Stigma, secrecy and sobriety

There’s a reason that it’s called Alcoholics Anonymous.  Every one of us talks about how, in our drinking days, we supported our own denial with the popular image of a shambling, pathetic last-stage alcoholic; that’s not me, we thought, and therefore I haven’t got a problem.  All of this is old territory.

What intrigues me is that the stigma extends to sobriety.  We’ve given up for Lent.  We’re trying to lose weight.  We’re on antibiotics.  NO we’re not pregnant, jeez.  The simple ‘Drinking wasn’t good for me, so I stopped’ seems to be something we shy away from, mostly, and what are we afraid of?  Surely, if being a drinker is so bad that alcoholic is a dirty word, then stopping drinking is to be applauded?

Some of this, of course, comes back to the labels.  If we have had to stop forever we are saying that we were Alcoholics With a Capital A.  Which is ridiculous, obviously; my friends who have eschewed gluten aren’t tarred with the Mad Carb-Bingeing Porker brush any more than my caffeine-free mother is an ex-jitterbug.  And I totally just made those two terms up, because neither of those is even a thing.  Even ex-smokers are just called ex-smokers.  No ominous capitalisation for them.  (Us, in fact.  I gave up smoking completely about a decade ago.  But there’s another difference; it hasn’t even stayed as part of my identity. I often forget completely that I once smoked).

So. Stopping completely, embracing sobriety as a lifestyle choice, is stigmatised because it implies that one is An Alcoholic. But what’s wrong with that?  Why the difference between an ex-drinker and an ex-smoker?  There’s this internal dichotomy with drinking; it’s more socially acceptable to drink than to smoke, and less socially acceptable to quit alcohol than nicotine.  And yet, it’s also more embarrassing to admit to an addiction to alcohol than an addiction to cigarettes.  I know many people who have tried, and failed, to quit smoking several times.  They’ve paid for hypnotherapy.  They’ve bought expensive quitting aids.  They’ll admit, happily if ruefully, that they just can’t do it although they know they should.  Oh, well, we say.  Keep trying.  Good for you.  It is hard, yes, the hardest thing you’ll do, we understand.

I want that.  I want to be able to say that to normal people.  I’m addicted to alcohol, I tried to quit the addiction and drink less but I couldn’t.  So now I’m stopping.

In fact, what I’m finding is that I can say that I’m stopping, but only if I don’t let on that it’s difficult.  A breezy ‘Oh, I felt like I was maybe drinking a bit too much, so I thought I might as well stop’ is fine.

But what I want to say is that it’s sometimes really fucking difficult.  That I’m mourning.  That sometimes it’s genuinely fine that there’s wine in my house, that I pour LH a glass, that I stir it into a sauce.  And other times it’s not fine, at all, and I’m furious with self-pity because all I want to do is pick up the ramekin of ruby cabernet and pour it into my mouth and instead I force my arm to tilt it into the casserole dish and rinse it out before I lick the inside.  That sometimes I just want to treat myself as an invalid, and climb into bed in soft pyjamas with my book and a pot of herbal tea and cry, but I don’t feel like I can possibly justify that because only a broken person reacts this way to a healthy lifestyle decision. I can’t say any of this to normal people, because it’s so ridiculous, so out of proportion, so fucking pathetic.

And that’s why the sobersphere is so important.  It’s why AA is so powerful.

When I first gave up alcohol, Lilly called my sobriety ‘fledgling’, which is just perfect.  Fledglings are raw, vulnerable, helpless.  Ugly.  Best to tuck them away in a nest, out of sight, until they grow feathers, and their wings strengthen, and they soar.

I’m thinking about this today because several of my real-life friends know I’m sober – I made a point of telling people as much as I dared to, so that there was no going back – and that I’m blogging my way through it, and have asked about the blog.  I gave the link to only two of them, both because they have alcoholics in their own lives and I hoped it would help.  To everyone else I have said no, so far, because I’m still ugly and naked and I can’t yet fly. But I wonder whether one day, I will link this blog to my ‘real’ blog, where I rarely write because here is where my writing energy is.  It is estimated that 5% of the Australian adult population demonstrates high risk or dependent drinking, with another 15% being ‘at risk’.  That’s one in every five adults who may have a problem, and one in twenty who do.  I have a lot more than twenty friends, and all of them drink.  Somebody out there needs help.  But when sobriety is tainted with the stigma of alcoholism, I’m still too scared to be the one to offer it.

