Identify As An Alcoholic? Is It A Helpful or Harmful Label?

Do I Need To Identify As An Alcoholic?

identify as an alcoholic

Want to be surprised? A damn label seems to keep more people trapped in the drinking cycle than the damage caused by the sauce.

What’s so atrocious about the label, alcoholic?

Well, opinions soar!

For some, the term is associated with skid row bums, panhandling on the street, vodka in the brown paper bag, with residual vomit on their tattered and torn trench coat.

The simple fact that they might “be one of them” deters them from sobering up. Even if that line of reasoning is evidence they might be moving in that direction.

In fact, the majority of us have made every effort to prove we were not one of them – the real alcoholic.

Another red flag that you’re heading in that direction.

Another association people make with the label is Alcoholics Anonymous.

Another Sober Myth

In an article titled 8 Sober Myths: Wake The F$ck Up I touched upon this topic.

I was arguing that the idea that a person must identify as an alcoholic before they get sober is largely a myth.

“Sweeping statements are the exact opposite of what a rational person needs. Labels serve a purpose.

What’s that purpose? It’s twofold:

  1. Navigation
  2. Convenience

We use labels for convenience to help us make right decisions. For example, we label sharks dangerous. Most of us made this conclusion after our first shark week. The sum result? We are cautious around sharks.

This isn’t all inclusive, however. We aren’t worried about sharks robbing us in a back alley somewhere or peddling drugs to our kids. Instead, the label is made with limited information but aids in our survival.

Here’s the caveat: labels should not be used for identities sake!

Alcoholics Anonymous is sometimes misunderstood – in my humble opinion – to be recommending we concede to ourselves that we are an existential hiccup – a cosmic mistake.

Rather, this particular label is used to compel us to move away from it. Much like a diagnosis is used to curate a prescription.

However, it doesn’t need to be understood this way.

You may prefer to not even speak this into existence. Rather, the language you choose is one of change without even a mention of negative diagnostic type labels. It’s not that you label yourself non-alcoholic or something of the sorts, you just label yourself a “grateful person” or something with more affirmative measures.

That’s fine. Speak hope into your life.

The truth is that recent studies have demonstrated that 9 out of 10 people present with alcohol use disorder but aren’t actually alcoholics.

As noted in the second myth, human beings are far too multidimensional to be nearly categorized into scientific categories with a fine toothed comb.

To repeat, use a label to aid in your survival not to be an accomplice in your demise.

identify as an alcoholic

It’s Permanent!

Other folks associate the term with a terminal illness, as if once an alcoholic, always an alcoholic.

Yet, this seems a bit off the mark.

A cancer survivor doesn’t identify as a person with cancer once it’s in remission.

Sure, they might call themselves a cancer survivor, but it’s unimaginable for them to identify with the cancer itself.

As with all stages of development, you identify with the stage you’re on but there is no need to hold fast to it once you’re beyond it.

I was once 4’8 feet tall, but I no longer identify with that height because I’ve grown significantly since then. If I still told people I was only 4’8 they’d likely give me a smile and keep it trucking.

This is why the Buddha warned about attachments – nothing is permanent.

Learned Religions captures the Buddha’s understanding in such a manner to clear up our distorted westernized view of it. Further, it enables us to understand what I’m trying to communicate.

Non-Attachment in Buddhism

the four noble truths

“The Four Noble Truths are the foundation of Buddhism. They were delivered by the Buddha as a path towards nirvana, a permanent state of joy.

Although the Noble Truths state that life is suffering and attachment is one of the causes of that suffering, these words are not accurate translations of the original Sanskrit terms.

The word dukkha would be better translated as “unsatisfactoriness,” instead of suffering.
There is no exact translation of the word upadana, which is referred to as attachment.

The concept emphasizes that the desire to attach to things is problematic, not that one must give up everything that is loved.
Relinquishing the delusion and ignorance that fuel the need for attachment can help end the suffering. This is accomplished through the Noble Eightfold Path.”

the eightfold path

It’s worth repeating, “The concept emphasizes that the desire to attach to things is problematic.”

