On the screen—some of the ways we can use language to reconceive of what we’re doing in fighting addiction. With Michael Genovese, MD, JD, addictions psychiatrist, integrative healer, and CMO of Sierra Tucson.

I’ve been saying for years that language matters. I’ll line up some of these posts for you:

  • here, a post about my spiritual soul-brah Dr. David Servan-Schreiber, who wrote books teaching people how to look for the innate healing power (HP) inside themselves
  • here, about Christopher Hitchens’s death—”Poor Hitch,” who used language to deceive himself and others about his addiction-driven illnesses that killed him
  • here, after a NYC AlAnon meeting—the first time I wrote about sober sex (very cool ending!!)
  • here, about my discovery that most people in recovery do not have language to express the unspeakable sexual transgressions many of us endured in childhood. This also denies them access to language for the joy they experience, or imagine, in adulthood

There are many more. Go search “language” on Guinevere Gets Sober.


I’ve been writing about language’s bearing on addiction and recovery for five years. Now, thank goodness,  people (especially the youngsters, like Holly and Laura) are finally paying attention to language and its implications for recovery success. I went to amazing meetings in NYC last week in which a clinician said, “We don’t call urine testing ‘dirty’ or ‘clean,” we call it ‘positive’ or ‘negative’ for presence of opioids.” Sigh. About time.

I have never called myself “clean.”


Michael Botticelli, the new director for the federal Office of National Drug Control Policy, has said he is not an “addict” or “alcoholic” but “a person in long-term recovery.”


I can hear old-timers say, “Yet.” The “yets” are the things that haven’t yet happened. “He shouldn’t be up there saying he’s in recovery because what if he relapses?” Michael Botticelli could drive his beemer or whatever to suburban Virginia and ask a bartender to line up some shots, or he could cop some heroin, where east of DC it’s said to be 65 percent pure (if it’s not spiked with fentanyl). He could crash his car.

But the fact is that by articulating that he is “a person in long-term recovery,” or when I say in a meeting, he is living in the present moment, and he gives hope for other people.

In meetings I now say, “I am sober and awake today,” and that declares what I am—what I want to be, what I’m working toward. Hell, it gives myself hope.

“I’m Joe and I’m a miserable lying cheating powerless alcoholic”

That ritual was born of early rehab culture, I was told, when residents (mostly men) were told they had to submit to “ego-deflation” (or “ego-puncturing” as it’s sometimes called in The Literature).

This term—”ego-puncturing”—came up in a women’s meeting yesterday. We were passing around the 12-and-12 and reading Chapter 7 together. Chapter 7 is awesome in that it promises—PROMISES, a big word in traditional recovery—that we will be able to use not only the strengths we’ve started to gain but also all our stumbles and past fuck-ups (with which we identify much more strongly) to actually help people.

The fuck-ups, in particular, are our key to recovery. I mentioned in that meeting (or Saturday’s, I can’t remember) that I had been arrested and stuck in jail with a pocket full of fentanyl that the cops never found. This story is always helpful for newcomers because they look at me, all put-together with mascara and shit, and talking calmly about jail, and it proves we may have some things in common.

What seem like sexual fuck-ups in particular can help other people, and ourselves, if only we can find the language for them.


One 40-something guy named Tom told me he’d started having sex with a woman whose grass he cut when he was 16. It sounds like something out of a Stephen King novel, right? And it was basically statutory rape. Because 30-something women are not supposed to fool around with 16-year-old boys. He was sixteen, right?

When I would have sex with someone all I cared about was making sure they had pleasure, because I wasn’t sure I could get pleasure from it, because I was too scared.

BOOM: into language, the feeling most 16-year-olds (and 40-year-olds, and 50-year-olds) are afraid to say.

Then he started rolling his mower over to her house. Drinking some lemonade in the kitchen led to her taking him to her bedroom.

She showed me how to please a woman. She showed me ways to manipulate her body, mostly with my hands, and taught me about breathing exercises to take your partner through so you could mutually breathe together. At certain points she would take my hand and place it on her solar plexus and she would reach out and touch mine when she was close to orgasm. She taught me certain areas within the vagina, about the nervous system—I mean, she was very extensive in her education. It was weird, but it was also kind of cool, because she was showing me things with which I literally had instantaneous results in my later life.

Educating Tom.

I laughed at this story. Tom looked at me askance. I said, “It’s not a prurient laugh at all.” He recognizes this because clearly he understands that an irony stands as one of the pillars of our recovery: within the strange, fucked-up illegal shit that happens to us and that we cause to happen to others are the nuggets of gold that we later mine and hammer into gifts for ourselves and for others.

If we can put language to it. It’s little good to us or to others without language. But language and labels are not the same. We need to ditch the labels.


with thanks to DM for the video.