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Language is powerful.
It shapes our realities, our experiences, interactions, and indeed, how we come to know ourselves and others. How we wield our words matters tremendously. The words we choose reflect our investment in beliefs and perceived truths—about ourselves, about others, about our worldview.
Because of this, we need to choose our words with intention and care.
As part of my work, I spend a lot of time thinking about language, the etymology of words, the impact language has, and how we use it. If you aren’t convinced about the power of language, think about how different it feels when someone compliments you versus hurling an insult in your direction. Or the impact your internal dialogue has on your reality when it’s positive versus negative leaning. Words matter, and the impact of those words goes deeper than most of us realize.
When I first got sober, I attended a handful of Alcoholics Anonymous (AA) meetings. At the time (five and a half-plus years ago), there were far fewer recovery options for those seeking sobriety compared to what exists today. AA was and continues to be the first thing that comes to mind when we think about recovery, and for many reasons, this makes sense. It’s been around since 1935 (and remains largely unchanged since its inception, 85-plus years ago), meetings happen frequently and globally, and the barrier to entry is low as it’s free to attend.
These factors (and others) have combined to make AA the most well-known addiction recovery program in the world.
Because of its prominence, 12-step programs also greatly influence the bulk of treatment options globally; most in-patient programs are 12-step based (despite the fact that AA isn’t rooted in science, medicine, or evidence-based practices). With all this in mind, it makes sense that I turned to AA in the early days of my sobriety; it’s what people did and often still do. In short, AA has a monopoly on recovery.
And because of this, I wanted to dedicate some time to getting curious about specific parts of AA, namely the language which shapes the program and the impact of that language.
I recently read a fantastic book by feminist linguistic Amanda Montell called Cultish: The Language of Fanaticism. In this book, she references a variety of historic and current groups like Jonestown, Synanon, 3HO, CrossFit, NXIVM, SoulCycle, multi-level marketing, Scientology, and more. Because the book is coming from a linguistic perspective, it’s less about whether or not these groups are cults and more about some of the linguistic mechanisms that serve as the basis for attracting, converting, and in many cases, imprisoning (mentally and emotionally, at the very least) folks in groups and communities such as those listed above.
Montell examines and reveals how language is used as a tool for manipulation and coercion and really demonstrates how powerful language is and can be. What I love about this book is that it serves as an intelligent invitation to take notice of when and where language is being used to manipulate us and to get curious about why this is happening.
When it comes to the language of AA, I’m very curious.
Before we get too far into this, I want to be exceedingly clear: this is not an article on whether or not AA is a cult (though many have labeled it as such), nor is this an article calling for the dismantling of this program or community. As somebody working professionally in the recovery space, I will always advocate for options, particularly options that are accessible. I also believe that peer-based community models can be tremendously valuable, when executed correctly. It’s worth noting that many folks have found success (as determined by them) through AA or similar 12-step programs, which is great, and I’m grateful that AA provided them with what they needed.
That said, AA carries a great deal of influence over how we engage with and treat addiction; as such, it seems appropriate (and frankly, like due diligence) to ask questions about the program itself, the foundational language and beliefs on which the program rests, and the ways in which this recovery model has shaped and continues to shape how we think about addiction and recovery.
After attending a few AA meetings and researching the program in the early days of my sobriety, I arrived at the fact that it was not for me. For several reasons. And language was a big part of it. For those who aren’t familiar, you can check out AA’s 12 steps here.
Many aspects of the 12 steps felt problematic to me.
As a woman who has received countless messages and reminders throughout my life of my powerlessness, declaring that I was powerless in the context of my addiction felt like the exact opposite direction I wanted to be moving in. In addition to having to admit my powerlessness, I also had to invite God into my life, acknowledge that my addiction had made me insane, and berate myself as a slovenly, immoral character with a plethora of defects. Feels good, right?
AA felt wrong for me. And when I say wrong, I mean dogmatic, disempowering, and oozing with shame-based, morally laden language. I felt disempowered and full of shame in my addiction, and I didn’t want to feel this way in my sobriety as well. While I was clear that I very much had a problem with alcohol, I didn’t want to label myself an alcoholic, embrace powerlessness, and turn my will over to someone else, all of which are tenets of the program.
The steps are a part of every meeting, as is the AA lexicon.