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What are the characteristics of an alcoholic?

I keep seeing people write things like ‘like many alcoholic personalities, I have a tendency to manufacture drama’ or ‘I always want more than I have, which I guess is common amongst boozers’.  Caroline Knapp does this a lot, categorising various personality traits as being ‘alcoholic personality’ character traits.

I’m very, very resistant to this idea.  In part, because I can see how tempting it is.  I almost wrote a post the other day about the fact that I’ve finally changed my hair colour, but I don’t like it because it’s gone from slightly wacky and dramatic to mid-brown (how?  I have no idea.  This is not the conversation I actually had with the stylist) and I like my hair dramatic rather than natural-looking.  And then I jumped to a thought about whether this is an addict’s trait, to want drama and artifice rather than having the courage to show one’s authentic hair colour/personality…

And then I realised that bloody well everybody dyes their hair and I should get a grip.  Not everything is about the fact that I like to drink.  Very few things are, in fact.

I guess I’m just not very interested in diagnosing myself.  Every time I hear someone say ‘My problem is I’m a people pleaser, I just want people to love me, I really love my friends but sometimes I just need, need some alone time, I yearn for deep connection but it’s hard to let go of my own vulnerabilities, I’m happy on the outside but I feel really sensitive to any sort of slight’ I kind of want to scream SO DOES EVERYBODY ELSE.  YOU ARE DESCRIBING THE HUMAN CONDITION.  Which is obviously why I never went into counselling as a career.

And the thing is, what people describe as an alcoholic, or addictive, set of personality traits just strike me as ‘personality traits’.  Yes, absolutely, some people are more vulnerable to substance abuse issues than others; mental health issues, family histories, childhood traumas, all of these affect one’s susceptibility.  And it’s absolutely useful to examine one’s coping mechanisms and emotional strengths and triggers in order to overcome those issues and be able to function without substance crutches.  I completely get that.

But is it useful to build up a picture of what an alcoholic or addict is like?  I mean, is it useful to label certain facets of one’s personality as being ‘alcoholic personality traits’?  When are we even talking about?  People talk about ‘pre-morbid’ personality traits, but there’s problems with that.  Either we mean ‘while we were drinking, but before that drinking became alcoholic’, which is hugely problematic; for a start nobody really knows when that line was, anyway.  And even if we do, alcohol itself has an effect on our mental health.  So one can be drinking heavily, but non-alcoholically, and suffering from low level depression.  But alcohol is a depressant, so by that logic we can also rope in ‘knows where all the good liquor stores are’ and ‘ability to enunciate very carefully when necessary’.  That is, those are things that excess alcohol intake causes, whether or not they were pre-existing.

Or do we go back to the time before we started drinking at all?  Well.  I don’t know about you, but I started drinking at fifteen.  Have you even MET a fifteen year old?  If my inherent personality is the one I displayed immediately prior to my first drink, I can only conclude that I am prone to bouts of weepiness for no reason, loathe my parents, and am convinced that miniskirts and fishnets in mid-winter is an edgy and fascinating look.  Also you wouldn’t get me, because the only person that gets me is Nick Cave.

So there’s that, for a start: if you start drinking before you reach full adulthood, then when you stop, you can’t possibly tease out ‘inherent’ or ‘pre-morbid’ personality traits from ‘things you are because you just spent your whole adult life drinking’.  But neither can anyone else; we are all a product of our experiences and our choices overlaid on a basic framework, whether those choices involved addictive substances or not.  There are certainly inherent personality traits; my two girls are very different, and have been since birth, and every parent will tell you that holds true.  But by the time you’re thirty, or forty, or fifty, in the therapist’s chair, I believe that you can no longer point to some of those traits and say these.  These things are why I drank.

Maybe my objection to this tendency is more aesthetic than it is practical, because let’s face it, listening to someone else’s Inner Stuff is next only to listening to their dreams in terms of dreary cliche – which is, of course, why therapists are expensive.  But maybe it’s more pragmatic.

