For as loaded as this topic is, it feels pretty simple: I don’t drink because drinking seriously harmed my life. If I hadn’t made the choice to stop, alcohol would have easily destroyed my chances for joy and well-being, if not outright killed me. And yet, I don’t use the word “alcoholic” or “addict” to describe myself, and I never will.
1: The word is seriously stigmatized. Even as the recovery community has sought to be recognized as people with illnesses, addiction just isn’t viewed the same as other diseases. If you’re an “addict,” you aren’t just suffering from the disease of extreme attachment to a substance to the point of self-destruction, you’re also generally deemed a selfish and defective individual. This isn’t my personal assessment, by the way, but a general sentiment I’ve read in various forums and books. Addiction is largely seen as an illness of the soul that encompasses the entirety of one’s being, not simply an illness they “have.”
If you’re diagnosed with an autoimmune disease or cancer, people aren’t likely to think that means you’re a Shitty Person. And yet, this is what we do with addicts/alcoholics. Being labeled in such a way adds yet another layer of shame to the addicted person, who no doubt has become addicted precisely because they feel defective and shameful. Nobody starts numbing out unless they have something they need to numb (again, for some of us, this may “just” be the pain of growing up in a culture that constantly communicates to us that we’re worthless unless…).
While using, addicts can appear selfish because they are deeply isolated and in pain. They know what they’re doing sucks, they don’t want to face the people they love because they feel so self-loathing, and they’re so busy unconsciously trying to tend to their wounds that they cannot psychologically afford to reach out. For an addict, the entire orientation to the world is rooted in shame and pain, so reinforcing the idea that we are, simply by virtue of “being addicts,” defective and egotistical is probably the most harmful idea we can instill in someone seeking to recover.
I don’t accept the label because it comes with a lot of baggage I have no desire to wrestle with anymore. I won’t take on more shame. I won’t take on more pain. These are the exact things that drove me to medicate with alcohol in the first place, so, no thanks.
2: Internally I strive to hold to no label, even (maybe especially) that of “a spiritual person.” As soon as we cling to our identities, we unconsciously act in ways that uphold those identities, therefore becoming limited and less “ourselves.” Rigid identities keep us all, well, rigid. The more identifications we’re attached to (including ideologies, which the mind loves to get fundamentalist about), the more we will defend them, keeping ourselves closed off from others.
On some level, we tend to believe that others can’t understand us unless they share similar identities. This is just false false false. The soul in all of us is so much deeper than the labels we cling to for safety. The more I get caught up in thinking that I can best connect with “sober women writers with an interest in consciousness and collective healing,” the more I remove myself from the very basic connection I have to all human beings. For most of my life, I felt like “healthy,” “well-adjusted” people could never “get me.” This belief limited me and them, and I never want to fall into the trap of thinking “I have nothing in common” with anyone ever again. We are all humans, and therefore we must have a ton in common.
So I try not to think of myself as a writer, or spiritual, or even a woman if I can help it (though the world does a pretty good job of reminding me that I am one every day.) So, even though it feels important for me to acknowledge my body’s inborn tendencies to become attached (i.e. addicted) to All Things Pleasurable, I remember that I am a changeable being not enslaved by these tendencies. Claiming that one simply “is” an addict/alcoholic is a static label, when in reality we are all very fluid, flexible, and capable of becoming new.
Part of that newness is actually losing the desire for things like drugs and alcohol. Rejecting this label does not mean we are in “denial,” or that we are doomed to use again.
3: Our culture’s relationship to alcohol is what’s wrong, not me. This one’s a little paradoxical, because as we grow, we come to see how deeply responsible we (as individuals) are for shaping the surrounding culture. “Culture”—i.e. The Machine™—is not something “out there” to rage against. (As much as I love that band, they were missing this crucial piece.) You are it. You are creating it with every interaction and choice that you make. Every system is made up of parts, and if those parts transform themselves, the system follows.
However, in the beginning, it is extremely empowering to recognize that “your drinking problem” stems from something much bigger than you being diseased and made of faulty wiring. Not that I really give a shit about the economy, but alcohol dependence costs the economy something like $220 billion, not to mention tens of thousands of lives. Most people do not drink the “recommended” amount of alcohol, and to be real, no amount of alcohol is healthy. It’s poison. It lowers consciousness. It feels “fun” because it helps us get out of our minds. If we were capable of transcending our minds at any moment, alcohol would feel like child’s play. (I’m not trying to be a party pooper, but, that’s all true stuff.)
I refuse to give myself a label we collectively pity when all around me I see people suffering and self-medicating in a variety of ways. And that is the “normal” way to live, by the way: To continually distract ourselves from our inner worlds by way of chasing success, going on vacations, taking on projects, binge-watching, and otherwise “being busy.” If we were to drop these things and sit with ourselves, we would certainly feel a shift (I do not mean to imply this shift would feel good at first). We would have to face the insanity being acted out by our untrained minds and realize there’s a torrent of bullshit we need to work through in there. This kind of shift is exactly what we need.
It seems that a lot of people are experiencing such a shift now, which is pretty exciting. But, as evidenced by the state of the world, we can see that we’re still in the beginning phases of this step for our species. There is still time for us to fuck it up, or to get real with ourselves. We always have this choice.
