Count Me Out of “Recovery Nation”—Negative Self-Identity Is the Cruelest Stigma of All

recovery nation
Jul 07 2016

Count Me Out of “Recovery Nation”—Negative Self-Identity Is the Cruelest Stigma of All

July 7th, 2016

I can’t bear when people label themselves “alcoholics,” “addicts” or “in recovery.” I view it as a way of denying that you are human. And to teach your child that…

Influence contributor Meghan Ralston wrote a marvelous piece entitled, “I’m Breaking Up With the Word ‘Addict’ and I Hope You’ll Do the Same.” (Meghan recently debated this topic on The Influence with Johann Hari.) In her 2014 article, she wrote:

Even in a chaotic stage of drug use, we are not “other.” We are women, we are someone’s daughter, we continue to laugh, we continue to like jazz and cheeseburgers and comfy pajamas. We cry, we get so lonely, we hate sitting in traffic. Addiction can be wretched, no question, but we do not ever stop being human beings, even during the times in our lives when we are dependent on drugs.

My only quibble comes where Meghan said:

For many people, myself included, the word “addict” is incredibly harmful and offensive. You do not have my permission to call me an addict. You can of course refer to yourself as an addict, if you wish. [Although the title of her piece does express her hope that they would cease doing so.]

I would vehemently encourage them not to. Nothing depresses me more than hearing a person label themselves an addict, to set themselves off from humanity by highlighting their most self-destructive trait—or, usually more accurately, their worst period of life.

All of these issues arose during a discussion I had last week as a guest on the Talk Recovery radio network. Their website described our segment this way (though they later changed the description to something more complimentary):

Dr. Stanton Peele was today’s thought provoking live guest on Talk Recovery.… our show is meant to be a platform where all pathways to recovery are welcomed to be discussed… But today, that almost didn’t happen. There was an “us and them” feel to the show… Why do people feel the word addict is stigmatizing?

The male host talked proudly of the recovery movement to which he belongs.

We are confronted everywhere by signs of this universal movement—in public policies, celebrities’ confessionals, treatment circles and, today, throughout our culture. Epitomizing this phenomenon is The Anonymous People, a 2013 documentary film congratulating “the over 23 million Americans living in long-term recovery from addiction to alcohol and other drugs.”

We now strive to recruit children as early as possible into this movement, through recovery high schools and recovery dorms. Teenagers and young adults ghettoizing themselves—it is hoped, apparently, their entire lives!

The male Talk Recovery host said he can’t imagine why people stigmatize “addicts.”

How ironic! Self-stigmatizing is, for me, the far worse harm. Who cares what others think—you’re always with yourself. A long line of literature, tracing back to the 1970s and 1980s, by Alan Marlatt (1), Nick Heather (2), and Jim Orford (3), shows that thinking of yourself as an alcoholic causes you to behave the way you think alcoholics behave.

As you can see, I’m not celebrating Recovery Nation, where people march in unison, their labels preceding them, in a process I call the “Invasion of the Recovery Body Snatchers.”

As Ilse Thompson and I write in Recover!: An Empowering Program to Help You Stop Thinking Like an Addict and Reclaim Your Life:

You are not your addiction; you are a valuable human being whose qualities endure and exceed your addiction. … It’s impossible to expect a person to achieve wellness by focusing on his or her faults and mistakes. Perhaps this is why conventional recovery asserts that people must remain “in recovery” forever and continue to identify themselves as addicts, no matter how long they are sober.

At the very outset of Talk Recovery program, when the man spoke of North America’s spreading Recovery movement (as represented by their network), I asked, “Do you believe that nearly all of us have periods and areas in our lives where we do poorly, harming ourselves?”  I pointed out that DSM-5 identifies gambling—but not drugs or alcohol—as addictive.

The two hosts conceded that this was true. So, I asked, “Do people really need to separate themselves out from everyone else because their area of life disruption involved a substance?”

This show was focused on my book, Addiction-Proof Your Child. One of the hosts was particularly set on describing how she warned her children of their likelihood of becoming addicted due to their family history. (For which, I have noted in The Influence, there is no significant genetic basis.)

I described on the show how I once had a residential treatment program, represented now by my online Life Process Program, in which I always discourage people from labeling themselves addicts. “I ask them to identify their life problems. Then I work with them to ferret out the sources of these problems, and to see how we can change and improve their lives accordingly.”

