Can Words Create Stigma? Part 1

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Natalie, like the other 29 million people (about the population of Texas) in the US (NIH, Alcohol Use Disorder In The US), found herself turning to alcohol more often than she cared to, and her drinking was starting to cause problems in her life. It just seemed like one day drinking was fun with a “life of the party” mentality, then another moment had shifted to something darker. What started as innocent experimentation when she was younger had lately turned into a problem with alcohol. For example, she found herself turning to alcohol almost daily, especially to cope with stress and depression. If she were to be completely honest, Natalie felt trapped by alcohol: not wanting to drink anymore yet not sure how to stop drinking. 

At one point Natalie mustered up the courage to attend some Alcoholics Anonymous meetings, hoping to find support. The problem was that AA didn’t click for her. She found herself overwhelmed by the words “alcoholic”, “alcoholism”, “sober”, and “recovery”. It’s not that she disagreed with these concepts, but she felt a sense of shame when she identified with them. And she did not want to use those words to describe herself to her family and friends. This was a problem because this kept Natalie from attending more meetings. That meant she was still feeling trapped because she didn’t know where to get the help she needed. 

Natalie’s story is a true story. She knew she needed help, but just could not handle the stigma and shame associated with the words (alcoholic, alcoholism, sober, sobriety, or recovery) that were constantly being represented in those meetings by people. As a Christian, she found her identity through Jesus Christ, so taking on any other label felt uncomfortable.  She was a child of God made in His image. She was a sinner and also realized all were sinners and fell short of the Glory of God (Romans 3:23). She also didn’t want to buy into the idea that she would never be free from something. For example, she smoked not one, not two, but almost THREE packs of cigarettes a day. By God’s grace, she was able to move on from smoking. When she thinks back to those days, she usually tells people: “I used to be a heavy smoker!” or “I quit smoking years ago.” However, she would never say “I am in nicotine recovery” or “I am recovering from smoking.” She quit smoking. Period. Then she moved on to other goals in her life. The perception that one is continually trapped contradicts with what we are told through scripture. “It is for freedom that Christ has set us free. Stand firm, then, and do not let yourselves be burdened again by a yoke of slavery” (Galatians 5:1, NIV). Addiction is psychological slavery, and we are told that we have been set free in Him so that we will not let ourselves be burdened any more by it. 

The gift of forgiveness represents freedom as well. When God tells us, “For I will forgive their wickedness and will remember their sins no more” (Hebrews 8:12, NIV), we can feel empowered because He has wiped the slate clean. We can be reassured by these words, understanding that He does not want us to live in the shame and identity of our former, sinful nature anymore. Now, this does not mean we should run off and drink again now that we have had many wonderful years of living free from the yoke of psychological slavery. But we are choosing freedom in Christ so that we can continue to unfold the plans God has for each and every one of us. We cannot fully serve God and feel connected to Him and also be a slave to the sin of an addictive substance. 

Proverbs 20:1 (NIV) tells us that “Wine is a mocker, strong drink is raging: and whosoever is deceived thereby is not wise“. If you are reading this blog, you have certainly found this to be the case. God’s loving wisdom shines through and reminds us to stay on course. Following Him means that we don’t have to spend our lives in worry or fear because God tells us to “fear not” 365 times in the Bible: “Be strong and courageous. Do not be afraid or terrified because of them, for the Lord your God goes with you; he will never leave you nor forsake you” Deuteronomy 31:6 (NIV). This is a comforting thought. We don’t have to feel week because God strengthens us: “But the Lord is faithful, and he will strengthen you and protect you from the evil one” 2 Thessalonians 3:3, (NIV).  

Unfortunately, many do not find their way to freedom because of the current languaging that exists today which keeps people from getting the help they need. Many will suffer in secrecy for up to a decade to avoid the condemnation that comes from many, including many health professionals, when words such as alcoholic, sober and recovery are used.  

Natalie ultimately found her freedom through a coaching program that taught her the science behind her neurological habit and explained to her the things she needed to do to renew her mind (Romans 12:2).   She learned how to embrace new languaging to represent her experience. That was when “freedom from psychological slavery” was experienced. Instead of seeing herself as an “alcoholic,” she saw herself as misguided and deceived, and got herself back on track. She doesn’t have to keep looking back at that old path for the rest of her life… she can look forward through the Grace of God.  


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