Ask an Addict: Am I An "Alcoholic?"

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Ask an Addict: Am I An "Alcoholic?"

This article is not meant to diagnose or provide medical advice—that responsibility lies with physicians. The author is not a licensed medical professional.

Addiction is an issue that impacts almost everyone in some way. I’ve been in recovery from alcoholism/addiction since January 2008. During that time, I’ve gone through ups and downs but have fortunately managed to stay sober. I’ll be answering a reader-submitted question about recovery every other week (information on how to submit below). I’m not an expert or mental health professional, just a sober person offering advice based on my experience and the research that’s available. This week, I’m talking about how sober people identify and different kinds of recovery programs.
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Hi Katie,

I quit drinking about a month ago. I realized that once I started drinking it was hard for me to stop and even though I wasn’t drinking all the time, I had too many embarrassing moments or things I couldn’t quite remember. Since quitting, I feel fantastic. My question is, is it important that I tell people that I’m an alcoholic, or that I stopped drinking because I have a problem? If I don’t identify myself as an alcoholic or put it out there that I don’t drink because I’ve had drinking problems, am I in denial about my condition?

I don’t really have any friends who have stopped drinking because they have a problem. I have a couple of friends who don’t really drink, but it’s not for addiction-related reasons. I find myself not wanting to tell people I’m no longer drinking because I couldn’t control myself. This is especially challenging when getting together with old friends. These are people I used to be close with, but have recently drifted away from. I can’t cut them out completely—yet when we used to be closer friends, we spent a lot of our time drinking. I also don’t want to lie, either, or somehow be in denial about what’s going on with me. It’s not like I’m not proud of myself, but do I need to be all out there about what I’m doing, and call myself an alcoholic? Can I still protect myself from judge-y people like this by just saying I’m not feeling like drinking, yet still be “authentic” in my sobriety?

So yeah, AA and calling myself an alcoholic feels like too much but I also don’t want to be going about this in a way that might crash down on me later if the going ever gets tough, if that makes sense. I don’t know anyone else in my position and am finding myself feeling kind of alone. Do you think I should go to AA? Is there any less intense sort of program you might recommend?

From, Unsure

Dear Unsure,

First of all, kudos to you for recognizing something you weren’t comfortable with in your behavior and taking steps to fix that. That’s not something everyone has the ability to do (I, for example, had to be forcibly removed from alcohol before I could stop drinking it) and it’s awesome that you took and accomplished those steps. It’s even better that you feel so great in the wake of quitting. (That’s also not a thing that happened with me for a loooooong time—just in case anyone is reading this like, “well, good for you, but I still feel like garbage,”—it really does get better).

Moving on to your friends: you don’t have to tell anyone anything you don’t want to. You don’t have to call yourself anything you don’t feel like calling yourself. “Sober” and “alcoholic” are just labels, and it’s become clear in this day and age that labels can be meaningless, and just not for everyone.

There are two reasons I call myself an alcoholic and an addict:
1. It’s a useful descriptor to explain why I am not drinking, why I write about the things I do, the way I view the world, etc.
2. It feels accurate to me. It helps me make sense of who I am. Being an addict has defined so much of my life—in both positive and negative ways. It was a relief when I began calling myself an alcoholic because I identified so strongly with the term.

Calling myself an addict or an alcoholic is also a reminder to me that I can’t drink and why I can’t drink. So it’s helpful. But if it doesn’t feel accurate to you and/or you’re not comfortable using it in relation to yourself, there’s no reason you should have to.

It sounds like what you’re worried about is not being honest with yourself about why you quit drinking. Only you know what your relationship to alcohol was. I don’t get the sense that you’re trying to convince yourself that you don’t have a problem. As long as you are being honest with yourself and taking care of yourself, I don’t think you are under any obligation to disclose that to anyone else. This is even more true considering the friends you are talking about don’t sound like they are close, important people in your life. So tell ‘em whatever you want.

That said, I do think making similarly situated sober friends is a really invaluable part of recovery—especially if most of your other friends drink. There is just something reassuring about having people who understand what it’s like when you jealously eye the drink in someone else’s hand, or bump into someone you don’t remember because you were wasted at a party when you met. You don’t have to worry about shame or judgement when you discuss these incidents with them and you’re able to support each other as sober people living in an often booze-saturated world. This isn’t just my opinion, research shows that people who have social support are more likely to stay sober.

Although they’re often the most well-known, Alcoholics Anonymous and similar 12-step programs aren’t the only way to develop a sober social network. Given that your primary concern seems to be social, not actually maintaining your recovery at the moment, it may well be that A.A. is a more structured and intense program than what you are looking for. I was very involved in a 12-step program for the first five or six years of my recovery because I needed that structure and I needed help maintaining my sobriety. Although I’m still peripherally involved in that 12-step program now, the most essential part of maintaining sobriety is my network of sober friends—some of whom I met through the 12-step program.

Of course, most people don’t walk around with big Sober signs on their shirts so they can identify and become friends with other sober people. One option that I have yet to personally explore but have been meaning to because it sounds awesome is Refuge Recovery. It was created by Noah Levine, author of Dharma Punx, and focuses on mindfulness and Buddhist principles as a path to recovery from addiction. It’s still a program of recovery the way A.A. is but it’s much less strict about how you identify yourself. In that vein, SMART Recovery and LifeRing are secular programs of recovery that have been helpful to many people I know, if you’re looking for something along those lines. If you identify as a woman, Women for Sobriety is another organization you might want to look into. There’s an online chat/forum component, so that may be one way to dip your toe in and see if it’s a fit. I suggest these not because I think you are an alcoholic (how would I know?), but because I think the kind of support you want isn’t just from people who happen to not drink (or, the “lucky bastards,” as you called them). I think you should meet people who were having trouble controlling their drinking and that’s why they decided to quit. In other words, people like you.

Finally, it’s worth remembering that you have the freedom to change how you approach your sobriety or what you call yourself. Maybe down the road you find that you do want to identify as an alcoholic or maybe one of the programs that looks intense or unappealing now will seem appropriate later. That’s completely fine. There are no hard and fast rules about this, so don’t impose them on yourself unnecessarily.

From, Katie

P.S. One book I suggest to almost everyone in recovery but especially formerly “high functioning” heavy drinkers is Caroline Knapp’s Drinking: A Love Story. I connected to her story long before I considered myself an alcoholic and I think her story might resonate with you as well. Good luck, Unsure!

Paste contributor Katie MacBride is a freelance writer and the associate editor of Anxy Magazine. Her work has appeared in Rolling Stone, New York Magazine and The Establishment. Every other week she will answer one recovery/addiction related question posed by our readers, based on her experience. Email questions to pasteaddict@gmail.com with Ask Katie in the subject. By emailing, you are agreeing to let Paste publish your email. Emails may be edited for length.

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