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An Inclusive Guide and Glossary for Talking About Addiction and Recovery

Photo credit: Priscilla du Preez via Unsplash

Over the years, the recovery space has morphed and changed in myriad ways. In our research of the last 200 years of women and nonbinary folks’ contributions to alcohol recovery, we found that in the 1700s, Indigenous peoples were the first on record—to our knowledge—to support abstinence-based living. They recognized the need for community support, and thus created what’s been coined as “recovery mutual aid societies” in which people who experience addiction could come together to support one another in recovery. 

Since then, research and support for people who have alcohol use disorder moved forward, slid backward, inched closer to inclusivity, and continues to change. In 2014, Tempest founder Holly Whitaker became part of the ever-evolving recovery landscape when she started blogging about her sober experience through Hip Sobriety and in 2019 founded Tempest. 

The goal of Tempest is to provide and foster an inclusive, empathetic, and personalized space in which those who are sober curious, and moderating can find support and those who are seeking sobriety can achieve it—on their terms. We know that we’ve only scratched the surface of what’s possible for those who seek recovery from alcohol use, and we fully intend to keep growing and changing as needed. 

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In order to create a welcoming space, we have to understand the power of language. Talking about addiction and recovery is important, but it’s more important that we talk about it in a way that aligns with harm reduction. Our words matter, and how we talk about addiction and recovery matters. How we talk about questioning one’s relationship with alcohol matters just as much and is oftentimes missing from the conversation altogether. 

With that in mind, we’ve created a guide that we hope reflects the addiction and recovery space that’s currently taking shape—one that accepts and honors each person’s personal journey, takes into account a holistic approach, and celebrates the value of how unique experiences enhance the collective. We consider this a living document—one that will evolve and change over time as the needs of the recovery community change. We will keep it current through necessary updates. 

On Who Recovery is For

In short, recovery is for anyone who wants to take a look at their relationship with alcohol. This means that within our space, and hopefully within all spaces in the future, people at all stages of recovery—from those who are still drinking to those with long-term sobriety—will find comfort and belonging.

We also believe that those who are sober curious and interested in moderation also deserve a space of belonging, connection, and support. 

On Describing Addiction and Recovery

We’re fans of science at Tempest, so you’ll see terms like alcohol use disorder and substance use disorder, and you’ll also notice that terms regularly used in popular culture are missing. 

That’s because much stigma still surrounds terms like “alcoholic” and “addict,” and more nuanced terms also hold negative connotations. Here are the terms we use:

  • Alcohol Use Disorder (AUD) – this is the scientific term that describes the spectrum on which people experience alcohol dependency. 
  • Substance Use Disorder (SUD) – this is the scientific term that describes the spectrum on which people experience dependency on drugs.
  • Slip – Rather than “relapse” we call a return to alcohol after a period of sobriety a slip. “Relapse” implies that someone is starting from zero and all of their sober experience is erased.  A person doesn’t start from zero though, because when they slip, they gain important and necessary knowledge and experience to guide their sober journey. 
  • People-first language – At Tempest, we try to use language that puts a person before a diagnosis when talking about addiction and recovery. This means describing the condition a person “has” rather than asserting what a person “is”.

On Labels in the Recovery Space

Moderate and severe alcohol use disorder (AUD) is commonly referred to as alcoholism when talking about addiction and recovery, and people who have issues with AUD are often called alcoholics in popular culture. 

We are not against these words—some people use them and find them helpful. We are label-optional. We honor however a person wants to self-identify. Use labels if you find them empowering, but if you don’t, the only label you need is your name.

We choose not to use these terms for a few reasons:

  • You don’t need a label to tell you: 
    • that you don’t like how you act when you drink
    • that you’re terrified of how much you’re drinking
    • that you hate forgetting things you’ve said 
    • that you don’t like hangovers
    • that something just feels off

Letting the label “alcoholic” solely determine whether or not we examine our relationship with alcohol can keep us stuck. 

  • Everybody experiences AUD differently, and we all have the right to seek help regardless of where we fall on the AUD spectrum. 
  • Not everyone is interested in identifying as an alcoholic, as many of us don’t view addiction as an identity, but rather as an experience. 

On Recovery Versus Sobriety

You might see the terms recovery and sobriety used interchangeably, but the reality is that the two are different.

