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Negative Labels, There’s a Better Way


Published with permission from David H. Kerr

I have learned much from people who have asked for my help with their addiction.

Decades ago we were working against a commonly held belief, “once an addict, always an addict.” Beginning my work with addicted Parolee’s in the mid-60’s and founding Integrity House in October 1968, I have met and known over 10,000 people with extensive addiction problems and often, concurrent criminal problems. Yet, I have never ceased to be amazed at their abilities, especially in offering help to themselves and to others. At the same time it became clear to me that they had to learn via experience how to take their own advice.

The gravity of addiction becomes a deeply ingrained lifestyle that often appears to be immune to traditional counseling models. What’s more, only those suffering can lead themselves to recovery. They don’t need sermons and they don’t need “counseling.” They need to know that “whatever they need” must come from themselves along with strong spiritual guidance and years of coaching. They must inspire their own recovery and we the helpers must stick to our role as coaches. With the little self-respect that they have left, the last thing they need is to be told that they are socially maladjusted or bi-polar or some other label.

Are the “professional sounding” names we call them really necessary? Do they do more harm than good? How about starting with some real down-home encouragement, support, love and some confrontation when their statements make no sense or are manipulative. That is the recipe for their help. We cannot attain recovery for them; that’s their job and each person must choose his or her own path towards that goal. Counseling them often prolongs their taking responsibility for their life and their recovery! However, we can support and coach them on their journey. It’s a positive way to work with people who are likely to have low or no self-esteem. Throw away the harmful labels and try it. It’s worked for me for over 50 years. Integrity was built on the strengths of people with addiction, not their weaknesses.

Being an addict doesn’t mean that a person has no strengths! When we first meet them, our job should have one focus: “Tell me three of your strengths?” If nothing else, this will start them thinking right. As their new coach, you may have to prod them to look for these positive attributes but after some digging, and some personal history, they’ll come up with the positives and they’ll be on the right path to improved self-esteem and lasting recovery.

Please avoid the negative and demeaning labels.

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