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.