Am I an alcoholic?
People love the “holic” label – chocoholic, shopaholic, workaholic. The list is endless. Yet if you give any of those up you don’t become a stigma, in fact your change is viewed positively. Alternatively, many assume if you stop drinking you are an alcoholic. What’s the deal with the label? Society says I am an alcoholic. Do we stop using the word alcoholic? Or is it just a word?
What do I say though?
My answer is no, I don’t identify as an alcoholic -especially now that I no longer drink. Rather I am a person who had an addiction to alcohol. That addiction was terrifying. I am grateful every day that I could overcome the addiction while the physical aspects seemed to be in their infancy. In my case, physical withdrawals when I stopped drinking were limited to anxiety, nervousness and night sweats. However, for others stopping drinking can lead to hospitalization and even death in someone who is experiencing extreme physical dependence.
Addictions Aren’t Just Physical
I caught my addiction when it was mostly emotional, mostly psychological. Still, everyday I would feel helpless and trapped.
I would feel as if my chances of living a happy, fulfilled life without drinking were next to nothing. In short, I was living in torment.
I would lay wide awake in the early hours of the morning unable to sleep. After the effects of the alcohol wore off I would spend hours chastising myself. Beating myself up for yet again drinking more than I set out to. I was carrying a huge amount of self-blame and shame.
Read about my 3am ritual in the first 40 pages of my book available free here!
Why do I not have limits?
The plan was never to drink more than a glass or two of wine. Inevitably, the entire bottle – or more – would disappear – night after night. You feel trapped and that you are to blame. I put myself in handcuffs and threw away the key.
It was a truly miserable experience.
This may sound a lot like alcoholism – you might even assume I am in denial for not identifying as an alcoholic.
Should We Stop Using The Word Alcoholic?
Recently, my eyes have been opened to a benefit of taking on the label alcoholic. I believe that if the label works for someone to achieve freedom then that is an incredible thing.
This new understanding came from my friend Laura – of the HOME podcast (which you should check out if you haven’t). That is to say, I feel very strongly that everyone’s path is unique and anything that helps us journey out of the alcohol crisis we are in as a society is to be applauded.
Why I Am Not Alcoholic
That being said the vast majority of drinkers, including myself, for who alcohol is taking away their joy, their peace, their self-respect don’t –and may never come to identify as an alcoholic.
These are the reasons that I believe that for the good of the society it’s time to take a hard look at this language.
A Deadly Drug
The CDC reports that alcohol is killing men and women at record numbers. Even more terrifying is that, according to the CDC, alcohol related deaths account for four times as many deaths as all prescription and illegal drug overdoses combined.
One way to begin addressing these terrifying facts about our nation’s favorite vice is in how we speak about alcohol addiction. Change is preceded by awareness & acceptance. The arbitrary and un-diagnosable term “alcoholic” encourages denial rather than acceptance. Examining the label creates dread for those who wonder if they are drinking one too many.
Instead of questioning our drinking habits, we question if we are an alcoholic. The amount of fear surrounding that question ensures we deny the answer as long as possible.
For this reason, we must empower someone to question his or her relationship with alcohol. Allowing them to seek answers without fear of life-long disease, ostracism from social society, shame or stigma.
As a result, we can treat and arrest the progressive disease of alcohol addiction. We can begin before individuals suffer lasting neurological, emotional or physical harm. Before they hit the proverbial “rock bottom.”
Addiction over Alcoholism
So yes, I can admit to an addiction to alcohol, and to overcoming that addiction. I choose not to identify as an alcoholic. Here are some very specific reasons why:
The term ‘alcoholic’ has an unclear and black and white definition.
Human behavioral experts have evolved from the classification “alcoholic.” The term Alcohol Use Disorder, is now preferred, a broader continuum comprised of many forms of use and abuse.
The term alcoholic ignores the progressive nature of addiction. It is a black and white term, you are an alcoholic or you are not. Addiction – as defined by the experts – has many stages and is a problem of a progressive nature.
Your first experience drinking is not the same as your last. Not in terms of your desire for the drink, how much you drink or your rational for drinking.
Alcoholic Drinking vs Regular Drinking
The arbitrary line between ‘alcoholic drinking’ and ‘regular drinking’ allows us to turn a blind eye to the progressive nature of problem drinking.
We should be able to honestly, and without fear of a label, ask ourselves if alcohol is affecting our lives. If yes, there should be options to take an honest look at it and address it.
It focuses treatment efforts on a minority of excess drinkers — while ignoring millions who struggle.
We appropriate the designation “alcoholic” only on those whose lives have become unmanageable. One must accept the label “alcoholic” and its stigmas in order to address the problem. Those who are not yet addicted but who are on the path to addiction remain on the sidelines.
My friend Holly Whitaker of Hip Sobriety says it best. “Its like treating only those who are morbidly obese with gastric bypass surgery instead of suggesting those who are just overweight diet and exercise.” The facts seem to back this up.
