I’m Not An Alcoholic

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If you identify as an alcoholic, I assume that’s because it helps you in ways I don’t (yet) understand — and I celebrate you. I celebrate everything that helps anyone live with more joy and greater health — and I know there isn’t only one way to do that. If you’re willing, please reply and let me know how and why this word helps you — I want to hear and learn.

If you identify as an alcoholic, but it doesn’t feel great when you say that word and you aren’t sure why — I hope my thoughts are helpful and reassuring.

I’ve heard people say it’s good to admit you’re an alcoholic because that will garner support from your friends and family. That is not my lived experience — at all. When I stopped drinking, a family friend admitted (in a rare moment of clarity and while refilling his glass of wine), “I don’t like it when other people stop drinking, because then I feel like I have a problem.”

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I also lost a friend to alcohol. She identified as an alcoholic for many years. I watched her struggle under the shame of everything that was wrong with her, but I never saw her blame alcohol. I think she kept up with her episodic drinking because she didn’t blame alcohol enough. I think she thought there was something wrong with her, not alcohol, and that she wanted to escape her shame for a few hours and do something normal people do.

I didn’t see embracing this title gain her more support from her friends and family — I saw it freeze her into the role of black sheep.

I saw her live with a bullseye on her back and a diagnosis on her chest. I saw her never win an argument with her husband because he always deferred to blaming her drinking and she couldn’t defend herself for that. Never mind that he continued to drink in front of her. After all, he wasn’t the one with the problem.

I have seen the word alcoholic used to blame the person instead of the substance, adding unnecessary, unfair, and unhelpful shame and guilt to something that’s already hard enough.

In my sobriety, I find it important to underscore that I’m a normal person, and a normal drinker, and that alcohol is dangerous. I feel so much better without it, so I’m choosing to be careful with it. I choose this as a revolt against a culture devoted to the lie that red wine is good for us.

For me, abstinence is an essential unwinding (and identifying) of so many deeply engrained (and intergenerational) unconscious beliefs, behaviors, and physiological responses. I need abstinence to reset my nervous system. It’s been almost two years, and might be for the rest of my life — I don’t know yet.

I’ve also heard people say it’s important to call yourself an alcoholic to take responsibility. I just can’t help but hear a subtle subtext on this one saying, “Come on, just admit it, there’s something wrong with you.”

I also find the disease model of alcoholism, and the concept of taking responsibility, a little confusing. If I had cancer or Crohn’s disease, would it help my recovery to take responsibility? And what, exactly, would I be taking responsibility for? Does taking responsibility mean I can’t control the fact that I’m sick, and it’s my fault I got sick?

I take responsibility every time I choose to not drink.

I will not, however, take responsibility for the physiologic reality that alcohol is bad for my body and that it’s been hard to quit — in fact, I celebrate that. I feel proud of myself. I hope you do too.

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I recently replied to a piece that said any issue with the word alcoholic is because of our ego. While I can appreciate the intention behind this, I completely disagree.

All behavior change is hard. Quitting alcohol is the Olympics of behavior change because drinking is inextricably linked with belonging. The evolutionary function of drinking is to bond with other humans, and that is a terrifying risk. When everyone around us is drinking, and we stop, there is an impact on our belonging. It doesn’t matter if it’s false belonging, or belonging we find we longer want or need — it’s painful and hard.

If we could somehow magically remove all of the cultural baggage we’ve accumulated around alcohol, perhaps drinking together could be a wonderful thing. If we truly only used alcohol for bonding. If we could drink small amounts, occasionally, and always together — knowing it is a harmful substance to be respected, and even feared, and that we need to protect each other from it. But the overwhelming majority of us don’t drink that way, and it’s absurdly unrealistic to think that we could — because Americans do have a lot of baggage in our relationship with alcohol.

Most Americans still think alcohol isn’t really that bad. Most of us fear the label of alcoholic more than we fear the harms of alcohol. We think there’s something wrong with us if we can’t keep our relationship with alcohol from becoming problematic. And when we do manage to stop drinking, all of a sudden everyone else starts to think there’s something wrong with us. A friend once casually claimed (between sips of her third IPA), “I can drink as much as I want and never have a problem because I’m not an alcoholic.”

Meanwhile, young people in America are dying. The sharp increase in liver disease and alcohol-related deaths is staggering, especially for women.

We need more self-confidence to confront this epic challenge, not less. We don’t need more stigma, we need less. We need to know we are normal and whole, and that there is nothing wrong with us. That we should expect human beings to become addicted when they are consuming an addictive substance in excess. That it’s hard for everyone, and that it’s normal to struggle when we are trying to find freedom from alcohol.

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Our nervous system is much older than our sobriety. The first sunny day of spring I was out riding bikes with my kids — and got hit with the strongest urge to ride to the brewery (something I did with my parents for many years). Having an urge doesn’t have to mean something bad is about to happen, or that there’s something wrong with you. It just means our bodies have wicked good memories, and when we aren’t drinking — we can trust our prefrontal cortex to sort out what’s old, what’s new, and what’s happening now.

I’m not defending my ego when I say I’m not an alcoholic. I don’t think I’m better or less bad than anyone else — I just find this term inaccurate and unhelpful.

Earlier this century the Tobacco industry successfully marketed a strategy (based on eugenics) claiming cigarettes aren’t harmful — it’s just that some people are predisposed to use them in excess. There’s nothing wrong with cigarettes, there’s just something wrong with you for smoking too many of them. Sound familiar?

In my opinion, and lived experience, the term alcoholic is far too effective at diverting our attention away from the reality that alcohol is bad for the human body. Every single body.

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I wish we lived in a world that blamed alcohol more, regardless of where and how we drink it — and that we held the industry that pedals it accountable for the harm they knowingly profit from. And that we could ask for, and receive, support — just because we need and want it. And that none of us felt bad about needing and wanting help in our sobriety.

I don’t think it’s possible for Americans to safely use alcohol for bonding until we can respect and admit how harmful it is. I wish we could create a cultural sea change and stop lying about our dysfunctional relationship with alcohol, and start celebrating sobriety for the liberating and life-affirming experience it is.

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Meghann is a professional coach and co-founder of the Seattle Coaching Collective. Connect with her here.

This article was originally published at Medium. Reprinted with permission from the author.