The people I have worked with have been adults with severe substance use disorders. And what about children?

Imagine a child with a learning difficulty looking at you and saying, “I am retarded,” or “I am stupid.” We would cry and hug them and tell them that wasn’t true!

Everywhere but in the addiction field, we work to make sure that people don’t identify themselves by their problems, illnesses, mental and emotional challenges. Would you as a therapist in a group session have a person introduce themselves: “I am a psychotic”?

Although I tend not to talk about my personal life in discussing addiction and mental health issues, I told my Talk Recovery hosts:

“Both my wife and I had brothers who committed suicide. Neither of us ever sat our three children down and told them, ‘You know suicide and depression run in our family, so you need constantly to guard against them.’” [Our children have grown into productive people, with stable intimate relationships; and yes, there was some substance use in the mix.]

I often appear in public forums with people with severe addiction histories. Of course, by the time I run into them on some podium or media program, they, too, are leading stable, productive lives.

And I always ask them, “How do your children deal with alcohol?”

On the show, I recounted debating the former head of treatment at Hazelden, who said his two children were moderate, take-it-or-leave-it drinkers.

I said, “That’s remarkable—you short-circuited your family heritage!” (The man’s father had drunk alcoholically and been abusive.) “How did you accomplish that?”

The Hazelden clinician answered, “I threatened to beat them if they drank like I did.”

What a cynical, humanity-defying answer!

I told the radio hosts, “I have an answer for him.”

“First he created an emotionally and financially stable home for his children.  Second, he loved and encouraged them, and provided them with all the opportunities at his disposal to allow them to fulfill themselves, telling them ‘You can be whoever you want to be.’ Finally, he didn’t burden them with an alcoholic destiny that would always be lurking in their lives and that they would have to struggle to avoid forever.”

By following this productive plan, despite its contradicting his born-to-be-alcoholic dogma, he instinctively made it unlikely that his children would repeat his own destiny.

I don’t think the female host liked this. She asked me what I thought of “tough love” for kids misbehaving while using drugs. I said:

“Tough love comes too late in the process. I emphasize in Addiction-Proof that you instill values in your children. One of the chief of these is responsibility, for themselves, to others, to the community. If they fail to develop that responsibility, then I think it’s fair to withdraw the invitation to participate with the family so long as they behave that way.”

What I was doing was reframing addiction in direct opposition to the disease theory. As the revised program description put my vision: “Addiction is not a consequence of taking drugs and drinking. Rather, it arises from the way in which these and other compelling activities fit into people’s lives and meanings.”

Towards the end, I asked the male host when he had gotten sober. Then I asked, “Did you smoke?” He answered that he had, but that in the rehab program he attended they weren’t allowed to smoke, and he quit then.

“We didn’t have nicotine patches or anything. I just quit.”

He had been encouraged to identify as an addict—but not as a “cigarette addict.” And so he simply quit the hardest substance addiction of all, on his own, precisely because the 12-step treatment program he attended didn’t address smoking.


1) Marlatt, G.A., Demming, B., & Reid, J.B. (1973). Loss of control drinking in alcoholics: An experimental analogue. Journal of Abnormal Psychology, 81, 233-241.

2) Heather, N., Winton, M., & Rollnick, S. (1982). An empirical test of “a cultural delusion of alcoholics.” Psychological Reports, 50, 379-382.

3) Orford, J., & Keddie, A. (1986). Abstinence or controlled drinking: A test of the dependence and persuasion hypothesis. British Journal of Addiction, 81, 495-504.


Stanton Peele is a columnist for The Influence. His latest book, with Ilse Thompson, is Recover!: An Empowering Program to Help You Stop Thinking Like an Addict and Reclaim Your Life.  He has been at the cutting-edge of addiction theory and practice since writing, with Archie Brodsky, Love and Addiction in 1975. He has since written numerous other books and developed the online Life Process Program. His website is Peele.net. Dr. Peele has won career achievement awards from the Rutgers Center of Alcohol Studies and the Drug Policy Alliance. He is currently working on an e-book: How to Use Drugs. You can follow him on Twitter: @speele5.