If you’ve ever heard any of the following, you’ve heard the language of AA:
>> dry drunk
>> the disease of alcoholism
>> moral inventory
>> character defects
>> one day at a time
>> rock bottom
>> it works if you work it
Many of these terms and concepts either originated within AA or became well-known because of it. For anyone who wants to speak at a meeting, the customary introduction is: “Hi, I’m so-and-so, and I’m an alcoholic.”
Having its own unique lexicon isn’t by accident; from Cultish: “Creating special language to influence people’s behavior and beliefs is so effective in part simply because speech is the first thing we’re willing to change about ourselves…and also the last thing we let go. Unlike shaving your head, relocating to a commune, or even changing your clothes, adopting new terminology is instant and (seemingly) commitment-free.”
For many, identifying as an alcoholic might not seem like a big deal, but I would argue that it’s not as harmless as it appears.
Alcoholism and alcoholic are the words most commonly used to communicate a belief in the (very popular) theory of the brain disease model of addiction. This model of addiction tells us that alcoholism is an incurable disease, relapse is a given, and those afflicted must be hypervigilant in their recovery in perpetuity. Essentially, there’s no escape, and this is a dark storm cloud we’ll forever exist under.
How does repeatedly labeling ourselves alcoholics (and all that comes with that) impact us? And what impact does this have over time and when it’s been months or years since our last drink? How are we impacted by investing in this theory of addiction and continually invoking it in our lives, long after action addiction is over?
While I can’t say for sure (as everyone’s experience is wildly different, and I also want to acknowledge that for some, the label of alcoholic is helpful), what I can point to is a study that looked at predictors of relapse.
This study tells us that alongside not having adequate coping skills, the belief in the disease model of alcoholism is a leading predictor of relapse. In other words, in the belief in alcoholism and the disease model of addiction increases the likelihood of relapse. Embracing the “disease of addiction” and all that entails becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy. We believe we will relapse, and so, we relapse because we have repeatedly been told it’s part of the process.
Again from Cultish, Montell writes: “A linguistic concept called the theory of performativity says that language does not simply describe or reflect who we are; it creates who we are [emphasis added]. That’s because speech itself has the capacity to consummate actions, thus exhibiting a level of intrinsic power. When repeated over and over again, speech has meaningful, consequential power to construct and constrain our reality.”
Repeatedly labeling ourselves as alcoholics not only shapes our reality and understanding of ourselves but, with time, also embeds into our identity and creates not only our reality but a bond with the group, in this case, AA.
This is the power of language and the power of beliefs.
This is why it’s imperative to not only choose our words and beliefs wisely but to also get curious and critical about recovery programs that prompt us to unquestioningly take up and reiterate certain language and beliefs. In this case, choosing to invest in the belief that addiction is a disease leads to a greater likelihood of relapse, which is the exact opposite of what most of us are trying to achieve in our sobriety and recovery. Importantly, we do get to choose and we can choose different language and beliefs here.
I couldn’t help but notice that many of the linguistic mechanisms Montell spoke of in Cultish have been employed (arguably, to great success) by AA, and whether intended or not, these linguistic approaches are often manipulative, shame-based, coercive, and in some cases, blatantly dishonest.
Through her research and linguistic prowess, Montell identifies many of the most powerful linguistic techniques that are typically used, including things like “us versus them” mentality/labels, thought-terminating clichés, and loaded language.
Here’s how these linguistic mechanisms function in AA:
Us vs. Them Mentality/Labels
In AA, you’ll often hear about “normies,” which is shorthand for the group of people who can (allegedly) drink “normally.” “Normies” are clearly and explicitly made out to be the polar opposite of “alcoholics,” who, according to AA, cannot under any circumstances drink normally or at all for that matter. Normies are often spoken about in envious terms, as though being able to consume jet fuel (aka ethanol, aka alcohol) is something to be desired or a privilege that alcoholics have lost.
A divide exists between normies and alcoholics, creating the “us versus them” mentality which further solidifies membership and a sense of community in AA. This problematic dichotomy also serves to further fuel the idea that the “alcoholic” is the problem rather than clearly naming and identifying alcohol as the dangerous, addictive, and neurotoxic substance that it is.
This dichotomy does nothing to disrupt normative alcohol culture, serves to blame those who struggle with addiction, and further stigmatizes addiction while idolizing drinking culture. When push comes to shove, the safest amount of alcohol for humans to consume is none and continuing to reinforce the normies versus alcoholics dichotomy greatly dilutes that fact.
