Ask an Addict: Did The AP Really Need to Change the Guidelines for the Word “Addict”?

for Paste

Dear Katie,

I am a freelance journalist and recently saw the AP Guidelines changed for how to write about addiction. One of the changes they stress is not calling people addicts. Seeing as your column is called Ask an Addict (and the few sober people I know also refer to themselves as alcoholics or addicts), I’m wondering what your thoughts are on the AP changes.

Hi Journo,

I’m glad you are asking this question. The language around addiction, substance use and recovery is messy, ever changing and fraught with more controversy than one might expect.

Pre-Alcoholics Anonymous in the United States (and maybe elsewhere) an inability to control one’s drinking or drug use was seen as a moral failing—something some old fashioned willpower could overcome. If it couldn’t be overcome by sheer force of will, it was a moral, not medical, malady.

When Alcoholics Anonymous was established in 1939, the founders had the belief that addiction was a “mental, physical, and spiritual disease.” Although the “spiritual” component of AA now is the root of many critics’ rebuke of AA, at the time, the notion of addiction as a disease was fairly progressive. If you couldn’t stop drinking, you weren’t just a jackass; you were a person with a physical disease and a mental obsession who was also possibly a jackass. But at least your jackassery was part of the problem instead of the entirety of it.

Reducing the stigma of addiction was (and is) a slow process. The people who found themselves in AA in the early days were either people who were already stigmatized (i.e., known drunks) or so desperate they were willing to risk stigmatization if anyone found out (the anonymity component helped with this, but it was still a risk). Further, early members often “carried the message” to the alcoholics who were in hospitals or institutions—the people many in the recovery world call “low-bottom drunks.”

Many people find that their substance use isn’t accurately described by the word “addiction.” Someone who is drinking heavily for a certain period of time may indeed require treatment but doesn’t have the compulsion that’s characteristic of addiction. In short, the lines of addiction were never as black-and-white as people were led to believe. As we increasingly understand the nuances of humans’ relationships to substances, the language we use to describe those relationships must evolve as well…(continued)

Every other week I answer a reader-submitted question about recovery (information on how to submit below). I’m not an expert or mental health professional, just a sober person offering advice based on my experience and the research that’s available. This week, I’m talking about the updated Associated Press guidelines for writing about addiction and why I’m OK calling myself an addict. Email questions to with Ask Katie in the subject. By emailing, you are agreeing to let Paste publish your email. Emails may be edited for length.

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Katie MacBride is a freelance journalist, essayist, and co-founder/associate editor of Anxy magazine. Her work has appeared in Rolling Stone, The Daily Beast, Vice, Playboy, and Buzzfeed, among other publications. Follow her on Twitter: @msmacb

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