  • Lilly Rose

    I have high blood pressure, probably a lifelong disease. I do not announce myself as a “hypertensive” to anyone, nor are there meetings in which I would be forced to connect my disease to “character defects”.
    I have alcohol use disorder secondary to combat PTSD. I have no more or less defects than the next human being.
    Stop labeling! Medical science has moved forward yet is oddly held back by the diary of a madman written in the 1930s.

    • bj Antigua

      The AA program works just fine for the 1.2 MILLION members estimated. The problem is really that folks who do not belong just do not leave. AA is NOT DESIGNED for those that can quit on their OWN. If you can do it own your own, then please do that!! Alcoholism is a physical problem. Alcoholics are “allergic” to alcohol. Cant have even a tiny bit, if they do they can’t stop drinking. So the body of an alcoholic is different than normal people. Like diabetics are physically different.

      There are always those that say they HAD to do this or that in AA. Simply go somewhere else! If you go to a doctor and you do not get better, then go to a different doctor! AA requires folks to actually DO the WORK. Not go to meetings, or chat with a sponsor. That is not the Program. DOING the steps and the rest of the AA book is the program. Confused by the endless treatment centers that altered and diluted the program. Identifying as an alcoholic is not a punishment. It is only done willingly when the person sees that they belong. The folks that they are with are LIKE them! Those folks got better, then there is hope that if they do what the others did, they can get well too. Are doctors judged by all the patients that are non-compliant with the treatment plan? No. Look at those that actually followed all the directions. 1.2 million people say it works for them.
      There is something under all this, resentment I think. Like atheists screaming at believers. If you are an atheist, why should you care? SO why all the animosity aimed at a program that helps over a million people? Just walk away if it does not fit.

      • Lilly Rose

        Why the hell must you defend your program so vehemently? Why deny options for people who cannot experience a religious conversion?

        • bj Antigua

          I have not denied anyone anything. That is your own mind, your own ego putting words in my mouth. I am speaking from my own personal experience. I am clarifying the difference between what people think is the AA program, as spouted in meetings and by sponsors, not what it is as clearly outlined in the book, Alcoholics Anonymous. I actually stated that those that can simply quit using any other means should do that. AA is only designed for alcoholics, real alcoholics. Not heavy drinkers. And the first 10 recovered alcoholics that wrote the book, said that God could and would be found if he were sought. Half of the first 100 were atheist or agnostic. No one needs to believe when beginning the program. When people actually DO the steps as in the book, they meet their very own creator. And it is a not ritual conversion, no religion is preached in the book. And because I have been freed from the compulsion to dronk, and gave been given freedom from my character defects, about 85%, I want to and must share my experience so that a Real alcoholic might read this and actually do the real program as outlined in the book, Alcoholics Anonymous, and be happy joyous and free.

          • The NIAAA and CDC says about drinking limits:
            4-14 drinks per week for man,
            3-7 drinks per week for woman is moderate. No binge drinking.
            (Third quarter)
            More is heavy drinking.
            (Fourth quarter)
            AA’s relapse prevention Is absolutely nothing.
            (First quarter)

            About 25% of the US population are kind of light drinkers .
            (Second quarter)

            That is AA as I understand it .

          • bj Antigua

            Everyone is entitled to their opinion, whether it is based on fact or fallacy or fancy. Study up on statistics and then review. Only those that do not understand statistics and various types of research errors would fall for this one. AA is the very last stop for alcoholics. Every other solution is tried first. Doctors, prescription meds, therapy, yravel, switching types of booze, exercise, SMART. willpower. And still, without TV ads, Facebook multilevel marketing, etc, folks seek and find relief in AA. Those that do not follow the directions will not necessarily find the happy, joyous and free part. But they WANT to stay. Almost 2 MILLION people find comfort and an answer in AA. I am trying to understand why some folks just are crazy with trying to damage a program that only offers to serve God and other alcoholics. Envy? Jealousy? Sour Grapes? AA takes work. Lazy people will get nothing.

          • Lazy people have to wait 50 days for new research? Three studies on meds to be presented at ISBRA 2016.

          • Stephen-in-DC

            You’re correct on this Antigua, regarding ‘real alcoholics’ vs ‘heavy drinkers.’ A lot (LOT!) of people come into AA because they are really just heavy drinkers, who have a propensity to fuck up when drunk. And to this the people with bi-polar disorder. I can see their point, I’d rather label myself as an alcoholic and blame my problems on the ‘disease’ than say, “I’m a drunk fuckup.” These people can stay sober by being accountable to a sponsor and home group, and working the steps. However, they tend to be the more miserable ones, and their ‘higher powers’ tends to be their sponsors / home groups rather than a ‘God’. For them it’s more discipline than spirituality.

