Editor’s Note: Welcome to part five of our series, Questions & Answers. This series will attempt to cover topics and/or questions which have been raised by readers. Feel free to submit your own questions, and we’ll see what we can do about addressing them.
Is the common adage “Once an addict, always an addict” an absolute?
Let’s begin with some definitions. It’s not fair to assess the validity of a statement without first breaking it down to ensure that we understand its parts.
To be absolute is to be universally valid. In other words, something absolute would hold true as the ultimate reality. So the question at hand is whether or not this phrase (principle) is true for all people and in all circumstances.
Likewise, to label the turn of phrase an adage means that a certain amount of veracity is already being ascribed to it as a short statement expressing a general truth.
But I think the heart of the matter rests not in how the phrase itself is described but rather how it is defined, and I’m afraid there may be no simple agreement as to the exact meaning of the phrase – intended or otherwise.
To some, the phrase is a pessimistic doormat over which every addict will continuously stumble for the remainder of his/her life. For those who read it this way (some might say misinterpret), there’s an underlying message that the addict – or the addict in your life – will never get better. These readers are convinced the phrase means that the addict will always be addicted – to something.
Along the same lines of thinking is the perception that the addict will always be just as susceptible to relapse as they were upon first beginning the recovery journey.
Another issue some people are going to take with this turn of phrase is that it comes with a label. It makes the addict wear the proverbial mark of Cain. “Hi. My name is Joe, and I’m an addict.” A lot of people get caught up in the negative connotations associated with such language. That’s why some of us in the rooms have morphed our language. We say that we’re ‘recovering addicts’ or ‘grateful recovering addicts’ or (in some ultra-progressive, perhaps detrimental, that’s a conversation for another day but we’re kind of already having it) ‘recovered addicts’. But you will notice that even those who describe themselves as “recovered” still ascribe to the ‘addict’ label as well.
Of course, you will find people who “used to be addicts,” and I can’t definitively say whether or not they’re at greater risk for relapse. That really depends on how much work they’ve done and whether they’re in denial or consciously aware of their past.
That’s where this phrase comes into play: “Once an addict, always an addict.”
To be fair, I don’t think the phrase is intended to discourage people in recovery. I’m biased. I own that.
The other side of this coin is less about whether one’s identity is found or wrapped up in the term addict and more about existing as a gentle reminder of how things used to be. We’re supposed to learn from our past, not live in it, but it’s impossible to learn form something if you ignore it.
Recovery is about developing tools and relationships that help us deal with the things in life which baffle us. When stress and turmoil strike, we should be able to lean on those tools and people and higher powers to overcome life’s challenges instead of falling back on the detrimental coping mechanisms we used to rely on. Through our recovery journey, we should be addressing the psychological, spiritual, emotional, and physical wounds which underlie our desire to act out.
What recovery does not and cannot guarantee is that we will always use and rely on the tools and relationships that were forged throughout the process. There’s a reason that we work diligently to “live one day at a time; enjoying one moment at a time.” Stepping actively into today pushes us to strive for living in the moment rather than stressing over the past or the future, but it also reminds us that most of us cannot and should not drink again or take another hit or make another bet, etc., etc., etc.
Some people may never have the desire to act out again. Some people may have been delivered from their addictions, and that’s Awesome. It’s just not normative. But even those people who haven’t had or desired a fix in over thirty years know that just one could be more than enough to push them over the edge. Too many times have I seen someone with long-term sobriety or someone who was convinced they were cured go back to acting out. The lucky ones end up in jail; the rest end up in the ground.
One final thing I’d like to say about that phrase and the label that comes with it is that it’s rare for those who are struggling to find a great deal of help or solace from somebody who hasn’t been there. I’m not saying we need to wear the title like a badge of honor or forfeit our anonymity, but the 12th Step calls us to spread the good news to those who still suffer.
And if there’s one thing I know, it’s that being a missionary or evangelist requires stepping out of our comfort zones.
I’m an addict. It’s not a label that I wear. It’s simply a part of me. It does not define me. I accept that I am an addict, not that I was an addict. It is this acceptance that set me free. It is this acceptance that allows me to continue to deal with my junk. It is this acceptance that liberated me and provides me the opportunity to help others find their own freedom.
So, is “once an addict, always an addict” absolute? I guess that depends, but at least now you have a few more thoughts to help you think for yourself about it.
So to keep me from becoming proud, I was given a thorn in my flesh, a messenger from Satan to torment me and keep me from becoming proud. Three different times I begged the Lord to take it away. Each time he said, “My grace is all you need. My power works best in weakness.” So now I am glad to boast about my weaknesses, so that the power of Christ can work through me.
2 Corinthians 12:7b-9
– Alex Walker