Why I don't use the label Alcoholic
First things first, I would like to say that I am friends with many beautiful and smart people who label themselves as “Alcoholic”. Most of them take part in 12 step programs. This label works for them. For some, the strict terminology is the only way to fully realize that you have to do things differently than other people that you know. And if it is working for you, please don’t take this piece as an attack on that. 12 step programs have saved so many lives, and they will continue to do so. But it is no secret that the program and it’s terminology isn’t reaching all of us. Most in the recovery community are opening up to various modalities and pathways to recovery these days. So this is just my take on what I consider to be old fashioned terminology, that might not work for everyone, and doesn’t work for me.
I still shudder when I hear the term “alcoholic”, because I am afraid that is what people think that I am. I have never said “Hello, my name is Erica and I am an alcoholic”. For me, this is akin to saying “ Hello, I am Erica and I will always suck at gardening” just because I haven’t figured out how to keep house plants alive yet. For me, the label alcoholic carries an unbelievable amount of embarrassment and shame, and it feels permanent, something you are stuck with forever. It strongly implies that there is something wrong with the person, with the “alcoholic”. The term “alcoholic" tells the person who is struggling that it is something inherently wrong with them that brought them to this point in their addiction. I can’t figure out why this would be empowering to anyone, least of all those who come into recovery already so broken down, defeated and lacking in power. In fact, you are also required, after adopting the label, to admit “powerlessness”. Most of the women that I meet in early recovery are so loaded down with shame, so unaware of their own power, that they are already so certain that there is something wrong with them. They are already quite convinced of their overall powerlessness and of their many defects. These women often think that something inside them made the alcohol into a problem, while the rest of the world was able to be “normal”. This is, quite frankly, pure insanity to me. Why would the person who can’t control one of the most addictive substances on Earth, be the problem? Isn’t it clearly the fault of the substance itself, or perhaps the fault of the society that pushes it on us? Remember, not only is this extremely addictive substance totally legal, it is completely glamorized and shoved down our throats by a massive corporately-funded marketing engine. We are sold alcohol as a requirement to a full life, as a necessity for fitting in with others. (In Canada our government is behind this message!) So how could it be the fault of the person who uses it under the impression that it is harmless , often under the impression that it is totally awesome? How could it be anyone’s fault that the addictive substance that was pushed on them grabs a hold of them and won’t let go? How could this be something to be ashamed of, that you couldn’t “do it right”? How could there be something wrong with someone who couldn’t control an addictive substance “properly”? Why should they carry a label forever? Why do we put this on people?
I like the term “alcohol use disorder”. It is popping up more and more, thankfully. This term removes the fault of the problem from the person themselves, and instead presents alcohol addiction as a disorder that can be beaten. It is no longer seen as something that you carry as part of you, but rather as an outside disorder to be overcome. And how do I think it can be overcome? By telling people that it ISN’T their fault, that there is NOTHING wrong with them. That they didn’t end up here because they are “abnormal”. (So kind of the opposite of adopting a label telling the rest of the world that you are flawed and different for all of eternity.)
I want to take it one step further here and theorize that the term itself may be holding a huge amount of people back from recovery, it may be making recovery way too intimidating and “yucky”. Think about it…what do people think that changing their relationship with alcohol involves? They have learned that the first step is adopting a new identity, a new label, that marks them as different from their peers. They think that they have to carry that heavy bag full of shame (it gets heavier and heavier as the drinking progresses) and add one more thing to it, a label that identifies you as different and “messed up”. (So wait, when I am this low I have to go even lower and ostracize myself from the tribe by calling myself a label that I have to carry forever? Um, NO THANKS. I will continue trying to control it, there can’t be anything wrong with me, I will get it right, one day, promise, PLEASE DON’T KICK ME OUT OF THE TRIBE! )
How much more empowering is it to say that you find yourself suffering from alcohol use disorder, due to the fact that it is widely normalized in society and it is in fact very, very addictive which you didn’t fully understand. And that now that you realize what the problem is, you are going to arm yourself with all of the tools that you can find to beat it (including 12 step programs if they speak to you). You are going to ditch the disorder and recover your life. You are going to move on from it. Knowing full well that you can’t touch the stuff again, sure. Admitting it is pretty powerful stuff is great, I like this step of AA. But why do we first need to apply a label to human beings who just need to believe that there is nothing wrong with them, that they are redeemable? Humans who are already so down and out?
I have to say that women who have been struggling with alcohol for decades are some of the most shame-filled humans that I have ever encountered. Their self belief is almost non existent. The fact that they hate themselves has often kept them locked in the cycle of unhealthy drinking for a long time. The very last thing that they need is more of that self-hatred and embarrassment. MY FRIENDS, THERE IS NOTHING WRONG WITH YOU! THERE NEVER WAS! YOU ARE SO WORTHY OF A BETTER LIFE! YOU SO DESERVE A BETTER LIFE! Now let’s beat this thing that has you in it’s grasp.
When i was heavy in my drinking addiction did I think there was something wrong with me? Oh ya, big time. I thought deep down, for years, that I was very different from everyone else. I was less than, I was weaker, I was unable to be normal, I was certainly flawed. I also thought that one day I would have to quit and admit defeat, admit to the rest of the world that there was something wrong with me. I thought that day would mark the end of life as I knew it. So I avoided that for years and years (so many years!) Do I think there is something wrong with me now? God, NO! Now I know that I am a strong and powerful human being who can change behaviors that are so hard to change. Now I know that alcohol is highly addictive, that is changes your brain chemistry in shocking ways. Now I know all about the hole that I was stuck down inside of. I know all about family patterns and genetic factors that create a susceptibility to addiction. Now I have learned all about myself, and the personality traits that contributed to my unhealthy drinking habits. Now I have learned that these same personality traits can be harnessed to create good, that I am unique and amazing, that we all are. Now I know that I barely stood a chance against this addictive beast when I was stuck in the darkness, and that there is nothing to be ashamed of for taking some time to find my way out. Now I know that finding my way out is something that I should be so proud of. And now I know that I am strong and capable of making meaningful changes. I am the opposite of ashamed. I am empowered. And that is an amazing place to live life from.
“Hi, my name is Erica and I am in recovery from alcohol use disorder (and I am awesome)”.
You’ve got this, friends.