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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22 thoughts on “Stigma, secrecy and sobriety

  1. The more I think about this (and I do when I read a post like yours…groovy), the less I am inclined to think that the stigma is as bad as I make it out to be. I have a general sense that some folks don’t understand it, but whenever the topic of addiction, in general, is spoken in polite company, almost everyone seems to understand it. They may have varying degrees of understanding – one person may have an uncle who is an addict or alcoholic, one person may have just heard on Dr. Phil that yeah, addiction sucks and is hard. But the consensus I have seen is that many do understand it’s not a moral failing or anything like that.

    And of course, some will argue that we are weak willed, have had complete choice in the matter, are using the “illness” tag as a way of excusing responsibility, etc. And that’s something I would expect at some point I suppose. But the more I open up, the more I am pleasantly surprised by the feedback.

    Anyway, thanks for giving me pause for thought. Might be my next post, actually 🙂

    Cheers
    Paul

  2. Awesome post! I can so relate and I have gone thru the same struggles with wanting to out myself. Why the hell should we be ashamed about recovery is just daunting to me! But! There is a but. Many of us struggle and relapse several times before we “get it” and for that reason some anonymity especially in early recovery, I believe, is good. And this is because imagine telling all your friends that you’re getting sober and it’s the best thing and you feel great and then you relapse. And life goes to shambles and you disappear. And what if that happens more than once. The guilt and shame that we carry ourselves is enough, and to have to carry the one from others, wow that’s alot. Of course now after few years I am a bit more confident in my sobriety and I believe that it’s ok to tell anyone I want, although I am not immune to relapse, but I am ready to deal with the fallout if one happens. But early on we are so fragile and it can be so difficult. I personally was quite grateful for the big A in AA.

    I surely admire your enthusiasm and willingnes to break the stigma. It is huge and still all over the world seen as shameful! But don’t worry, it will come when you will feel comfortable to do it all the way!

    Check out this site http://www.facesandvoicesofrecovery.org

    Thank you so much! Great post.

    • Maggie, the thing that’s stopped me sharing, more than anything else, is actually the fear that if I share, and then relapse, I’ll disappear rather than come back and admit that ‘in front of’ my friends. Which is why I loved Lilly’s ‘fledgling’ so very much, because this is all about how strong my wings are/n’t. So yes. What you said.

  3. Thanks for putting this out there. I honestly think that stigma of being an addict to alcohol, or an alcoholic, is one of he reasons I haven’t been able to get better. I am afraid to admit this to my family and a lot if my friends. I live in a closeted world that is slowly closing in on me. I have isolated myself from friends because I don’t want to drink with them, but I have cut myself off from support they could potentially offer me. I am starting to realize that part of my recovery will be telling my loved ones about my addiction. Otherwise, I will either continue to drink with them or I will continue to hide. Not good options. The third choice is to be honest and let the chips fall where they may. Some will support me and maybe others won’t. I’m scared of who might not support me or what relationships might change but I can’t let that stop me. Thanks for your post!

  4. this is a really tough one. I don’t know anyone else who is ‘out’ as sober. and I know a LOT of people. I really, really wish there was just one person I knew in real life who didn’t drink. and it may be that there are acquaintances I have who don’t drink and it’s just never come up…. I don’t mean I would like real life sober buddies, I just would like not to be the only person! in a previous part of my working life I worked in a very male dominated profession and sometimes I just got tired of being the only person in the room not able to make small talk about bloody cricket…

    perhaps that is the gift we can give other people. to be the other person in a skirt in the room?

    I am finding it easier to tell people now as having a longer period of time under your belt makes them take you more seriously. not tease you about it, as clearly it is a major thing for you. my current line, if it is of any help, is that ‘this suits me better’. said firmly yet loftily, with calm assurance. or at least I like to think so 😉 xxx

  5. I think just about every line of this post echoed my own thoughts. I too have either side stepped the topic or really played it down, like it’s no big deal. And this is why the sobersphere is such a bloody lifesaver because it’s possible to talk openly and honestly here with people who understand and do not judge. But at the same time, like you I am longing to say it openly, with pride and without fear. In my head, the logic says that there is nothing to be ashamed of. Alcohol is an addictive substance. Avoiding it is a sensible option. The non-logical shame part of me feels that I’ve failed – or that I will be judged for having failed – at being “able” to drink a few glasses a week without going overboard. And it is this expectation, that we should be able to drink just a little, that keeps so many for seeking the help that they need for so long. Also – the fledgling thing – someone commented to me early on that my sobriety was like a new born baby and needed nurturing. I really liked this analogy – in the early days (I think we’re at a similar stage) it needs a lot of time and loving care. Hopefully in the future I will be able to speak out with more confidence and take those steps that I see others taking in reducing the stigma associated with quitting alcohol, but until then, I’m going to be taking good care of my infant sobriety 🙂 Thanks for the post. 🙂 xxx

  6. I think there are actually a lot of non-drinkers and especially very light drinkers out there, on many occasions I was hiding the fact that I was topping up my glass a *lot* more than other people. My husband drinks a beer every night, but it would never occur to him to drink two. Other friends have a glass of wine and leave it at that. Have you noticed the number of unfinished glasses kicking around after dinner parties and events? I recall Jeremy Clarkson saying he was shocked by an American at a new year party whose reason for not wanting a rum punch was simply “no thanks, I’ve already had one” and they meant it.

    I’m pretty open about it with people I’m close to, but to casual acquaintances, well I wouldn’t particularly discuss my health or eating habits generally so why would they need to know a reason for what I choose to drink? Some people don’t drink because they just don’t and it doesn’t occur to them, some drink a tiny bit at a social occasion just because they’re handed a glass, some simply don’t like it, some don’t like how it makes them woozy or red in the face, some don’t want the calories… None of it is really anyone’s business. A perplexed or surprised expression on being asked an impertinent question is a perfectly valid response.

