The World Isn’t Black and White—and Neither is Addiction

Posted Thursday, Feb. 22, 2018

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Why labels are bad for business 

We talk a lot about the damage caused by the stigmas associated with addiction. In one blog we discussed how a doctor’s family refused to immediately address the cause of death of a beloved family member because it turned out that the family member suffered a drug overdose. In a recent post, we referenced an article that highlights the general public’s distrust of and lack of sympathy for those branded with the “addict” label. The truth is, studies have shown repeatedly that one of the major impediments to seeking help for substance problems is stigma.

One of our favorite books on addiction addresses precisely why labels do far more harm than good.

In Beyond Addiction , the authors are critical of anything so simple as what they call “black and white thinking.” Why?

The world isn’t black-and-white. 

“Traditional notions of addiction give you two, and only two, options,” they write. You’re an addict or you’re not. You’re ready to change or not. You’re recovering or you’re in denial. You are sick or healthy, in rehab or not, and you’re successful at recovery or a massive failure. As for friends and family? They are either intervening or enabling. No gray areas. No middle ground. This is not how the world works, and it’s not how addiction works. 

“Addict” is a pejorative and incomplete term. 

“Problems with substances vary,” write the authors. “The current scientific evidence supports an explanatory model involving psychological, biological, and social factors.” Individual differences matter. Calling everyone with a substance abuse problem an “addict” is dangerously over-simplistic. 

Labels are a barrier to change. 

Many people don’t seek help because they expect to be offered only one way to get it—accepting a label of alcoholic or addict.

Us versus them is unhelpful. 

Splitting people into the groups of “addicts” and “the rest of us” is divisive and incorrectly assumes that, according to the authors, “Everyone struggling with these problems is basically the same.”

Ultimately, labels do not matter. People matter. When it comes to thinking about addiction, put aside labels and concentrate instead on problem solving, empathy, and helping people change for the better in the ways that work for them.