In addition to provoking a negative reaction, the word ‘alcoholic’ when used on its own can be misconstrued. I’m an alcoholic and always will be whether I’m drinking or in recovery. Alcoholism, like any addiction is for life.
I know from experience that if I tell someone I am a recovering alcoholic then they likely receive the message that whilst still slightly dangerous, I am unlikely to mug them or spend the night sleeping in a shopping trolley. If I use the word ‘alcoholic’ alone then the perception is that I am still drinking. A confused look usually follows since I’m quaffing lime and soda am clearly not drunk and showered before I came out.
I’ve been in recovery since 2001 and about ten years ago, at a dinner party, a fellow guest pressed me hard on why I wasn’t drinking. Eventually I said to him “I’m a recovering alcoholic.” He put down his knife and fork and said “really, gosh, well you don’t look like an alcoholic.” His reaction the surprised end of alarmed. “No” I said, “We’re difficult to spot without the park bench and the brown paper bag.”
My flippancy was a missed opportunity to maximise on expectations unwittingly challenged and if the same thing happened now I’d probably flash a smile, politely ask for the Perrier and keep him talking. By the end of the evening his preconceptions might have changed.
Having the courage to be frank when questioned truly matters, whatever the reaction. If I tell someone that I have a problem with alcohol, it doesn’t really say very much. Am I allergic? Do I have a moral or religious issue? Do I have two drinks and fall over? Use the word ‘alcoholic’ and there’s little room for ambiguity.
Whatever their preconceptions or prejudices, if somebody asks me ‘The Question’ I’d rather they fully grasp that I’m an addict than be left wondering exactly what it is that I’m trying to say. If the reaction is poor, it’s up to me, without lecturing or sarcasm (see above for how it shouldn’t be done), to offer a contrast between the stereotype and the reality and down to them to take that contrast away with them. I say again, opportunity missed.
In the same way that being frank is important, so is being prepared to offer an accurate explanation of addiction and its terminology. The more appropriate information available to young people the better but now we’re back to subjectivity. Just what is a young person? Well, primary school in my view is too soon and the Sixth Form too late. If parents and teachers (arguably the best qualified to make the call on when is the right time) had a better understanding of addiction and the media stopped using it as fodder, perhaps our children would develop a more rounded view of the subject, the language we use to describe and why it’s relevant.
So where does all of this leave us with respect to the original question? For me the answers are simple. If you call me an ‘alcoholic’ and your intent is to be derogatory then yes you’re being offensive but that’s do with malicious intent and ignorance, not the word itself. There’s a wide selection of other words you could choose that would offend me a great deal more. It’s up to me to either take a stand or write you off and walk away, bearing in mind that at that moment I am powerless to change the way you behave, only the way I react. If on the other hand I realise that the word is being used out of context and lack of knowledge then it’s reasonable that I point out it out. Whether you take it on board is out of my control.
Used accurately and in context, even words that describe unpleasant and undesirable things have a place in our language. Not naming, hiding or skirting around something is tantamount to denial and that’s where the trouble really starts. Because we don’t like something, doesn’t mean it isn’t there. It’s up to the individuals caught up in addiction and society’s educators to do a better job of explaining who and what we are.
The incident at the dinner party wasn’t my finest hour but I learned from it. I’ll make lots of other mistakes but won’t repeat that one. Wherever possible, if I’m asked, I take the time to explain about my alcoholism. There’s a saying among writers – ‘Show don’t tell’ – good advice if you’re writing a novel but in the real world there are times when things need to be stated clearly in black and white and without euphemism.
The terminology of addiction
Addiction is hugely relevant and needs to be talked about and debated. It ruins lives, destroys families, fuels crime and stops sufferers from reaching their full potential as human beings. A subject of such importance deserves accurate, well understood terminology. Over time the terminology itself might change, what matters is that we all understand exactly what it is that we’re talking about. But just to throw a spanner in the work check out this link: http://www.icd10data.com/ICD10CM/Codes/F01-F99/F10-F19/F10-
Notice anything? ICD10 is the World Health Organisation ‘bible’ – The 10th revision of the International Statistical Classification of Diseases and Related Health Problems. The link will take you to a listing for alcohol-related disorders. You’ll find the terms ‘alcohol dependence’ and ‘alcohol abuse.’ I spent a good while looking but could not find the words ‘alcoholic’ or ‘alcoholism.’ Feel free to check as I’m happy to be proved wrong.
What’s of more relevance than any of this is that as individuals, we know and understand who we are. We might embrace or detest the labels, find them a help or a hindrance but each of us has to settle on an honest view of ourselves, decide if we like it and strive to do something about it if we don’t.
© Billie Gledhill. RA (recovering alcoholic not Royal Academician) Part 1 of this article is here.
The Share’ by Billie Gledhill, will be available on line at the end of 2014. It aims to help people honestly assess their relationship with alcohol and offers support, empathy and advice should they decide to stop drinking and seek sobriety. Based on the author’s own experience of what’s been helpful and unhelpful in recovery, it examines the difference between being ‘dry’ and being ‘sober’ and why that understanding is key.