4: Whether or not one is an “alcoholic” or a “normie”* means very little in terms of their overall wellness. When I was drinking heavily, I still exercised, ate relatively well (okay except when I was super hungover; then I became a bottomless pit of Mac n Cheese and ice cream), and by many social parameters, I seemed okay. Spoiler alert: I was totally not okay. I was emotionally fragile and hurt and confused and insecure. Oh, and I was angry at almost everything. I had no idea wtf life was all about or if it even mattered. I almost never felt connected to others. I was not well, but still, drinking was symptomatic of my underlying dis-ease, not the actual Problem. This overall dis-ease is a defining feature of Western culture. People cover up this dis-ease in a variety of ways (see above); becoming addicted to alcohol is just one of the easiest (and most humiliating) outlets for us since it’s legal and socially acceptable.
In this world, “normies” can easily get by being totally underdeveloped, spiritually and emotionally, and can even do pretty well for themselves (Exhibit A: The current presidential administration). “Alcoholics” can do this, too. A person by either label can also find themselves mired in depression, anxiety, and isolation. Out of two people, one of who is a “normie” and the other an “alcoholic,” we have no idea who is doing the inner work. It’s just not enough information to know what’s going on inside of someone, and given the state of humanity, it really doesn’t mean much.
Someone can be actively drinking while still working out their issues. (For at least a year, I drank even as I journaled, came to understand spirituality, and engaged in self-inquiry.) Someone can be sober and Way Fucked Up.
*I’d like to point out that this dichotomy—either you’re normal or you’re an alcoholic—is super crazy and Not Real.
5: There is no evidence that going by this name will help me stay sober. The jury is still out on how effective AA is, but here’s my evidence that it isn’t: My dad’s dead from addiction, and he went to meetings. Maybe that sounds irrational, but but I’m totally okay with being irrational on this issue. I often wonder if—had addiction been understood and treated compassionately, outside of the “diseased individual” narrative—he might still be alive.
AA’s Big Book puts it’s success rate is at 50 percent. Even more worrisome is that through this lens, it’s the addict who is considered a “failure” if the program doesn’t work. Do we all see how insane this is? There is no other disease we do this with. If someone’s chronic illness flares up, we acknowledge that they may need a different treatment for it; we don’t blame the ill individual for their “failure.”
For something that affects us as hugely as addiction does, the most common treatment modality (AA, NA, CA, SLAA, etc.), should work more than half the time. So that’s a turn off, plus, that whole step where I’m supposed to go even further into how much of a defective character I am for relying on alcohol to ease my pain/social functioning has made it entirely unappealing. I assume that most addicts constantly think about how much of a defective character they are every day; this is why they continue to use! I’ve hated myself long enough, thankyouverymuch.
In spite of everything I just wrote, I’m really not here to tear down AA. My attitude, for myself and for the whole world, is to simply do what works. If AA works for you or someone you know, that’s great. But I’ve read some of the AA rhetoric, and it just isn’t for me, especially since there’s no conclusive body of evidence saying “this is your best bet.” The sad fact of AA is that it’s kind of our only bet, since insurance usually doesn’t pay for other forms of addiction treatment (for reasons of whatthefuckwhy?). Through such a view, my only hope for recovery is to admit to being an alcoholic, work the steps, and maybe recover, my odds being one in two(!). (This is the bipolar thing all over again, btw.)
Or I could just not take on the “alcoholic” label, grow in my own way, and really, actually recover because I know what’s best for me. I’m going with option two, and so far, I’m feeling better than ever.
6: If I ever choose to have a beer, I’m not going to fall into the “now I’m a relapsing failure” mindset. The glory of being sober for me now is this: I really don’t want to drink. It’s not a craving I’m constantly beating back, I’m not white-knuckling it through karaoke nights and parties, and it generally isn’t even something I think about very much anymore. I feel awesome about it.
Even though I’m happily sober, my identity isn’t wrapped up in being “a recovering alcoholic.” It’s more like “hey, drinking didn’t serve me in any way, so I finally decided to cut it out.” But when you have no particular identity or tribe caught up in your sobriety (which I don’t, except a small gang of social media peeps), I can see how one might just up and decide to have a beer one day. (The tribe element of AA is one that I really understand the appeal of.)
At this point, I feel like I’m only slightly more likely to drink a beer than I am to take a shot of gasoline. But for the sake of this reason, let’s suppose I do. Let’s suppose I step outside of the serious, sober mindset I live in now (a mindset I’m hoping to gradually expand out of into one that is less serious, btw), and for whatever reason, have an IPA. What now?
The narrative of alcoholism says I will be under the table and blacked out shortly after this first drink, and that I have to start back at day zero. The word “relapse” is assigned to my choice, which is a pretty loaded word. I’d have to tirelessly review what went wrong, and usually, I’d beat myself up for it. I cannot imagine a more harmful way to treat someone who has started using again.
If you’re conditioned to immediately feel like a diseased failure because you have a slip, you’re much more likely to spiral out of control. I won’t let my mind do that to me. Everything I do that isn’t in full alignment ought to be accepted for what it is (a blip on the radar of my overall growth), and moved forward from. New moment, new me, every single day. Having a slip wouldn’t undercut all the work I’ve done to explore and dispel my reasons for self-abuse, and it definitely wouldn’t mean I’m back to where I was before. Underneath the outward decision to have a drink, I’d still know so much more about myself than when I was drinking all the time. I definitely would want to look into whatever sneaky things my mind was doing that provoked the choice, but dwelling on it and/or feeling like shit for it would guarantee only more pain, and probably more drinking.
If we wish to heal—truly heal, not just accumulate x number of days sober—we must wake up to the reality that the word “alcoholic” (and everything we’re conditioned to think it means) actually serves us very little.