    Apparently cutting down or quitting in the UK is commonplace and it’s not trendy among the young who think it’s tacky or fattening. I’ve spent years mixing with people who’ll let me drink because I thought that was what I wanted. There are loads of relatively sober events in reality. You know, people pursuing interests that don’t involve getting pissed. Those people don’t feel the need to tell anyone they don’t fancy downing a bottle of vodka at their pottery class, they just don’t consider it. We on the other hand wouldn’t consider a pottery class because of the lack of a bar!!

    • Yes, definitely. Some of my friends drink heavily, other friends don’t drink at all, it’s not even a thing really.

      I guess I was trying to talk about the specific experience of giving up alcohol when you are addicted to it, though. It feels like it’s only socially acceptable to give up if it’s no big deal to do so, and since I believe that conquering an addiction is a big fucking deal, I wonder why we/I can’t just own that, straight out? I’ve given up alcohol; it sucks and I’m miserable sometimes. Yay me!

      • Yes, it would be much more positive for friends and family to congratulate you and encourage you in your abstinence from alcohol in the same way that they do for giving up cigarettes. Although, I’ve seen many people try and get an ex-smoker to “just have one” too. My DH’s theory is that people feel threatened, like they should be considering how much they drink and possibly cutting back or giving up too. They don’t want to think that, so they either try and get you to drink, stop inviting you to social events or minimise your efforts – all of which happened to him. I think it is an phenomenal achievement for you to give up alcohol when you are addicted, largely because as well as the addiction side, you also get just so much pressure from people around you and such a lack of understanding. Yay you indeed!!!!

  7. I hate the stigma… I think it’s one of the main reasons it took me so long to go to AA. I am so glad I did. Now I’m just an x-drinker and there is no going back! Great post. Thank you.

  8. “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.”

    Yes, this! So true. You’ve made me think.

  9. I think about this stigma thing a lot. A few days into my sobriety, my husband and I attended his office’s holiday party. Of course, I was semi-dreading the thought of drinking seltzer and lime all night while meeting new people, but I made it through. However, I noticed that my husband looked embarrassed whenever I declined a drink offered by one of his co-workers. Embarrassed like staring at his shoes while shuffling his feet on the floor kind of embarrassment. I was like WTF, wouldn’t it be more embarrassing if I got hammered and started twerking on the dance floor? I mean, I think I’m perfectly pleasant while sober and I’d like to think his co-workers liked ME for who I am: not a crazy drunk middle-aged woman, but just a… person. I can’t help but wonder what the office talk was on Monday – “Why doesn’t your wife drink? What’s up with her?” If I declined a cup of coffee or a cigarette, not one person would be fazed…it’s really disheartening and I often feel like curling up in bed with a cup of tea.

  10. I wonder if we (meaning drinkers who stop) make a bigger deal of this than we need too? I work in an office where 50% of them don’t drink at all and at the wider team Xmas dinner 75% of the table weren’t drinking, in fact it was the boozers getting sloppy and loud that appeared out of place. To them my stopping was a non-event which I really liked. My family and friends on the other hand behave at times like we’ve grown two heads!! 🙂 xx

    • Lucy I rarely feel like I need to make a big deal out of it because others will. You’re right: nobody really cares. And as I said, as long as I don’t make a big deal out of it, it’s smooth and the conversation passes over.

      What I’m really trying to say, though, is that to me it IS a big deal. But the only way I can talk about it is to pretend that it isn’t. Which doesn’t help, in the long run, in getting support out there for other people for whom it is a big deal as well. I don’t want to share with social acquaintances, or strangers, by any means. But I’m finding that I’m not even telling my close friends the hard bits, because I don’t want them to think less of me BECAUSE it’s hard. Does that make more sense?

  11. I think it gets easier over time. My goal has been to be honest, but not to overshare. Not everyone needs to know my whole story, but people that I trust can handle knowing more about the situation. I have to say, I have been amazed by the support that I have received. It has sometimes been awkward or uncomfortable, but for the most part people want to help as much as they can. It makes me far more uncomfortable than them most of the time! But really…there is no need to defeat the stigma today. As we grow stronger we can take baby steps towards being more out in the world, being fantastic and sober and making positive changes. great post! xx

  12. Reading your blog is helping me to understand and sympathise with my mum and DH a lot more. It is also bringing up a lot of stuff for me, which I may in turn blog about! Your family is so lucky that you have recognised your addiction and are taking measures to overcome it and not let it rule your life. Alcohol killed my mum, but it stole her from me long before it physically killed it and I find myself both envious of your family and happy for them that it won’t do the same to you.

  13. Pingback: Fighting The Social Stigma | Sober Courage

  14. I think giving up alcohol is a huge deal and for me, the stigma is a huge deal. I wish it weren’t so but it is. For many reasons. I suppose I’ll sort those reasons out as I go. I joke about being on the wagon with many. But with a handful of my closest friends, I am truthful with how hard it is and how much it sucks sometimes. And, occasionally, the glimpses of how dang normal it feels.

  15. Brilliant post! “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?” Exactly!
    “Mad Carb-Bingeing Porker” and “ex-jitterbug”! I love it.

  16. A agree that the stigma keeps a lot of people from quitting. I received a lot of pressure from a few friends initially, but both drank a lot more than I ever did, so, I guess they didn’t want me to cross from the dark side to the light side. I am still uncomfortable with going to AA because I may run into people that I know, also, I don’t want to share some of my worse moments with strangers. So I guess for now it s reading and commenting on blogs, yoga and journaling.

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