Should we stop using the words “alcoholic” and “alcoholism”?
Times change. While we all know what someone means when they say “alcoholic” the medical community has moved away from the term. Instead, the medical community is more likely to say “alcohol misuse disorder” or “alcohol dependency”, among a host of other terms. But what’s the reason behind this change?
Is “alcoholic” offensive?
One of the problems with the word “alcoholic” is that it conjures a very specific mental image. When people think of an alcoholic, they might think of a homeless man passed out on the street in the middle of the day. We used to get plenty of people who’d admit to having a drinking problem, but wouldn’t admit to being an “alcoholic” because their image of themselves didn’t align with the mental image others have.
We now know that all sorts of people develop all kinds of different alcohol-related problems. Some of these problems can be far more nuanced than what is captured by the term “alcoholism”.
Is “alcoholic” inaccurate?
Alcoholic is a word that’s used to describe a person. Alcohol misuse disorder, on the other hand, is something that a person has.
There’s a subtle difference in meaning there. When we talk about diseases, we usually talk about them as something that someone has. You catch a cold or you have a cough. This implies that though you might be sick at that particular moment, you won’t always be sick — in fact, you are likely to make a recovery at some point!
But “alcoholic” feels much more permanent. It implies that you’ll be an alcoholic your entire lifetime, that the condition defines you as a person and that any attempts of recovery are doomed to failure. It’s very important that someone attempting to quit alcohol believes that they have a chance of becoming sober and staying sober. For this reason, words like “alcoholic” have a permanence that can hinder positive outcomes.
Is the term “alcoholic” even useful?
Another problem with the word “alcoholism” is that it had a narrow, medical definition. Someone who drank X amount was an alcoholic, but someone who drank Y amount was not. This ignores what most people worry about, which isn’t the amount of alcohol that a person drinks, but rather the potential harm of alcohol.
To discover if someone has a problematic relationship with alcohol, we only need to ask one question: “has drinking ever caused you to have a problem with your health, your work or your relationships?”
If the answer is yes, then there is a problem. It’s no consolation to lose your job or your partner due to drinking, only to be told that you don’t fit the medical definition of being an alcoholic!
If you do have a problem with alcohol, it’s important to know that recovery is possible. Cognitive Behavioural Therapy (CBT) is a recognised method of overcoming an addiction to alcohol.
You don’t have to be an “alcoholic” to experience alcohol-related harms.
Millions of people who drink risky amounts of alcohol in the UK are not addicted to alcohol. The word “alcoholic” implies that drinking up to the point of being an alcoholic is fine, while anything over that point is dangerous.
The reality is very different. Drinking alcohol is always a risky activity — there is no “safe” amount of alcohol. The current medical guidelines draw a line between “low-risk drinking” (which is up to 14 units per week) and “higher risk drinking” (which is anything over that limit). However, it’s important to note that “low-risk” drinking is very different from “no-risk” drinking!
On the other hand, “alcoholic” is the word used by ordinary people
Now to address the elephant in the room — while we’ve looked at some of the reasons to stop using the term “alcoholic”, we have used it ourselves throughout this article. “Alcoholic” in itself is still a widely used and understood term. We have used it in this context so that our readers can relate to the concept, more so than they’d necessarily be able to if we were to use an alternative term, such as “alcohol dependence”.
Call 0800 170 1222 to talk to us about alcohol. Recovery is possible, and our staff and former clients are living proof.