By: Katie Kloss
September is SAMHSA’s National Recovery Month, which serves to educate the public about how mental health and substance use treatment services can enable individuals with mental health and substance use disorders to live full, healthy, and rewarding lives in recovery.
For people seeking mental health and substance use treatment services, it can often feel as if labels are assigned without consent. While this process is essential for specific purposes, such as treatment plans and insurance billing, it can also lead to increased stigma. This stigma can be experienced in the way others react to a diagnosis, or it can manifest as internalized stigma as well. In some cases, labels that an individual did not choose can even become core parts of their identity, which can, in turn, have life-limiting consequences.
Substance use recovery offers a unique opportunity in that many treatment programs and support groups encourage attendees to label themselves in various ways. It is important to remember that these labels mean different things to different people, and it can take time to find a label that you feel comfortable using for yourself. Here we will focus on some of the nuances of two specific labels: in recovery and recovered.
Using the label “in recovery” can serve as a reminder that this is a lifelong process with more work to be done. It can also provide a sense of community and fellowship, which is fundamental to creating a strong support network. However, some believe this label, which is most closely associated with the medical model of addiction as a brain disease, can be disempowering in that it perpetuates the negative mentality of “once an addict, always an addict.” Others also claim that it provides a simple justification for future relapses.
On the other hand, many who use the term “recovered” say they do so because they no longer feel controlled by their drug of choice and no longer wish to be defined by it. While this can be empowering and allow the individual to focus on new challenges unrelated to substances, there are some risks, such as the potential for overconfidence and/or lack of perceived need for adequate support.
Ultimately, there are no right or wrong labels, just what feels right or wrong for each individual. You may choose to identify with different labels at different points in your recovery journey, and that is absolutely valid as well. That doesn’t mean your previous label was necessarily “wrong,” but maybe just that you’re at a different place than you were before. Recovery, much like human beings, is dynamic, and it makes sense that the words we use reflect that.
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