Lots of folks these days, seem fired up about ending the stigma and/or shame of being in recovery, but I still see the labels of “alcoholic” and “addict” tossed about and used by some of the leading voices, and on progressive platforms. I know some things die hard but I’m all for retiring pathological and negative and hurtful labels. The sooner the better, preferably yesterday.
It’s okay if an individual wants to claim and wear a label,
IF it feels like their inner truth,
IF they find it empowering,
IF it fuels their resolve or constantly reminds them of the thing(s) they absolutely cannot mess with…EVER.
My problem lies with people and programs and groups that promote (or demand) taking on one of these labels as essential to a successful recovery. And here’s why…
1. The word alcoholic has no clear concise definition.
Look it up and you’ll find something like “a person suffering from alcoholism” and a list of synonyms like dipsomaniac, drunk, drunkard, heavy/hard/serious drinker, problem drinker, binge drinker, alcohol abuser, person with a drinking problem. And to all that I say: What on earth does any of that really mean? Is the drunkard the same as a person with a drinking problem? What’s a drinking problem? Who defines that? The person or someone else? Dipsomaniac is a new one if you want to get fancy. Try that out the next time someone asks why you aren’t drinking. Are binge drinkers alcoholics? Then about 80 percent of the kids on our college campuses are already alcoholics, more like 97 percent of the freshmen. What’s a problem drinker? What kind of problems? Is the person a problem or just that miserable hangover? Was it because they called in sick and didn’t go to work that day or did they go on a bender one Friday evening in Boca Raton and woke up Sunday morning in a Vegas hotel dressed only in stilettos and a red boa?
A word that means something different to everyone has no real meaning.
2. One of biggest proponents of the label “alcoholic” is Alcoholics Anonymous.
It’s the group name for God’s sake, and the history of that is completely understandable. I don’t have enough time and you don’t have enough attention span for me to elaborate on how much I love Bill W and Dr Bob for giving birth to the recovery moment and for the gift they gave to the world. But AA protects its 1930’s language like a hothouse flower. Can you imagine where medicine or psychology would be today if they truly feared that changing anything at all would be the ruin of the discipline and its value, that it would degenerate into a free-for-all total anarchy. Even the Big Book has a much more open “we suggest” or “in our experience” attitude than you will find in the culture that’s grown up around that program. Constantly identifying yourself as an alcoholic internally and out loud to the group feels very etched in stone. The First Commandment of AA. Maybe that’s why so many progressive recovery programs are dropping archaic, misunderstood, negative, shaming, baggage-laden labels completely.
SMART Recovery says Nope to labeling.
So does the Buddhist-based Refuge Recovery program, although oddly Noah uses the terms “addict” and “alcoholic” in the handbook. The meetings are absolutely not run that way. Just your first name, please.
3. The world has learned a few things about the brain and psychology and mental illness and the anatomy of desire and habit and the formation of addictions since the first recovery program began in the1930’s.
There’s a thing out there now called Positive Psychology that says we are better off focusing on the positive aspects of life, our strengths and virtues, the things within us that can help us flourish and grow and thrive. We might want to take on such mantras as “I can do hard things” or “I was made for this work” or “I am enough” instead of the phrase “I am an alcoholic” after our name. We have spiritual teachers and psychologists and therapists who are intent on helping us learn how to love ourselves, take care of ourselves, raise our self-esteem, release feelings of unworthiness and shame, heal our wounds, and use our imaginations to create new and better realities. They aren’t asking anyone to wear a stigmatizing label that has been used for centuries to shame and scorn. Addict, alcoholic, drunk…right up there with slut, bitch, whore (interesting how few sexually shaming labels history has conjured up for male behavior).
And last but not least, those damn labels are massive bricks in the wall that holds back what could be a tidal wave of people who could truly benefit from RETHINKING THE DRINK.
Millions and millions of people who don’t fit the label of “alcoholic” are ripe for re-evaluating the place alcohol has in their lives. In odd moments when they are questioning how much or how often they are drinking, they might wonder about that dreaded word, but then they do a little research and find their habits and drinking levels are not part of that picture.
They aren’t drinking any more than their friends. Most of the time they drink moderately but sometimes it gets away from them, and maybe those times seem to be getting closer together. They used to drink socially but now they like having wine with dinner, and that turned into a glass while cooking, and now one after dinner. Now we’re up to three but nothing else has really changed. Okay, on a Saturday night the last bit of that bottle disappeared too. We slept in late and missed the workout but that’s okay, coffee is waiting. Maybe they used to be weekend warriors but the job became so stressful and the work hours so long that weekends extended into weekday save-my-ass downtime. Maybe alcohol was never an issue but someone died or a love was lost or the job disappeared or some inexplicable depression hit or they started having anxiety attacks. It’s not great but it’s only temporary.
Alcohol creeps into our lives in so many ways and accelerates so slowly and quietly that we don’t see it coming…until one day we do. It might be a teensy wakeup call or something bigger, but that’s the day we say “This isn’t working anymore” or “I would feel so much better without this” or “I have to cut back” or maybe even “I have to quit for a while.” That’s the point where many of us find that moderating or cutting back is not that simple, or if it is, we can’t sustain it. Now the internal struggle begins, the promises we make to ourselves that we break. Over and over…and over. Our minds are no longer free because we’re so occupied with drinking or not drinking. Will we or won’t we. How long has it been? How much, how little. Alcohol and the place it holds in our lives has become unhappy making, an internal tussle, a silent struggle.
Those people, especially those people, would be so much better off if we just drop all the stigmatizing labels and all the toxic baggage those labels have been collecting since the first caveman distilled a few dandelions.
Am I an alcoholic? is not the question we need to ask and answer.
Are you concerned or even just unhappy about how much or how often you are drinking or how it makes you feel? It doesn’t matter how much or how often you are drinking. That’s ENOUGH.
Alcohol is an addictive substance and you don’t have to be diseased or genetically predisposed or special or broken or weak or anything but human to develop an issue with using it to make life more pleasurable or numb pain or feel more social or less anxious. And for God’s sake, you don’t have to call yourself AN ALCOHOLIC to take the steps you need to nip a questionable drinking trend in the bud before it blossoms any further. Because that’s what any addictive pattern does, it grows. Read the science, it’s just the way our beautiful miraculous brain works!
To conclude this convoluted mess, I love Tommy Rosen’s definition of the word disease: Dis-ease; Distance from ease.
Let’s close in the distance from our ease…and let’s do that together, holding hands, maybe skipping, singing very loudly and off-key. I’m staying happily alcohol-free today, are you? Let’s rock this!
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