OPINION: Stop referring to sober addicts as “clean”

Growing up alongside an addict I had heard the phrase “clean and sober” thrown about by many people (interestingly, not my family). When I became an addict myself, I quickly learned of the stigma surrounding drug and alcohol addiction, even at a time when I did not recognise addiction in myself.

Skip forward to October 2015, I was sitting in an inpatient detox ward, having nightly visits from members of the twelve-step programs in my local area. It was at this time that I first started hearing the term “clean and sober” directed towards myself. I immediately felt uncomfortable.

The language we use to describe the various states of addiction is important. When we refer to sober addicts as clean, we are sending a clear message; if you have not yet attained the gift of sobriety, you are unclean.

This is SO harmful. Imagine struggling with the monster of addiction every day of your life, while the world tells you that you are not “clean”. The stigma surrounding addiction is so vicious already, we must not encourage addicts to internalise that stigma. This is a small part of the reason why I walked away from the twelve-step program. I couldn’t stand to hear addicts referred to as “clean”.

While we continue to use this word, we are effectively gatekeeping sobriety from various addicts. They hear “you are unclean, you are not worthy of sobriety”. We compound their suffering.

As an autistic addict, this is adding more stigma to a world that already mistreats me. I already face stigma for being a neurological outlier, I also personally face stigma for being a voice hearer and a person who experiences psychosis. Why should I also be told that I was unclean? I wasn’t unclean when I was using, I was suffering.

The time has come for the empire of “clean and sober” to hang up it’s hat, and give way to a world that simply says “this person is sober”.

Addicts need compassion, not stigma.

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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