Thought-terminating clichés are words and phrases used intentionally to discourage critical thought and meaningful discussion about a given topic. They are usually short, generic “truisms” that seem to offer a simple answer to complex issues and are typically highly reductive and definitive-sounding. They also serve to derail or shut down the conversation and stifle exploration of different avenues of thought on the topic.
In AA, thought-terminating clichés are often used to reinforce the efficacy of the program (if you are interested in reading more on this topic, I would highly suggest you check out the book The Sober Truth by Lance Dodes, M.D.) and silence anyone who wishes to question the program, its methods, or how it works.
One of the most popular thought-terminating clichés mobilized by AA members is: “It works if you work it.” While on the surface this adage makes sense, what it’s also subtly suggesting is that the program is effective, and if it’s not effective for the individual in question, the problem lies with the individual, not the program.
This extremely popular thought-terminating cliché leaves exactly zero room to ask questions about how effective the program is (if at all) and squarely places the blame on the individual if they are not finding success.
Noticing when thought-terminating clichés are being tossed into the conversation (either intentionally or not) is a skill that we can all develop. Once noticed, you can name them and move beyond truisms and clichés by asking clarifying questions and asking for further explanation. If the person you are speaking with is unwilling or unable to answer your questions (or simply won’t entertain questions), please let this serve as a red flag.
When it comes to our sobriety and recovery, in whatever program we choose, there should be space for questions and dialogue, always.
Loaded language are words, phrases, and statements that are intentionally used in an effort to prompt a strong emotional response or reaction from someone. Loaded language is used all the time in speeches, in marketing, and in everyday conversation when we are trying to appeal to someone’s emotions. Loaded language isn’t always bad or used for negative purposes; it becomes problematic when it’s manipulative, coercive, and dishonest.
AA uses a plethora of loaded language from calling ourselves powerless to regularly taking a moral inventory of ourselves to naming our shortcomings and character defects and agreeing that our addictions made us insane.
This language is not only strong but steeped in shame and morality. What’s more, at our core, humans want and need love, connection, and belonging with others, and in order to access those in the context of AA, you must subscribe to the program, without question. You must also continue to subscribe to the program without question lest you lose your community (aka love, connection, and belonging) and likely be told you’re headed for relapse in the absence of AA.
Recovery can be a really intense and lonely time, especially in the early days, so the threat of losing whatever community was found in AA is real and often enough to make one subscribe to the program, even if it doesn’t always feel right.
A year into my sobriety, I was told by a friendly AA gal that I wasn’t “really” sober or in recovery because I wasn’t in AA or working the steps, and that I was bound to relapse as a result.
The loaded language of AA not only tries to keep folks indoctrinated but also strongly suggests that AA is the only option that works, which couldn’t be further from the truth. Again, if AA has worked for you, that’s wonderful, and I’m truly happy about that. And for those who haven’t quite clicked with AA, please know that’s okay and there are other avenues to explore.
I’m grateful to Cultish and Montell as this book provided me with a framework for naming what I had been thinking about and experiencing with AA for years. I was actually drawn to Montell’s book for this reason. In my own experiences with AA and after spending many years in the recovery space, AA’s lexicon struck me as strange.
Curiously, or perhaps perfectly, Montell reveals that part of her inspiration for the book was reconnecting with an old friend after many years and being struck by the language her friend was all of a sudden using only to learn that her friend had been attending AA meetings for the last several months.
The intention behind this article is an invitation to everyone who engages, to any degree, with AA, to notice, get curious, and ask questions not only about the language being used and thrust upon members but also about the impact of that language.
Thinking critically and practically about the language that we use to describe ourselves is important and that is the point of this article. If AA and its lexicon feel good and empowering, that’s great. And if they don’t, know that you don’t have to participate and there are other options.
I don’t share my analysis and thoughts in an effort to convince anyone to shift their perspective. I’m not here to tell folks not to try AA or to convince people not to drink; I am here to speak the truth and offer a different perspective with the goal being to support folks in making informed decisions that are aligned with their best interests.
As the most prolific recovery program out there, the model on which rehabilitation programs are based, and the option that rolls off people’s tongues the quickest, don’t we owe it to ourselves and those interested in recovery to get curious and ask questions about the program and its methods?