Updated: Aug 3, 2019
Staging my own intervention
Three years into my accidentally 100% sober life I’m ambivalent about the whole identifying as an ‘alcoholic’ thing.
The label is out-of-date, which can make what those of us who use it say seem a little quaint and clueless. (Which, given the mystery around 12 step fellowships, doesn’t do much for the cause.)
But it saves time and can help a person access the support they need to get their life back on track. After struggling with the label and its usefulness for years, I currently see it as a signpost that helps me in certain contexts. I'm not going to get any t-shirts printed up (yet).
There is power to be found in taking ownership of a negatively-loaded term and turning it into something positive. (Maybe I will get the t-shirts printed.)
If anyone noticed the way I was struggling to get my life together or the part that booze played in that, they didn’t mention it. Guess it's an awkward subject, and I likely would have hated them if they did. As a result, it fell to me to stage my own intervention.
The highest bottom in the land
The name for the kind of drinker I am, in recovery circles at least, is a ‘high bottom alcoholic’ or, even more hilariously, a ‘high-functioning alcoholic’, my favourite oxymoron, and a term I can only use with the most aggressive finger quotations in my armoury.
When I first started attending 12 step meetings I wondered if I had the highest bottom in the whole fellowship. I heard stories of a person literally shitting themselves in a skip, and I was supposed to relate?
I spent months trying to identify with the label ‘alcoholic’.
For a long time, I had a powerful sense of imposter syndrome. Luckily it was outweighed by a strong, almost sickening, desire to change my life. And so I kept returning, to listen and share my lighter weight experience, and try to get a better handle on what I was dealing with.
Gradually, I overcame my perverse reverse shame about not having pissed my bed on the regular, and I grew more confident in the idea that my drinking was a problem, because it was a problem for me.
Staging my own intervention was easily the most constructive and loving thing I ever did for myself (until that point), but it came with its own difficulties.
It’s hard to take your own intervention seriously for a start. I mean, if you can stop drinking, then you can’t be alcoholic, right?
Welcome to the contradictory and misinformation-filled hall of mirrors that is addiction.
You’ve got to fight, for your right, to… identify
I spent months trying to identify with the label ‘alcoholic’.
My new sober friends told me, “it’s just a word” and that “drinking problems fall along a spectrum” and that “it doesn’t matter what you call yourself, so long as you remember you can’t drink.”
Identifying as ‘alcoholic’ seemed to be the key to me changing my life. Many times my struggle to do so put me at risk of drinking. Back then I had no idea that the label was sorely out of date.
The most recent Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Disorders (DSM-V) has rebranded the 'disease' of 'alcoholism' with the catchy term Alcohol Use Disorder (AUD).
That is, AUD is the latest name made up to communicate the destructive and baffling pattern of human behaviour formally called 'alcoholism'. It’s good to be current, though, right?
You might imagine I was annoyed when — spirit finally broken — I acquiesced to being an ‘alcoholic’ (albeit with the fun ‘high-bottom’ disclaimer plus aggressive finger quotations) only to learn that 'alcoholic’ was no longer culturally in favour.
But, actually, it helped me see my sober friends’ point. It didn’t so much matter whether I called myself an ex-pisshead, an alcoholic or a non-drinker, what mattered was that I understand the condition/disease/habit I was dealing with and its famously sneaky ways of operating.
The empathy conundrum of Alcohol Use Disorder
Incidentally, I rather like Alcohol Use Disorder as a term, as the language encodes that hard to compute, and even harder to sympathise with feature of so-called alcoholism; that it is the person most severely suffering from the consequences of their habit who pours the alcohol down their throat.
Hello empathy conundrum!
It’s a strong choice of verb, too. ‘Use’ invokes the fact, frequently forgotten, that alcohol is a drug.