      • Stephen Caudill

        Antigua, you are right on target!!

    • Stephen-in-DC

      I only call myself an alcoholic when I’m sharing in an AA meeting. Outside of meetings, I just tell people I don’t drink when I’m offered alcohol. I still go to bars and clubs for karaoke or for after work hanging out, etc. I just tell people I don’t drink. As far as labeling myself, when I share in a meeting I can just say my name, or say my name and I have a desire to stop drinking. That’s the only requirement for membership, desire to stop drinking.

  • peter8888

    Stanton, I listed to the broadcast and you might as well be talking to a brick wall. One of the best reasons why one should not call oneself an addict is that by the admission of twelve-step programs themselves, addicts an alcoholics are immoral people. This is blatant throughout their entire literature base. Of course when recovery people label themselves as addicts and alcoholics, they don’t mean the kinds that are still using. They are so insular in their thinking, they assume the whole world knows that they are even “better” than “normies.” An analogy is Uncle Tom’s Cabin: the bad ones are out in the field. The good ones get to stay inside. And they wear this fact on their sleeves.

    • bj Antigua

      Actually, every human is a creation, and as such we are all less than perfect. We are all NOT-GOD. So we are all immoral and it is only the extent of the immorality that differentiates us. In AA, alcoholics do not have POWER to quit using alcohol. They get that POWER when they surrender to a POWER greater than themselves. They meet their own inner source of Power in the process. No one else’s Power, just their very own. Much like following a great general. Each soldier cant decide on his own battle plan. Trust in the Leadership and being willing to follow directions. Alcoholics have to be strong to admit defeat. And smart to follow a path that works for them. And it does work, and has saved many millions of lives over the years. That is very different from being stupid and helpless.

      • peter8888

        I am curious. Do they pay you to proselytize? In an inane sort of way, you just negated your own argument by admitting that people have the power within themselves to stop. So why go through all the hoop? But like any “religion,” many twelve steppers claim they have the “only way” to this Higher Power. Yawn.

        • bj Antigua

          So using derogatory comments is indicative of a weak position, as well as being disrespectful. AA would not, ever, want to “proselytize ” nor do they need to. AA does not recruit. Please pay attention. I will say it again, ALCOHOLICS do not have the power to quit using alcohol .They use a Power greater than themselves. That Power then acts on behalf of the alcoholic. That Power becomes the Director, the Emloyer, the Father. AA the program, specifically states that it does not have the only plan. No one person, or group of persons, represent AA . No one can speak on behalf of AA. ALCOHOLICS (and dozens and dozens of other 12 step programs) use it BECAUSE IT WORKS FOR THEM. AA’S do not take orders from other humans. AA s that follow the program listen to their Power within. NOT mindlessly obeying humans. The reason you do not understand is because it is about an EXPERIENCE. Not a class or course. This is like trying to explain an organ to someone that has never had the actual experience.

          • The great truth is the real reality – or in other words a spiritual way of life that must be followed on a daily basis. In the moderation management for ex-alcohix you need some external “higher power” like instructions, plan, and feedback. Especially a drinking diary. Gets kind of internalized over time, though.

          • peter8888

            In your first post: “They meet their own inner source of Power in the process. No one else’s Power, just their very own.” Now, in the second, you post: “Please pay attention. I will say it again, ALCOHOLICS do not have the power to quit using alcohol .They use a Power greater than themselves.”

            Moreover, Bill Wilson asked people in AA to call the group their higher power: “You can, if you wish, make A.A. itself your ‘higher power.” (Twelve steps and twelve traditions, p. 27). So how does this equate with, as you state: “AA’S do not take orders from other humans.” Since Wilson is clear that a higher power IS GOD, he is asking you to place AA in the same position.

            Mumbo Jumbo!

