The worst of recovery jargon – No, you don’t just “pick up” a drug again.

We should choose our words carefully, because words are more than just words. Figures of speech come with innuendo that can subtly change the meaning of a sentence as a whole, such that words chosen poorly, whether they are chosen intentionally or not, tell us more than just the subject being discussed. Words conjure images in our minds. Words tell a story. Words come with emotion, or they can be used to detach from or dismiss emotions that should be felt or expressed. Words can lift us up or break us down. In a group setting such as NA or other 12 step meetings, familiar jargon repeated often enough can have an indoctrinating effect by reinforcing a narrative about addiction and recovery that’s easier to believe than harsh reality. A beautiful lie is always preferable to an unpleasant or inconvenient truth, so we are prone to believing what we want to believe.

That’s what I hate about NA; it’s a group setting where the woo is pushed on addicts when they are vulnerable. In a meeting, you only hear from others who have been conditioned to believe the same as you. Ideas about drugs and addiction are introduced to you initially by therapists, and reinforced by the group. You end up believing them even though they contradict what most people intuitively believe about addiction. You become convinced that you are experts, and people who aren’t addicts don’t understand. But in reality, what people believe intuitively in society is more likely to be true than what you as an addict in an isolated group of addicts would like to believe. In truth, that feeling of fellowship, just because you all fucked up the same way, doesn’t qualify you for anything other than the probability of fucking up again. Of course there is wisdom to be gained from individuals who have overcome addiction, but the mob mentality of 12 step programs contains mostly wishful thinking and mistaken beliefs. A belief that’s fundamentally wrong, no matter how sincerely it may be held or how popular it is, is still wrong.

In recovery, there are a number of common phrases used that I dislike. Most of them are annoying. Phrases like “in these rooms” or “work the steps” or “service” are examples of phrases that are annoying. Then there’s “practice powerlessness” and “let go and let God” that tell a narrative and help put recovering addicts into a mindset where they accept the woo of 12 step programs. But there’s one phrase that I dislike more than any other: “pick up”, as in “I was clean for 3 months, then I picked up again”.

The first time I heard this, I was in rehab in 2009, and we were watching a video about addiction and relapse. In every case, the addict mentioned how they had “picked up” again, and “used”. (Used is another one.)

But you don’t just pick up, as if drugs are everywhere and using again is an automatic exercise, as if returning to using drugs takes no time, thought, or effort. The phrase is a euphemism of course, one that sneaks the narrative into our minds that relapse is not a conscious process involving many choices, actions and planning.

Let’s examine exactly what I would need to do, if I were to choose to relapse today. Firstly, I need the opportunity. As it happens, my son is staying with his cousins for a few days, so I have a window of opportunity. But the choice to relapse would likely have been made weeks in advance. Then I’d need to find a dealer. Since I deleted all the dealer’s numbers I had, that would involve driving to an area where I know I can find drugs, and hanging around long enough for dealers to approach me. Assuming I found one with meth, I’d still need something to smoke it with. They don’t sell meth pipes here, unless you’re really lucky, since crack cocaine is the popular drug in Johannesburg. So on the way home, I’d need to buy a 12V light bulb and a plastic pen. My mother stays with me… So I’d have to wait until she’s busy watching TV or sleeping. Then, take a craft knife, a pair of side-cutters, a small screwdriver and scissors, carefully cut open the bulb and remove the filament, being careful to avoid breaking the globe. Then, after throwing away the cartridge containing the ink, remove the stopper from the back of the pen, and cut the end off because it tapers to a point that’s too thin, which is also difficult because plastic pens can easily be crushed by accident. (Probably best to have a couple of globes and pens; and this is even more difficult if you’ve already been using because meth makes you clumsy.) Only after doing all of that would I be able to smoke meth.

In summary, all of the above would involve weeks of careful planning, and might involve making arrangements to ensure that I could be alone to use on the day dedicated to using. On the day itself, I’d first need to wait for the working day to end, and have an excuse to come home late, then it might take an hour to find a dealer, and a few more hours before being able to smoke the meth. Getting the homemade meth pipe ready would also take a while, and all in all this would take a great deal of planning and effort. There would also be a lot of idle time, the weeks leading up to the chosen day, time while waiting for the dealer, the time driving to and from the dealer as well as wherever I purchased the 12V light bulb, the time waiting for the opportunity to make the meth pipe, then the act of throwing the meth into the pipe, taking out a cigarette lighter and smoking it. In all of that time, there’d be plenty of opportunity to think about what I was doing. Doing all of the above involves many decisions, many tasks, many choices, and many actions. There is absolutely no part of it that’s automatic. There would literally be thousands of opportunities during all of that where I’d have the chance to change my mind. Thousands.

I’m not exaggerating. You don’t just fucking pick up a drug. You choose to do so, but it is not a single choice. Rather it is a series of many choices. You plan and carry out that plan. You have thousands of opportunities to change your mind and not use the drug.

When you euphemize all of that with “pick up”, you do yourself and those who listen a major disservice. You proliferate the standard narrative that addiction is a disease… You can’t help it… You’re powerless, and your life is unmanageable. Poor you, the victim who automatically resumed using by simply picking up. And if you should clean up again, and describe your relapse as picking up, you fail to take responsibility for all those poor choices, planning and actions you took to resume using drugs. Well, sorry but if that’s your attitude, then I say, “Fuck you!”

Addiction is not a disease. But it isn’t only a single choice either. Every time you use, you make hundreds of little choices, and there are many opportunities to stop using drugs. “Pick up” is truly a deplorable euphemism.

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