How Do You Move Beyond the Stigma?

For some time now, I haven’t referred to myself as an “alcoholic” and the reasons for it are manyfold. The main reason is that I no longer feel like this is my identity and/or a qualifier I need to lead any conversation or disclosure with. Sure, if it’s necessary to bring up that I struggled with addiction many years ago, and I will talk about that when appropriate, but I no longer say I’m an “alcoholic.” If I attend an occasional support meeting – for a celebration or to hear a friend talk or to speak – I may use the term to build connection, but I prefer to say that I am in long-term remission from alcohol and nicotine use disorder. I’ve earned my seat in those rooms and these days nobody really jumps at your throat for not qualifying right away, although it does happen sometimes. It is ultimately nobody’s business. I am all for others using it, whatever works for them – but for me it just doesn’t work.

The second reason is that the word “alcoholic” itself has become a bit of an insult. This is because there’s still such a stigma attached to addiction (although it is becoming smaller and I do see a lot more people becoming open about their addiction, such as celebrities or other public speakers). This is good. But “alcoholic” is a word that, like the stigma, should perhaps stay in the past. We are so much more than just our addiction after all. We are partners, parents, children, workers, mentors, students, and so on. To live your life with only one description of what you are – and what almost once killed you, in fact – is misleading and a disservice to the complexity of all human beings.

I also see this word, too, as one that is meant to put you in your place – saying “My name is David and I’m an alcoholic,” denotes my membership in the room of Alcoholics Anonymous, but it also asks me to call myself something that, again, is only a tiny part of me and one that I haven’t really had to work at for years. So, if I am saying “I am an alcoholic” I am suffering from the same thing that everyone else is in the room, but I am also calling myself a word that has become an insult and that was shameful to utter anywhere outside of the rooms of AA.

You don’t believe it’s an insult and those of us who have struggled with addiction should carry this word proudly? Let’s do a little test: Can you imagine saying this at your workplace during an interview? If you can’t, that should indicate the measure of the shameful weight this word carries.

There are many other ways to signal yourself as someone who doesn’t use mind-altering substances in situations where this is warranted. At weddings and other such events, I used to always talk with the wait staff and explain to them that I was allergic to alcohol and to make sure that I wasn’t going to be served any. I didn’t do this because I was worried about temptation – but I was worried about human error and someone mistakenly slipping me alcohol and me, being in the middle of an engrossing conversation or another social engagement, taking a big ol’ sip. This wouldn’t have made me a relapser, I don’t think, but it’s the principle of my recovery that I don’t drink and don’t “test” myself in those ways.

I’m not hiding that I have struggled with addiction. And I am not ashamed of it either. I am proud of my recovery. But I don’t want to carry a word with me that people might misinterpret because we haven’t collectively forgiven ourselves for something that is always connected to pain and trauma.

     Photo by Luis Quintero

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