Why do I say "I'm an Alcoholic"?
Not for everyone, but definitely for me
I was a guest on a podcast recently, where at the top of the show I was invited to introduce myself along with quote “however you identify”. What struck me about this instruction was that it didn’t refer to what are now the usual identity categories - gender identity, racial identity, sexual identity, etc - but instead to whether or not I wanted to call myself an alcoholic.
This was a sobriety podcast, and the host had quickly learned that not everyone wants to label themselves like that. Some people say “I am a person in recovery”, or “I have alcohol use disorder”, or some other such thing beyond the way-more-famous “hi, I’m so-and-so and I’m an alcoholic” made famous by 12 step meetings. I think this flexibility is great, making programs of recovery more accessible to more people, and it’s also true that I have found a lot of power and relief in accepting and expressing an identity as “an alcoholic”.
I can appreciate why others might not want to do so - the “alcoholic” image conjures visions of wretched old men sprawled under some bridge and covered in their own filth, babbling obscenities and swigging from a plastic bottle in a wet brown bag and seeing nothing with their bulging yellow eyes. People might also want to distance themselves from what-you-could-call-traditional AA, which despite its universal aspirations still seems to be created by and for Straight White Christian Men etc. I don’t really think anyone needs to answer to those objections -I can understand those stances and support those who choose to get sober without the familiar label.
That said, for me at the end of my drinking days, my old identity was fairly firmly in the trash. I hated myself helplessly and hopelessly and I was dying for a new life, or at least an end to the current one. So it really did help me a lot to have this new identity - as “an alcoholic” - available for me to pick up when I really really needed it.
I’ve appreciated the ritual of sitting in a group of people and affirming that common identity. For me it’s like saying “I belong here, and I belong here because I say that I belong here”. Nobody could force me to accept that belonging before I was ready for it, and once I accepted that belonging nobody could take it away from me.
So, then, saying “I’m an alcoholic” becomes a powerful constant in my existence, a foundation for stability and hope no matter what insanely painful shit hits the fan in my life. It gave me structure and direction and a felt sense that what was possible for others (sobriety, stability, connection, joy) might be possible for me too, if I worked for it the way that they had. To this day it gives me the ability to transmute my worst memories and stories into sources of hope and help for others - I could look back on my lowest moments and see proof of unworthiness and shame, but now I get to see them as evidence of what I can survive and what others can survive too. I do see myself as having a lot in common with the drunk under the bridge, but I also get to assert my own individual contributions - my life looks pretty good now, or at least a lot better than how it did at the beginning of my recovery journey, and so I get to say that being “an alcoholic” means that you get to thrive and be happy.