Recovery is about a person’s healing journey. Here are some examples:

  • Therapy and group support are a part of recovery. 
  • Being a parent in recovery comes with a unique set of challenges.
  • My recovery journey began when I woke up a year ago today.
  • My connection to queer community has been such a huge part of my recovery.

Sobriety is about a person’s physical/mental state. Some more examples:

  • I’m going to a party sober for the first time.
  • Staying sober through the holidays.
  • Will I still be creative after I get sober?
  • Early sobriety can be a period of intense emotions.

Recovery and sobriety work hand-in-hand and enhance each other, and in talking about addiction and recovery, it’s important to make this clear. We believe in a holistic approach to recovery, which means remaining alcohol-free and healing our mental and emotional selves are vital to living a full and truly free life. We also acknowledge that some people are examining their relationship with recovery and don’t necessarily identify with the concept of being “in recovery.” We’ve created a place inclusive of this perspective as well.

Glossary of Terms

Part of talking about addiction and recovery is knowing what terms are used and what they mean. We’ve created a glossary to help you start and navigate conversations on the topics. 

Alcohol Use and Addiction

Addiction – The compulsive use of substances or alcohol, despite consequences.

Alcohol Dependence – A physical, mental, and/or emotional dependence on alcohol that compels a person to drink even if they don’t want to, are experiencing consequences due to their drinking, or if alcohol is making their physical, mental, or emotional condition worse.

Alcohol Use Disorder – A pattern of problematic drinking that runs on a spectrum of mild, moderate, to severe levels of alcohol dependence.

Blackout – A blackout is alcohol-induced memory issues, called amnesia, whereby a person experiences mild to complete memory loss during part of, or all of, a drinking event. During a blackout, a person is still conscious and engaged in their surroundings, but their memories of that specific timeframe do not transfer properly and therefore get “lost.”

Hangover – An unpleasant combination of symptoms experienced usually the morning after a night of drinking alcohol. Hangovers are unique to the individual, but can include headache, nausea, shakiness, and dehydration. (Note that these are only a few examples of symptoms. For a more complete list, visit Mayo Clinic

Hangxiety – An intense feeling of anxiety that you may experience after drinking. This typically occurs the night of or morning after a night of drinking and can last a few days. 

Stigma – Negative and often harmful attitudes or assumptions about a person’s character due to a distinguishing characteristic that makes up a part of that person’s identity such as AUD, SUD, or mental health diagnoses. OR according to the Oxford Dictionary, “The shame or disgrace attached to something regarded as socially unacceptable.”

Substance Use Disorder – A pattern of problematic substance use that runs on a spectrum of mild, moderate, to severe levels of substance dependence.

Questioning, Moderation, Sobriety and Recovery

Alcohol- free– A person who chooses to abstain from alcohol but may or may not choose to use other drugs. This can also describe a beverage that does not contain alcohol, typically a “mocktail” or alcohol-free cocktail.

Alcohol Moderation – Intentionally limiting one’s alcohol consumption.

Craving – An urge to drink alcohol or use drugs. 

Harm Reduction – Grounded in equity and justice, harm reduction refers to ways of mitigating and healing drug use, laws, and policies in a way that minimizes negative outcomes associated with drug/alcohol use. These “ways” refer to programs, laws, policies, recovery methods, etc. 

Label-optional – The choice to use or not use a label to describe your experience or relationship with alcohol or sobriety. 

Recovery- A non-linear journey of healing. There are many paths to recovery and each person’s experience is unique to them, so there is no “right way”. A person enters recovery as soon as they decide to take a closer look at their relationship with alcohol or other drugs or behaviors. 

Sober – The act of physically abstaining from alcohol and drugs for a specific (or unspecific) timeframe, occasion, event, etc.

Sober Curious – Someone who is actively questioning the role that alcohol plays in their lives and/or in larger society. Someone who is sober curious is quite literally curious about and willing to investigate dominant drinking culture and whether or not it has a place in their lives. 

Trigger – An internal or external cue that causes a person to want to drink or use, also known as a craving. 

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Recovery is for everyone—drinking, moderating, sober curious, or abstaining—and we seek to create a space where all voices, methods, and experiences are welcome and embraced. We hope this guide helps you and look forward to it’s evolution as the recovery space continues to grow.

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