Maybe it’s just that if you’re going to look at your Inner Stuff, you should be looking at the things that gave you the determination to beat an addiction.  Maybe you should be examining why you are determined.  Where your willpower came from.  What gave you the insight to see beyond the seduction to the abusive lover within.  How you harnessed your social skills to reach out to a community of sober people, and how your posts and your thoughts have helped them.

Whether you’ve quit drinking, or you’re still just thinking about it, you’re right here right now today.  Let’s look at why.  Let’s look at how awesome you are.

You are the protagonist of your own story. Write a good one.

I'm sorry about this.  I swore I'd never do the inspirational poster thing.  But I needed an inspirational poster here.

I’m sorry about this. I swore I’d never do the inspirational poster thing. But I needed an inspirational poster here.

I’m glad so many of you liked my post about drinking again.  What seems to have resonated the most is the alcoholic thinking that happens before the first glass, all those justifications that roil in our heads constantly.  And I have to admit that when I started writing, that bit came very easily, and in far more detail than I thought it was going to; clearly, there’s a hell of a lot of alcoholic thinking still going on in my brain.

But that’s not why I wrote it.

The realisation that I wanted to get down in print was the bit at the end.  This bit:

Obviously I’m an alcoholic. I can’t even quit when I try really hard. I fucking relapsed. I’m a fuck up. I can’t get out of this. I can’t quit. I always thought I could quit when I finally decided to and I can’t. I must be an alcoholic, and most alcoholics relapse and can’t quit and keep drinking and ruin their lives. Sobriety is just beyond me, I have no willpower.

That’s the story I’ve told myself for the past two years.  One of the stories.  The book of my drinking isn’t so much a clean narrative as it is a collection of short stories, with conflicting narratives, different subjects and a contents page that looks something like this:

  1. I’m Not an Alcoholic; I’m Too Functional for That
  2. Everybody Drinks
  3. I Can Quit Any Time I Want
  4. I’m an Alcoholic.  I Can’t Help Drinking Like This
  5. I’ve Drunk Heavily For Years; I Must be Able to Maintain Successfully
  6. One Day My Drinking Will Get Worse; That’s When I’ll Quit
  7. I Just Really Like Wine

Anyway, you get the idea.  We tell ourselves stories about ourselves all the time.  Told often enough, stories have resonance.  I don’t want to go all Foucault on you guys, mostly because I’m not completely sure I ever understood Foucault in the first place, but the same societal structures and norms that dictate our stories are also dictated to by those stories.  Rape culture, for example, means that rape is reported a certain way and commentary rests on the victim’s behaviour.  Those stories, because they permeate our social consciousness also dictate the behaviour and modus operandi of rapists.

How the hell did I even…

Right.  Stories!  So, stories we tell ourselves about ourselves are tools.  Or weapons, wielded badly.  The whole (slightly woo, admittedly) theory behind affirmations rests on this; if we write ‘I am successful’ 200 times a day, we will start to believe that we are successful, and we will be open to opportunities in our lives that assist us to become successful because those opportunities align with our self-beliefs.  We will also have cramp in our writing hand, but there’s a price to pay for everything.  Where our self-belief and our environment don’t accord, we influence our environment to align with our self-beliefs.  Which are, in the end, just stories.

The most powerful story I ever told myself, in my drinking days, was Chapter 3.  I didn’t know that, at the time.  It was just another justification for why I didn’t really have a problem.  I just liked to drink, I said.  It was just a habit.  I’d stop when I had a proper reason.  But it turned out to be a story that had more power than I realised, because I really believe it.  From the second I ‘properly decided’, I have believed that I can stop.

The most dangerous one was Chapter 4, and in the last two years, I have re-read Chapter 4 so many times that the book started to fall open to those pages.

Every day that I don’t drink, I skip the other chapters, and just read Chapter 3.

But even Chapter 3 isn’t my story any more.  It’s in the wrong tense.  I can quit any time I like?  No.  Now I need a new chapter. Chapter 8.  I Quit.

And then the next thing is this.  One day, I’ll get bored of reading just one chapter of one book, because a book about actively drinking is a book I’ve read too many times, and I’ll write a new story.  A better story.  A story of romance and high adventure and probably quite a lot of chocolate.  That one will be called … I have no idea what that one will be called, which is a shame because this post was all set for a dramatic exit, with sweeping panoramic views and inspirational music.

But that’s the thing about writing your own story; sometimes you change the ending.