These days, I regularly identify as ‘alcoholic’ and when I do, it's because it's quicker than saying this:
"I have an infuriating brain-twist regarding alcohol which means I cannot remember its negative qualities at the same time as I have technicolour recall of its positive qualities; as such, and because I hear your stories that describe the same twist, I would love your help in holding a realistic perspective on this substance which made my life painful and narrow, and yet which I often long for with a fervent and inexplicable thirst, and which people and billboards offer me every week."
Still, it was a lot of energy spent, first recalibrating my understanding of the term ‘alcoholic’, beginning to self-identify as such, then learning the term was out of favour anyway, all in service of accessing the help that was available to me.
If I hadn’t been so unhappy in so many areas of my life, there’s no way I would have bothered.
How many people return to drinking before they make it through the ups and downs of this jolly road trip in semantics?
unhelpful things not to say to the ‘high-bottom’ quitter
“You would just have half a lager and go home,” my beloved friend says, in what I know is not an attempt to undermine my decision, but which, nevertheless, pushes me into a violent head spin.
I just used to drink half a lager and head home! So what am I abstaining for??? I knew I was mad, and making this whole problem up. Get me to the pub, post-haste!
In spite of the fact that she's referring to a time over ten years ago, my whole decision is, yet again, thrown into question. Immediately I am consumed with the why-oh-whys.
Why I am depriving myself in this way, why I have worked so hard to leave behind this beautiful and socially celebrated, bonding habit?
How it is that nobody I drank with seems to remember me drinking to excess or having a problem with booze or drugs when, to me, my life has been drenched in, marked up and shaped by, my love and fear of these substances is a mystery it no longer best serves me to solve.
I’ve second-guessed myself and my experience for long enough. The fact is: unless people help me believe I am ‘alcoholic’ I cannot find the will to stop drinking. Without a hard and fast rule in this area, I return to ‘managing’ my drinking, which, doesn’t work.
The longer I stay sober, the more I can see how self-destructive and wasteful, as well as boring and selfish my drinking was. All of which motivates me to stay on this path I have found to contented (most of the time), sober living.
Telling friends you don’t think they are alcoholic is not kind or helpful. If you are not ‘alcoholic’ the chances are you don’t understand the strange brain-twist they are harbouring. But this brain twist, that I caught long before it could ruin me, kills millions of people.
It doesn’t matter if you understand why your friend quit or not, so long as they understand. Offer them a soft drink and tell them a funny story about your day. <3
Whether you approve of the label or not, whether you think labels are helpful, whether you understand of all that ‘12 step culty nonsense’ or not, identifying as alcoholic might be the one thing that is empowering your friend to change their life for the better.
Stop gaslighting yourself!
“I guess you drank more when you were on your own,” another friend says after I tell her I've been getting help to quit, because I was finding it impossible, and I feel the strange pinch of inadequacy that arrives when someone accidentally does the opposite of validating you.
The pinch feels extra painful when the decision has taken such a gigantic effort to sustain, and feels so important. How lovely it must feel when someone who has drunk with you offers a simple, "Good for you." (This has never happened.)
It's hard to lose a drinking buddy, I know. It was hard for me to lose most of mine. Even your most caring friends might take a while to understand. But those who truly love you will still want to hang out.
There is almost no evidence of how my drinking was destructive outside of my own psyche. This is not the same as saying there is no evidence of my drinking problem. I need to stop gaslighting myself.
My story has so little drama, and yet, weirdly, that’s why I’m compelled to share it. How many people keep drinking, just to avoid the pinch of their problem not being validated? Because they aren’t ‘bad enough’ to identify with the 12 steppers?
Because their dearest friends smile and tell them that they don’t have a problem?
Find your own definition
Here’s another working definition of what I mean when I identify as an ‘alcoholic’ in order that I can continue not drinking and live a useful, and often beautiful, life.
Hi, my name’s Chelsey, and I’d appreciate it if you could help me stay sober because I love drinking so much but when I drink I cannot live the life I want to, not even close, and outside of these rooms pretty much everyone I know loves drinking and it’s really easy for me to forget the first part of this sentence, I have already, please help me. : )
Is the unhelpful label starting to make sense?