          • Keith

            Actually, the idea of social support (with or without God) is very powerful facilitator of change. See David Spiegel’s work on social support’s positive effects on women with breast cancer. Emotional connection is the basis of recovery and, to get all scientific, the emotional centers of the brain are where substances do their magic TOO well for some. Calling oneself an addict should have no more stigma than saying I’m a diabetic – shorthand for “this is what I need to change.” There are many pathways to change. Personally, I believe there is no one-size-fits-all method. But misunderstanding the intricacies of the 12 steps or CBT leads to a devolution of ideas. Personally, I like DBT – do what’s effective for yourself and look for truths in what you may at first vehemently reject. Be open but not gullible. And a little love, kindness and compassion go a long way in healing the pain of addiction.

          • peter8888

            I have no problem with social support and studies do show that it is a key factor in recovery for many people. In fact, I have written many articles on precisely this aspect of recovery. What I do have a problem with is that anytime I post a comment on recovery boards, the AA apologists crawl out of the woodwork. Rather than engage in any kind of meaningful debate, they simply regurgitate 12-step dogma or lines from Kurtz’s publications (i.e.. NOT-GOD). I really should not have engaged in the first place.

          • bj Antigua

            There is a problem when taking things out of context. There is a clear difference between allowing some that have trouble with the god concept to use the group as a temporary higher power, and anyone ordering a new man around. A new person, in the days before TX centers, could clearly see that the folks in the meeting were sober, and happy about not drinking. The group had something that the new guy did not. So while he was beginning, he could use the group for support. Until he worked all the steps and had the promised spiritual awakening and then had direct conscious contact with his very own God of his own understanding. This was an accommodation that he suggested for those that would otherwise fail, and die. It was written in 1950, eleven years after the book was wriiten. Bill was trying to open the program up to more dying hopeless alcoholics. And there is a difference between the words higher power and God. My employers is a power greater than me, my local police are more powerful than me. They are not my God. The job of the group is to point to God. Never ever to be God.

          • peter8888

            You say that “there is a difference between the words higher power and God.”

            Try telling that to Bill Wilson who is adamantly clear that a Higher Power and God is one and the same:

            “We found that as soon as we were able to lay aside prejudice and express even a willingness to believe in a Power greater than ourselves, we commenced to get results, even though it was impossible for any of us to fully define or comprehend that Power, which is God” (Alcoholics Anonymous, 2001, p. 46).

            There are many quotes in AA literature that are to the same effect. But I suspect you already know this. AA and its apologists consistently try to make AA a moving target. Once they are caught in contradictions or uncomfortable truths, they either practice blatant “deniaism” or simply moving the goal post further.

          • Stephen-in-DC

            Bill Wilson wasn’t infallible, and a lot of AA detractors focus on Wilson’s shortcomings rather than the other founders’ positive attributes. Wilson’s foibles don’t stop me from going to meetings and working the steps though… In fact his egotism and womanizing are to me examples of character defects I am happy to be rid of and to be wary of returning

          • bj Antigua

            Not organ. Orgasm.

        • Mikey ex

          Are you in AA? Have you ever even been to a meeting? Regardless, why would you talk trash about an organization that has clearly helped so many people turn their lives around?

        • Stephen-in-DC

          AA’s public relations policy is based on attraction rather than promotion. Probably why there are so few real alcoholics on this forum ‘proselytizing’

  • Wow – you didn’t blame “what today we call shame-based Christian theology” or prescribe mindfulness training. We’re making progress!

    • Stephen-in-DC

      I’m so tired of ‘mindfulness’

  • Gary Thompson

    I refer myself as an ‘addict’ to some the shock effect. Response “But you hold degrees?” He are some that have letters but insist on murdering you all. https://www.linkedin.com/pulse/college-pharmacists-june-7-2016-gary-thompson

  • Ken g

    Dr. Peele has been presenting provocative and very thoughtful commentary for me since I read his book on sex addiction in 1975-great work, I recommend it highly. At 55 his material and stances are still very interesting to me. However, with no diminution of brilliance I feel he has willed himself to be
    a contrarian because his seemingly antithetical renunciation of addiction is so controversial it gets attention. How do I tell a client who is eating fentanyl patches everyday that he is not an addict,just
    someone who loves fentanyl patches. Society can learn a lot from some of Dr.Peele.s constructs, but his status in the recovery field is more like Hamilton Burger than Perry Mason-both great communicators

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  • mw

    Excellent article Stanton. Indeed, when people start thinking of themselves as ‘addicts,’ or ‘in recovery,’ they create–in my view–prisons and islands. People in 12 step programs that I have known tell me they do so in order to “never forget.” Some also say the addict label reminds them that they are somehow different than other people, the so-called normies. My own view is that constant reinforcement of this kind, that preempts everything else, never allows people to grow into a new life, or new understand of who they are.