Getting attached to any label inordinately can cause disastrous desires and immense unsatisfactory living.

For example, let’s consider the label of a “happy person”

In the western world this fundamentally translates into “zero problems.”

The attachment forces me to minimize my issues, rarely discuss difficulties, and more or less play pretend as an adult. I desire happiness to such an extent that it always eludes me.

This is why attachments are dangerous, but not labels. On a bottle of bleach, the label informs of the content of the bottle. Attachment is drinking the content, the label is merely information.

As De Mello eloquently observed,

“Suffering is a sign that you’re out of touch with the truth. Suffering is given to you that you might open your eyes to the truth, that you might understand that there’s falsehood somewhere, just as physical pain is given to you so you will understand that there is disease or illness somewhere. Suffering points out that there is falsehood somewhere. Suffering occurs when you clash with reality. When your illusions clash with reality when your falsehoods clash with the truth, then you have suffering. Otherwise there is no suffering.”

Anthony De Mello

de mello quotes

The truth is I once identified as an alcoholic, it was a healthy motivator to keep me moving in the direction.

Every time I wanted to bail on my sobriety it was a stern reminder that I needed to keep moving forward.

However, once I elevated my personal development, I began calling myself a recovering alcoholic.

The alcoholic label no longer resonated with me and my inner wisdom was compelling me to reach out to new heights. This is the form of suffering De Mello spoke of, it’s best thought of as an inner wisdom.

Eventually, I began calling myself a recovered alcoholic.

I wanted people to know that even the worst of the worst can reach a state of total reversal and resolution.

Now I just call myself Tim. It’s a label that is fully loaded, but it works for me.

I’m an incredibly imperfect human being with a lifestyle that makes drinking entirely unnecessary.

So, call yourself whatever the hell you want. Whatever is effective and resourceful, exercise it on a daily basis until it no longer applies and then move to the newest working label.

We Are Always In Process

Labels on a map are simply markers, but they aren’t the territory. If I start in Pennsylvania and work my way West to Colorado, I wouldn’t continue to claim I’m in Pennsylvania. I’ve moved on to new places, people, and things.

Labels are fluid, they’re not some rigid fixed entity!

The label ‘alcoholic’ means a million different things to a million different individuals.

There really is no hard and fast, airtight definition solidified in the mind of the people.

For some it means “constant struggle, and no relief will ever be arrived at.”

For others “I’m not that bad, so I’m not an alcoholic,” yet when you push them to define “that bad” they provide extreme examples of someone on the far end of the alcoholic continuum.

This can create tons of confusion and send mixed messages.

For some it refers to “genetic inferiority.”

For others it means “valuing something you have every right to value but the majority do not value.”

And for others it means “weak-will.”

I honestly could go on and on because the definition really has such little consensus.

The Cultural Hogwash

Our culture will tell someone with alcohol dependency, “you cannot drink.”

Then a person struggling with alcohol will counter with the old “I cannot not drink.”

But the truth is neither prohibition or compulsion, rather it’s empowerment: “I can not drink.”

A label is a convenient manner to navigate this God forsaken veil of tears – overkill? 🙂

We complicate everything.

identify as an alcoholic

By the late twenty century analytic philosophy basically concluded after ruthless analysis that words are utterly meaningless (which they told us in their thousand page volumes)

It’s better to avoid this snare altogether by seeing labels from a lens of non-attachment. If they are no longer resourceful and are causing suffering, let them go, elevate.

Rather than see the label, alcoholic, as a prohibition or a compulsory life sentence, see it through the lens of empowerment – that any difficulty can be triumphed, overcome, and result in a better quality of life.

Don’t allow words and labels to tie you up in chains and choke your individual freedom of expression and growth.

Rise above.
Be empowered.

In short, is the “alcoholic” label harmful or helpful?

It’s neither, it’s just a label, how you interpret it, well, that’s up to you.

identify as an alcoholic