The language of addiction through the lens of the autistic community

Anyone who has spent time withing the online autistic community will be aware that there are particular ways that we as autistics prefer to talk about autism. Identity-first language is vastly preferred by the majority, with many rejecting the phrase “person with autism” while opting for “autistic person”.

These well documented preferences have had a significant impact on how I talk about myself as an addict also. I have different ways of talking about addiction depending on what stage of recovery I am talking about.

I myself am almost four and a half years sober as of writing this, and consider myself to be fairly confident in my recovery. I have overcome the initial stages of stopping using, and learnt important techniques to keep myself from returning to using. While I am at this stage, I am aware that I am just a few bad decisions away from using again if I am not strict with myself. For this reason, I refer to myself as an ADDICT. Take note of the identity-first language. I am no longer “suffering from addiction” as many would say. Instead I acknowledge that addiction never goes away, but the core experience of active addiction can end.

When I refer to people prior to entering the sobriety stage of recovery, I usually say “experiencing addiction”. The person is still experiencing the negative effects of actively using. I tend to shy away from the word “suffering” because people who are in active addiction do not need the word “suffering” to remind them of where they are at. Addicts know they are suffering when using, and using the word does nothing for them, and perhaps further stigmatises the experience of addiction by turning it into a pity party.

Let me tell you something as an addict. I don’t need your pity. Empathy, yes. Pity, no.

Addict can also be used as an umbrella term to refer to anyone with a history of addiction. This is because, much like autism, addiction is a core part of our identities. Those of us who have experienced addiction know that it never goes away. It is something that we carry with us throughout the rest of our lives. Addiction is more than just using drink and drugs, it is a particular way of thinking and behaving that leads us to compulsively repeat actions that bring us good feelings or relief.

Addiction is so much more than the medical model. It is a series of adaptive changes that happen within a persons mind. It comes with a lot of negative behaviours, but also creates people who are a perfect fit for altruistic work. As an addict in recovery, I have been able to turn my compulsive behaviours into something that I call “radical kindness”. With radical kindness, you take the single minded drive to use, and exchange it with a focus on helping others. This has been key to my recovery.

Being autistic has taught me that the way we talk about ourselves, directly influences our perception of self, and the perceived energy that we put out into the world. When we focus only on suffering and negative behaviours, we paint a negative picture of ourselves in our mind. There is no need to other ourselves by using the pathologised terminology that the medical community and the media has used to discuss addiction for decades.

Being autistic and an addict has created a lot of challenges for me, but it helped me settle on one immutable goal that I will focus on for the rest of my life; help the world feel a little less broken. Addiction is a selfish state, always seeking personal relief at any cost. For that reason, we must focus on others in order to maintain recovery. Altruism is the gift that sobriety has given me, and I intend to make good use of it.

Published by David Gray-Hammond

David Gray-Hammond is an autistic mental health and addiction advocate living in the South East of England. He is in recovery from addiction and psychosis, as well as other complex mental health conditions. He was diagnosed as autistic seven months after achieving sobriety, and is resolved to share his experiences with the world in the hopes of being the person that he needed when he was younger.

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