    • damndisqus

      I know an ‘addict’ who used to tell us that she preferred hanging out with “junkies” because “it’s just more honest.” So some people are even convinced that this label and the associated community is simply more real or truthful than the world of the ‘normals’. Even the normies who actually do drugs and drink, recreationally, are somehow still not as special as their honest addict community.

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  • Maurice Dutton

    Hello Stanton, great piece. I would just like to add that the authorities tend to run with words they can use to demonise or demote some one as less than the rest of us. Such words as Junkie have been turned around so as to vilify someone who is possibly homeless and maybe collects scrap metal to supplement their income. If the stats were made available for all those who have issues with substance including tobacco and medicine including anti depressants people would understand that the issue is far more reaching and complex than any one person may wish to try and understand. Thanks again.

  • Stanton Peele… ROCKS!

  • Stephen Caudill

    The higher power, is it god or our inner Chi? Tapping into our inner chi through meditation, maybe that’s why Step 11 is so important. They say in the meetings that the steps are in numerical order for a reason, but why wait to begin meditation (and prayer)? I tell sponsees right away that they are on all steps beginning with a 1. To re-iterate, why wait a few months to begin praying, or daily self-checking inventories, or helping others? Steps 2 thru 9 are in order for a reason.

    • Stephen-in-DC

      As for Steps 2 thru 9, I’ve seen many many people balk when Step 4 comes along. Steps 4 & 5 should be done within the first 30 days, but definitely within first 60 days. Meeting makers don’t make it, unless they work all 12 Steps. In fact, the focus on only attending meetings is a hindrance to recovery, which is a problem of most rehabs. It’s rarely heard in a rehab to “work the Steps.” Rehabs instead tend to inculcate into the patients such phrases as “90 meetings in 90 days.” Meeting makers don’t make it, even one of the AA pamphlets says that.

  • Stephen Caudill

    After 3 years sobriety, I haven’t really had a ‘spiritual experience’, I think Bill Wilson’s white-light vision was due to the belladonna treatments. But I have had a spiritual awakening, I am more God-conscious. As far as being a “friend of Bill”, I am definitely not. We all have our flaws, but for him to continue womanizing after getting sober, it looks like he simply switched addictions. Did Bill Wilson not consider adultery and womanizing a character defect? I admire Dr. Bob though. Critics of AA focus too much on Bill Wilson’s flaws when denigrating the AA program, but fortunately the first 100 recovered alcoholics had enough good sense to keep Wilson’s ego and defects from ruining the program. The main thing I credit Wilson for is he had the insight to realize that helping others is what helps alcoholics stay sober.

  • Stephen-in-DC

    ‘Real alcoholics’ vs ‘heavy drinkers.’ A lot (LOT!) of people come into AA because they are really just heavy drinkers, who have a propensity to fuck up when drunk. And many of these heavy drinking fuckups also have bi-polar disorder. But, I can see their point, I’d rather label myself as an alcoholic and blame my problems on the ‘disease’ than say, “I’m a drunk bipolar fuckup.” These people can stay sober by being accountable to a sponsor and home group, and working the steps. However, they tend to be the more miserable ones, and their ‘higher powers’ tends to be their sponsors / home groups rather than a ‘God’. For them, sobriety is based more on discipline than spirituality. Nevertheless, by stopping drinking, they generally stop fucking up. It gets very tricky when applying labels such as ‘heavy drinker’ vs. ‘alcoholic’ vs. ‘addict’…. As for the heavy drinking bipolar fuckups, I think better safe than sorry and so let them keep labeling themselves alcoholics and coming to meetings if this keeps them from drinking and fucking up. The only requirement for membership is the desire to stop drinking.

    • Stephen-in-DC

      ‘fucking up’ = DUI’s, crimes in general, homelessness, getting fired, unintended pregnancies…

    • Stephen-in-DC

      As for labels, go to an NA meeting and try to label yourself an ‘alcoholic’, or call yourself an ‘addict’ at an AA meeting. That will start some fireworks!