90% of problem drinkers – meaning drinkers for whom alcohol is causing problems are not physically addicted – or would not meet the criteria of alcoholism.
It gives us a false sense of security by obscuring the addictive nature of alcohol.
By believing, despite a lack of clear evidence, that there is physical, mental, or spiritual difference that causes someone to be an “alcoholic” we put the blame on the individual (alcoholic) rather than the addictive substance (alcohol).
Using the word alcoholic seems to say that it’s normal to consume an addictive substance – and not become addicted to it- and abnormal not to. Our bodies are not designed to drink alcohol in the quantities we do. You don’t have to look very far to see that this is true.
This belief perpetuates when self-proclaimed “alcoholics” assert they are indeed different than “regular” drinkers, even claiming an allergy to alcohol.
The truth is alcohol is addictive, not just to alcoholics but to human beings.
This has been proven again and again. The need for alcohol, and the need for more alcohol both physically and neurologically is a creation of the alcohol itself. No matter your genetic influences, experts agree that you were not addicted to alcohol before you drank it. You can not be addicted to something you do not ingest.
It creates a self-diagnosed exile, which promotes denial.
No one wants to grow up to become an alcoholic. The idea of voluntarily classifying oneself as such — as different from your friends and family — is terrifying.
Drinkers delay self-diagnosis for as long as possible.
The ambiguity of the term alcoholic allows us to pick and choose its definition so it can define anyone but ourselves.
It dooms the afflicted by classifying alcohol addiction as incurable.
Our most popular alcoholism treatment method asserts there is no cure for this lifelong disease — only continued remission achieved through complete abstinence.
This in spite of a study by the National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism (NIAAA), stating more than one-third of individuals with alcohol addiction fully recover.
This means people go from alcohol dependence, defined as tolerance, withdrawal, and unsuccessful attempts to reduce or stop consumption, to not drinking at all or drinking at levels that are no longer considered harmful.
But even so, the widely accepted message, mainly because we are so loathe to talk about how much we individually drink – is that alcoholism is incurable. That creates fear. It scares us, and ensures we don’t talk about it at all.
It seems to (dangerously) necessitates a “rock-bottom.”
People wonder constantly if they are drinking too much yet they have not had a ‘rock bottom’ experience that forces change. Millions worry about their alcohol use yet haven’t had any catastrophic occurrences in their lives.
It was almost ten years from the time I started (secretly) questioning my drinking to acknowledging an addiction – yet even at the point of acknowledging a desire for change I had not suffered any type of rock bottom experience.
Convincing myself I did not truly have a problem because nothing outwardly bad had occurred.
Ignoring the growing signs of dependence I continued believing ‘I’m only harming myself,’ and ‘I’ve never been in trouble.’
It allows us to forget alcohol is a drug by implying that drinking is “safe” for anyone who is not an alcoholic.
We accept alcohol as a vital part of society. Blaming the alcoholic for alcohol related problems. Insisting alcohol is somehow different from “hard” drugs. We feel ‘safe’ in our drinking because our friends who go to AA are alcoholics and we are not.
A.A.’s Big Book claims that alcoholism “is limited to this [alcoholic] class [of people] and never occurs in the average temperate drinkers.”
In contrast, recent studies clearly show that not only is alcohol a drug, it is the most dangerous drug on the planet. Alcohol surpasses AIDS as the world’s number one killer of men aged 15-59. Even moderate drinking (1 drink per day) increases the risk of breast cancer.
Ingesting ethanol is harmful to the human body, alcoholic or not, even in limited quantities.
It gives alcohol a power it does not deserve.
I hear alcoholics tell me they were born alcoholics.
We don’t have cigarette-o-holics or cocaine-o-holics but rather individuals who have become addicted to nicotine or cocaine.
Why do we use different language with alcohol muting the harms of the substance and placing blame on the individual? Especially when studies show that over time, with the right level of exposure, anyone can develop an addiction to alcohol.
The term creates fear and separateness. I believe that it’s time to change the conversation. Time to accept the unpopular truth that the harmful and addictive qualities of alcohol do not change depending on the label we give the drinker.
I believe it’s time to bring this into the light, creating a safe place where anyone, everyone can take an honest look at their drinking and how alcohol is affecting their lives without fear of being labeled or judged.
Let’s Stop Using The Word Alcoholic
Am I an alcoholic? Now that I’ve learned the term is as made up of a condition as one pulled from an episode of Doc McStuffins or Willy Wonka, I can say with conviction that No, I am not. Let’s stop using the word alcoholic and call it like it is. I am a person who was addicted to alcohol. Much as you might have an addiction to cigarettes, food or prescription drugs. All legal, yet deadly if abused. Let’s start honest conversations placing the blame on the addictive substances. Rather than labeling, let’s focus on treating people when they first start to question their relationship with alcohol.
Will you join me in changing the language for one of acceptance and hope?