Making Sense of Addiction Recovery Language

Rewording ourselves

From early on, I have loved words. By second grade I was using them well enough that Miss Hickman, my teacher, singled out a story I wrote and read it to the whole class. The assignment had been to take three words, which the class chose and she wrote on the chalkboard, and use them all in a story. Two of the words were moon and bathroom (a little thrilling because it seemed bad); I don't remember the third one. But Miss Hickman read my story aloud, and it made everyone laugh. I was hooked. There was power there, even though I didn't yet have words to describe it.

As a word lover, part of my adventure in sobriety has been doing etymological detective work. I love unearthing the history and sometimes deeper meanings behind some of our commonly used terms in recovery from addiction. For instance, when I first encountered the word "humbly" in Step 7 (as in, "Humbly asked [God] to remove our shortcomings"), I was put off. I retained an old idea that to be humble meant that I had to debase myself or grovel before my Higher Power in order to receive the spiritual help I so desperately needed.

But freedom came during a spiritual retreat I was attending, when the priest pointed out the Latin root of humility: humus, meaning "earth." So to be humble could mean being earthy, or in touch with the earth—or in other words, grounded.

This makes total sense to me now, since a huge gift of recovery is being able to claim our own story and share it honestly with others. This requires being in touch with the ground from which we grew, and to know and acknowledge our roots. Bill W. phrased it a little differently in his Step 5 essay in Twelve Steps and Twelve Traditions, saying that to those who've made progress in AA, humility "amounts to a clear recognition of what and who we really are, followed by a sincere attempt to become what we could be" (p. 58). So when I seek God's help humbly, I am presenting my whole self as honestly as possible for the relief and healing I need, and which Step 7 provides.

"Addiction" is another such term. Jim N., a wonderful man I sponsored who happened to be a theologian and writer, put me on to Francis Seeburger's1 analysis:

The word addicted comes from Latin. It is made up of the prefix ad, which means "to," or, "toward," and the past participle of dicere, which means to say, "to pronounce." In Roman law, addiction was a technical term—the addict would be a person who, by some official act of court, has been formally spoken over (that is, surrendered or obligated) to a master.

Though the sense of a formal legal pronouncement drops out in common contemporary usage of the term addiction, the addict is still someone who has been delivered over to a master. Addicts are individuals who are no longer free for entering into new relationships, responsibilities, and encumbrances, since they have already been spoken for: they have already been claimed by the objects of their addictions.

From the ages of 18 to 27, I was definitely claimed and spoken for by alcohol. But I didn't see that; as we say, addiction is the one illness that convinces you that you don't have it. It was nearly 10 years before I had a spiritual awakening and began seeing things more clearly, and began allowing the Twelve Steps to "work" on me and put me back together. At the end of my drinking, I was increasingly, painfully, aware of feeling insane—with growing desperation I struggled to manage and control my life and the people closest to me. I got crazier with each failure. My life had somehow become a jigsaw jumble of pieces and I'd lost all the borders. I didn't know yet that addiction was a domineering force in my life—I had never connected my mental/spiritual distress and my drinking—but I was really scared that I'd become insane.

Thank God then for Step 2 and our Twelve Step ancestors who wisely recognized that sanity (and therefore insanity) was just possibly an issue for us. In my work in spiritual care at Hazelden in Plymouth, Minnesota, I facilitate many Step 2 and 3 groups. For both steps we use a worksheet with questions for clients to reflect on. The last question for Step 2 is, "Are you beginning to get in touch with sanity?" Frequently, in the early days of sobriety, it's not easy to imagine what sanity looks like. Insanity, yes, but sanity? Not so obvious.

My love of words seems to help when I point out that the Latin root of "sanity" is sanitas, meaning healthy, sound—as in "being of sound mind and body." I’ll usually elaborate on it, sharing that in my own experience, to be healthy and sound means having the various aspects of my self—physical, mental and spiritual—in as much balance as I can achieve.

To be sane is to be in healthy balance. So I'll rephrase the question: Where in your life now are you beginning to find better balance, more health? I began to regain some of my own balance when I could "reword" myself, saying for the first time, "My name is Doug, and I’m an alcoholic."

I've come to appreciate and love the "Big Book" and its original language. Yes, it has its certain "slants," but I can accept it as a text and testimony that came from the hearts of the "first one-hundred" men and women. Their wisdom speaks across the decades.

And if a little rewording makes it clearer, more accessible, and enriches recovery, more power to us!


Doug Federhart, Spiritual Care Counselor, Hazelden Betty Ford Foundation at Plymouth, MinnesotaDoug Federhart is part of the spiritual care staff at Hazelden in Plymouth, Minnesota. An ordained minister in the United Church of Christ and a trained spiritual director, Doug brings to this work over thirty-nine years of recovery experience. He lives in South Minneapolis, with his husband and long-time partner Stuart Holland. On February 24-26, 2017 he will be leading a retreat, "LGBTQ in Recovery: Celebrating Our Whole Selves" at the Dan Anderson Renewal Center.

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