’t call people “addicts”, and why you shouldn’t call yourself one either.
- The Label isn’t True
The first question to ask about any belief is whether or not it is true. True beliefs help us to align our actions with reality, they allow us to function in accordance with the laws of nature. Anyone who believes that a skateboard is actually an airplane will quickly find the value of true belief on a trip to the pavement at terminal velocity. If holding true beliefs is so important, then we should start by asking whether it is true that some people are addicts. Narrowing things to a single attribute is something humans do all the time. It happens so often in fact that psychologists have given it its own name—the fundamental attribution error. This is a fancy way of saying that we mistakenly reduce a person’s existence to one part of them when there is so much more at play. Now there is nothing fundamentally wrong with making errors, and there isn’t anything all that bad about using labels. We call a person who bakes bread a baker, and a person who teaches a teacher for good reason. It just isn’t possible to compress everything a person does into a single word. The problem arises when labels are taken literally. If a baker stopped baking bread would they cease to exist? Obviously not. But if we took the label seriously, it would mean that a baker, is a baker till their final breath. The fundamental problem with calling people addicts, is that the term is taken literally. Whether or not people are still addicted, they are viewed by themselves and by the people around them as addicts for life. To use language this way is not only to fail logic 101, but it simply isn’t true.
Is it objectively true, or even logical to say that people are addicts? We think not.
- The Label isn’t Helpful
The second question to ask about any belief is whether it is helpful. Does adopting the addict label help people live better lives? Thus is widely believed to be true. Saying, “I’m an addict” is beheld as a sign of acceptance, and those who resist the notion are commonly deemed “in denial”. 12 step meetings have an established ritual of introducing oneself to the group this way, and most rehabs start group therapy by passing the label around the room. This mantra is so popular that it has become a rite of passage in most American rehabs and support groups, and those who decline to participate are considered noncompliant or unready. But what does the evidence say about the usefulness of the addict label? Americans are so deeply wed to the notion of addicts, that there is little research specifically gauging how the word affects individual wellbeing. There is however, a significant body of research showing that internalizing a stigmatizing label has negative results. In fact, an entire psychosocial model called Labelling Theory is predicated on the notion that accepting a socially undesirable designation adversely affects how people behave. Children raised to believe that they are less than others suffer academically, and people taught to identify as criminals are more likely to break the law.  Absorbing negative beliefs creates a self-fulfilling prophecy. There is also the phenomenon of learned helplessness, a well-established state of mental defeat stemming from a belief that there is no way to escape a negative outcome. Many here will have heard the term “once an addict, always an addict”. This is the language of learned helplessness.
Does adopting the label of “addict” help to build the motivation and self-determination to fight an addiction? We think not.
- The Label is Derogatory
Finally, let’s examine what society thinks about “addicts”. Researchers at Penn State University recently conducted a study to gauge how people react to the words “addict”, “alcoholic”, and “substance abuser”. To do this they used what is called an implicit association test—a series of questions aimed at uncovering unconscious bias. In addition, the participants were given vignettes to test their willingness to be in the presence of people described under these labels. The researchers discovered a significant negative bias when the terms were used, compared to person first language such as, “person with a substance use disorder”. Their conclusion was that the research, “support[s] calls to cease use of the terms “addict”, “alcoholic”, “opioid addict”, and “substance abuser”.
Does using the term “addict” help others to better understand addiction and those who struggle with it? We think not.
Universal product codes are an effective way to do business, but in the realm of psychology they epically fail. Human problems are more complex and varied than a conveyor belt can accommodate, more intricate than a laser scanner can assess. The simplicity of reducing one’s essence to a single word, and the camaraderie of belonging to a group that does the same may at first seem appealing, but in the long run thinking this way is a bad idea. Having false or unhelpful beliefs can have disastrous results on ourselves and on everyone else. People who negatively brand themselves are not only vilified by others, but they tend to hinder themselves as well. We hope you will find the courage to refuse to conform to the internal and external stigma of becoming an addict.
Ditch the barcode.
Article written by Aaron Ferguson – Life Process Program Coach
Aaron Ferguson is a social worker, addiction counselor, writer, artist, podcast producer, and family man. Having survived childhood in a cult, homelessness, Navy SEAL training, addiction, and 12 step coercion, he has found a way of turning life’s adversities into strengths. Aaron’s main focus is addiction treatment, and he is heavily invested in supporting a scientific, non-superstitious approach. As a coach and writer for The Life Process Program, Aaron works to help people discover and maximize their inherent strengths and potential.
I continue to think parallel to you…in my group Speaking of Drinking I always refer to the Life Process model and credit you.
We are working in Somerville Massachusetts toward establishing a safe consumption site, but have been slowed down by the pandemic.
Excellent analysis. The actual reasons the AA model is so widely used in the USA have more to do with money than value. Rehabs can charge a small fortune and employ people for cheap who are “certified addiction counselors”, use free AA meetings as a part of their supposed recovery plans, and make mega-dough. When what people involved with addiction need is individual attention. With actual trained and good therapists, psychologists, psychiatrists, nutritionists. Real therapy and at times medication. Another failure in the US non-health care system. It is horrific abuse of people in need.
Love how the “forever an addict in recovery” is the perfect mark for the ultimate rehab con – a repeat patient for life. As long as that may be.
Great words so well stated. Thanks