Lots of folks 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 term "alcoholic" has no clear concise definition.
A word that means something different to everyone has no real meaning.
Look it up in the dictionary 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? 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?
Dipsomaniac is a new one if you want to get fancy. Try that out the next time someone asks why you aren't drinking. How about occasional binge drinkers—are they alcoholics? That definition takes in about 80 percent of the kids on our college campuses, more like 97 percent of the freshmen.
2. One of biggest proponents of the label "alcoholic" is Alcoholics Anonymous.
It's the actual group name 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.
As long ago as it was penned, the Big Book of Alcoholics Anonymous actually has a light breeze blowing through each page. But the open attitude reflected in phrases like "we suggest" or "in our experience" is in sharp contrast with the dogmatic culture that has grown up around the program. In fact, the pressure to constantly self-identify as an alcoholic and out loud to the group seems to be the First Commandment of AA.
Not everyone today believes that forming an identity out of a pathology is a great idea. Maybe that's why so many progressive recovery programs have completely dropped archaic, misunderstood, negative, shaming, baggage-laden labels. SMART Recovery says No to labeling. So does the Buddhist-based Refuge Recovery program. Oddly, Noah did use the terms "addict" and "alcoholic" in his handbook but 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.
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. Which suggests that any forward progress might be far better served by identifying with and internalizing empowering mantras like "I can do hard things" or "I was made for this work" or "I am enough" instead of the phrase "I am an alcoholic."
We have spiritual teachers and psychologists and therapists who are intent on helping us learn how to love and take care of ourselves, raise our self-esteem, release feelings of unworthiness and shame, clear emotional baggage, heal our wounds, and use our imaginations to create new and better realities. They wouldn't think of 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).
4. 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 question how much or how often they are drinking, the dreaded word "alcoholic" might bubble up. Could I be? Oh God, I hope not. But then they do a little research and find their habits and drinking levels are not a part of that scene.
They aren't drinking any more than their friends. Most of the time they drink moderately but sometimes it gets away from them, and it might feel like those times are getting closer together. They used to drink socially but now they enjoy wine with dinner, which turned into a glass of "chef's juice" while cooking, and then another to relax after dinner. Now they are up to three daily drinks but nothing else has really changed. Okay, on a Saturday night the last bit of the bottle disappeared too. They 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 depression hit or they started having anxiety attacks. It's not the greatest solution but it is easy and immediate and 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 wake-up 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…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. Thoughts about alcohol start running in the background like white noise, a low-level internal tussle, a silent nagging struggle.
Those people, especially those people, would be so much better off if they never compare their "shades of gray" situation to a stigmatizing label that too often conjures up horrific images of homeless urine-soaked drunks passed out in a back alley.
"Am I an alcoholic?" is not the question we need to ask and answer. If you are concerned or even a little uneasy about how alcohol is affecting your life or your health, that's enough. It doesn't matter how often or how much you are drinking.
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!
I love Tommy Rosen's definition of the word disease: Distance from ease. Whether our relationship with alcohol has become slightly unhappy-making or abjectly miserable, we can close in the distance from our ease. And the best way to do that is together, holding hands, maybe even skipping and singing very loudly and off-key. Our world is brimming over with in-person programs and online groups where people are encouraging and supporting each other along the journey to rethinking the drink or full-on joyful sobriety. My favorite site happens to be Boozemusings.com or BOOM for short, which lends itself to Seuss-like whimsical posts to fellow Boomers in Boomville (a place that stretches across the planet).
But that's not all. We're seeing explosive growth in alcohol-free drinks, sober raves, sober bars, alcohol-free nights at traditional bars, and wildly popular traveling events like the Austin-based Sans Bar. Is it coming to your town or one near you?
The fun ain't over, people! The party is just getting started and you're going to remember every glorious moment of it the next morning. Let's rock this to the moon and back!