This is my four year Alcoholics Anonymous “sobriety chip”. I have one for each milestone, major and minor, since I quit the booze in 2012 – from 24 Hours on. At AA you receive these chips, usually from your sponsor, as reward and recognition of your sobriety milestones. And with the serenity prayer on the back, they serve as a constant reminder and morale giver – some even carry them around with them at all times.
Thing is. I don’t have a sponsor. I’m not “in” AA, and I buy these chips for myself. I love them, each one is an achievement, and they are a great reminder of what I’ve gained from not drinking (in addition to the obvious benefits such as still being alive).
But the chips tell a wider story, because not only do I not really “do” Alcoholics Anonymous, as the last four years have gone by I’ve become increasingly uncomfortable with regarding myself as an alcoholic.
Alcoholic is a universally negative term. “Recovering alcoholic” or “Sober alcoholic” – well, they’re not much better are they. They make you sound like you’re teetering on the verge of a relapse and could go off at any moment.
In this post I want to talk about the term, the baggage it comes with, why it’s important to never forget a struggle with alcohol dependency, but also why it’s important to be able to move on from it.
I know my audience so I know it might be difficult getting you to stick with me through this, so I’m going to start off with a good old dating awkwardness to put everything else into perspective.
I’ve covered a few aspects of sobriety and the opposite sex in my post My First Sober Year but it wasn’t until my more recent year of fruitless eHarmony subscription that another issue arose.
I’d always been unsure as to whether I should mention on my dating profiles that I don’t drink. In theory you’d think it would be a boon for girls to date someone who doesn’t drink, but sadly that doesn’t seem to be the case.
Anyway for a while I decided to point it out on my profile; it wasn’t the main selling point, but I mentioned it, and it had a rather awkward side effect. Turns out if you say you don’t drink on a dating profile it means one of two things. Either you are very religious and it’s prohibited; or you’re an alcoholic.
So I’m on the phone chatting to the seemingly lovely Carly, and she asks me if I’m really religious or something. Um, no, I tell her. In fact I was sure I’d said on my profile I wasn’t. She’s confused then why I don’t drink. I tell her that I used to but gave it up.
Her response generated a moment so awkward it proudly takes its place among the very best/worst moments of awkwardness with girls catalogued on this blog:
“Oh thank God for that, for a moment I thought you were an alcoholic!”
Is there a good answer to this?
What Carly got was a mangled and panicky rendition of a speech which I have by now pretty much mastered, and it covers the following points:
- Yes technically I am an alcoholic, and some people might describe me as such
- BUT (and the but is so big it deserves its own bullet point – Carly had a very similar butt)
- I haven’t drunk in years / I don’t have cravings for booze
- Alcohol doesn’t bother me, I can go to pubs, I can be with drunk friends, I can date girls who like a drink
- AND (as above)
- Even when I did drink I wasn’t a disgrace, I never slept in the gutter, I didn’t lose my job, I never drank in the morning, I never destroyed any relationships (in fact the only relationship I really destroyed was the one between me and the corner shop proprietor when I quit – sorry Iqbal)
Basically; even when I drank I wasn’t what you have in mind when you think alcoholic, and I’m certainly not what you have in mind as a recovering alcoholic.
I don’t feel there can be any recovering from this admission, no pun intended. People have very firm ideas about what an alcoholic is and what they do and that ultimately they are going to end up in a heap somewhere surrounded by whisky bottles and violence after some kind of relapse.
So why didn’t I say “Ha ha ha alcoholic!? Me!? HA HA HA HA HA. Not in a million years love. Anyway where were we…”
I admitted it, because I’m supposed to. Because it’s part of the whole recovery thing. Admitting you have a problem, Identifying yourself with that label is all part of it, whether you follow the AA regime or not, any recovery begins, whether you say it in a group or say it to yourself: “My name’s Alan and I’m an alcoholic.”
IT GRATES EVEN WRITING IT NOW.
Thing is, I have the utmost respect for the “programme”. I went to some AA meetings in the very early days, I could see how it could work. I even said those words above on several occasions as I spoke up in the meetings. Yes, it’s a little too tied to religion (and much as they try to get away from this, it is). Yes, there’s a lot of rock-bottom oneupmanship (“I got so drunk I vomited in my wife’s face”, “Oh I got so drunk one time I shat myself in a police car”, “Oh really, well one time…”). Yes, there’s a strange voyeurism, almost like Jeremy Kyle, where the recovering addicts gather to watch guest speakers who had it much worse than themselves. But for a lot of people, it works. And I fully support what they do. There’s a real fraternity, and a sense that dreary as the stories are, everyone is trying to help each other.
It just wasn’t for me. I wanted hope and optimism, not collective, reflective nostalgia for bad times. I wanted to see someone stand up and talk more about how they cope, what quitting drinking has done for them, not endless stories about the horrors of extreme alcohol abuse.
And it’s for this same reason that I came to dislike the term alcoholic, that admission and that label which were supposed to be an intrinsic part of recovery. For me, it’s backwards-looking. And looking to the future doesn’t mean forgetting the past, it just means moving on and not being hounded by those bad times. The idea of “always an alcoholic” suggests an inescapable hold the booze will always have on you, and I don’t feel it has.
There’s a little arrogance in this I know, and I’m always reminded of an older man who was in rehab with me. I’ll just call him R. R arrived at the clinic on crutches. He had recently had an accident at home and fallen through his roof. But this wasn’t the worst of it. In recovering from the accident he turned back to the drink.
R had been sober … a “recovering alcoholic” for FOURTEEN YEARS.
After all that time, it just took one slip up, literally and figuratively, for the drinkies to sink their claws back into him. It’s impossible to forget R’s story when I think about whether I “am an alcoholic” or I “was an alcoholic”. I feel like I want to move away from the label, to move on but never forget that the shadow is always there.
The chips help with this. Each milestone is a part of the ongoing story of recovery and progress. This is my way of keeping the past in mind, without being a slave to “that drinking problem”.
I’ve also been thinking maybe it’s time to get a little more involved in helping others; after all these little chips are all emblazoned with “unity, service, recovery”. Maybe I’ll start writing a bit more about the recovery process, maybe share more of my tips and insights for others. Don’t worry I have a another place lined up for this writing, I know you guys come here for fucking hilarious stories and only tolerate through gritted teeth the odd serious piece…
For now, I’m already looking forward to number 5, another chip for the board, and although I still have mixed feelings about the label, I guess you can still call me Al…