Alcoholic. Alcoholism. Drunk. Addict.
If you’re reading this blog, I guess the chances are that you’re already well acquainted with these words, and perhaps even better acquainted with what it means to BE one of these words.
I certainly epitomised all 4 of them in my active drinking days – I was an alcoholic, drunk, in the throws of alcoholism and suffering from the disease of addiction. Reading that on paper, what would you expect me to look like?
The general perception of someone who fits the words at the top of this post would be perhaps a male ( perception has gender stereotypes to you know ), unshaven, bad hygiene, torn and ragged clothes, perhaps living rough, certainly no job, no mortgage, unlikely to be in any form of meaningful relationship, sips from a bottle of cheap whiskey out of a paper bag rather than coffee first thing in the morning and should generally be avoided at all costs.
That is the stigma that is attached to the terms above. That, when you tell someone you know an addict or an alcoholic, is what their mind conjures up as a mental image of the person. So no wonder then, that there is such a great deal of anonymity around 12 step groups, and also no wonder that there is such a big issue around people identifying themselves as someone who perhaps has a drinking or addiction problem.
You see, if deep down, when you drink, you have a small voice or a spark of intuition that you are perhaps having more than you should, or the habit has become something a little more, the rationale that you’ll quickly tell yourself to quieten that voice is that you do not match the stereotype of an addict or an alcoholic, so therefore you can’t really have a problem.
Back to me ( us addicts are incredibly self-centred you know – even in recovery ), on the surface, I wasn’t any of those things. I definitely had coffee in the morning ( I needed something to help shift the blurriness that only drink fuelled sleep can induce ), I showered every day, rented my own property, had my own business even and to anyone looking inwards at my life, they would say I was doing ok. Certainly not a poster boy for the term alcoholic.
Notice how I said on the surface? That’s important. Because all that good stuff I was doing, and that my life was portraying was purely a well constructed show – partly orchestrated for the public eye, but also, in my denial, for my own viewing pleasure.
Beneath that surface façade, there were steps towards becoming that stereotypical drunkard. It is fair to say that if going from someone who doesn’t drink at all to being the homeless addict is a journey, I had just boarded the high speed service that wasn’t stopping at to many stations on the way there.
This isn’t really the issue I’m raising though – the issue is more that being called, categorised and stigmatised as an “alcoholic” is wrong. I was alcohol dependent. I was addicted and still have an addiction to alcohol ( if I were to start drinking again, I have no doubt it wouldn’t be the odd glass of wine here and there – I would drink myself to death – therefore I am an addict ). The term that is bandied around is a “functioning alcoholic” – that’s someone who maintains a successful form of life whilst indulging their lust for all things inebriating.
Being called an alcoholic, or suggesting to someone they may be an alcoholic, or wanting someone to have that internal dialogue with themselves around the fact they are an alcoholic is damaging, because if they don’t at that time, match the description of what we perceive an alcoholic to look like and behave like, then it’s easy for them to deny ( to others and themselves ) that they are an alcoholic, and in the black and white of that situation, they’ll then normalise their drinking and carry on at pace.
If however, we can park those terms for a second, and start to look at different ways to categorise how our alcohol consumption is affecting our lives, then there is a chance that addiction can be identified within the individual at a much earlier stage. It doesn’t need a one stop shop label’ There are degrees of addiction from the harmless one glass of sherry every Christmas right upto “the end game” phase I found myself in.
For me, the education about my situation came after the horse had bolted – in hindsight ( wonderful thing blah blah ), I can see that my daily bottle(s) of wine, ever earlier start time, sneaky drinking behaviour, chaotic way of running my life, inability to be honest, incapable of treating my relationships with the respect they deserve – the list goes one – were all casualties of a dependence I had developed for alcohol. If, aside from the last dark days before entering rehab, you had asked me if I was an alcoholic though, I would have said no.
If, you had asked me if I habitually drank alcohol – chances are I would have said yes. If you had then logically asked me if I would find it difficult to break that habit, I would have also said yes. If the conversation continued and you asked me was there any part of me that wanted to not “have” to have that bottle of wine or 3 every day, I genuinely think I would have admitted that yes, I did wish I could break that habit.
You see, a different way of coming to the same conclusion – I was and am an alcoholic, but if you’d called me an alcoholic, whether through denial or mis-education, I would have laughed at you.
Lets bring this conversation into the current day. I’ve been in recovery for some time, I’ve learned a lot, I am a better person In every way. Ask me now if I’m an alcoholic / addict and I will gladly tell you I am and that I am proud to be one. Because if I wasn’t one, I would not have had the benefit of gratitude and love of life that I have today.
But still, if you were to tell people who know of me but don’t know me on a personal level that I am an alcoholic, they would see it as a purely negative label. We know enough now to understand that addiction is as much a physiological disease as it is a mental illness – no one wakes up wishing they could not get through the day without being completely intoxicated and messing their life up. Believe me on that point.
So the time has come to change the perceptions of what alcoholism really is, and therefore what an alcoholic really is – and by doing so, hopefully we can also start to help people long before they get on that fast train to stereotype of what an alcoholic looks like.
Look out for part two of this blog post coming soon – it tackles the issue of “Do I have drink problem”