September is #RecoveryMonth as sponsored by the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration. The goal is to increase awareness and understanding of mental and substance use disorders and celebrate the people who recover.
I was talking with a friend last week about recovery and the community and she made a comment about how, in the heat of her addiction, she couldn’t talk to anyone and it felt like she was drowning. And she hoped that cumulatively we can all help break down the stigmas surrounding this someday.
Her description hit me hard because that’s the same way I was. I felt like I 100% could not admit I had a problem with alcohol even though I clearly did. That all my secrets would be revealed and I would be an outcast and talked about. “Oh did you hear?! Kevin’s an alcoholic!!”. That’s why I still won’t call myself that today, because it was never empowering to me and the word is so stigmatized by society and subjective. It just doesn’t work for me. If you’d like to label me as such, I can’t stop you, but I’ll just ask why you feel the need to label it in the first place?
TOO BIG TO FAIL, JUST LIKE TOBACCO
What I know now and what took me awhile to realize is that society’s perception of an “alcoholic” is so fundamentally flawed. Alcohol is glamorized and legalized and engrained in every facet of our lives. But it is a drug. Alcoholic beverages are classified as a Group 1 carcinogen. The term carcinogenic is defined as having the potential to cause cancer. To push and condone and build a trillion dollar industry worldwide around this drug and then pretend that everyone can handle it except for an ambiguous group of people, those alcoholics over there, is, well… fucked up.
The short list of activities society deems worthy and acceptable for booze:
- Getting Married – drink
- Someone died – drink
- A child is born – drink
- The workday is over – drink
- Holiday – drink more
- Need to relax – drink
- Kids bugging you – drink
- Homeschooling – drink
- At an airport – drink
- On an airplane – drink
- 2 year-old’s birthday party – drink
- Watching sports – drink
- Vacation – drink all day long
- On the sidelines at youth soccer – drink from a coffee mug
- At a spa supposedly treating your body well – drink
- Literally any conceivable activity where adults congregate – drink
So the alcohol industry slaps a label on their product that tells you to “drink responsibly” and has no accountability for the negative and addictive effects their product has on people. If everyone drank “responsibly” the alcohol industry would be on life support within a few years! Drinking responsibly won’t grow the value of the global alcohol market from $1.26 trillion in 2017 to the projected $1.63 trillion by 2024. Billions of dollars every year aren’t spent on advertising to convince us to drink. Everyone is doing that already. It’s being spent to keep us inside the “Matrix” and thinking this is just something you are supposed to do, everyone does it, and it is fun. Meanwhile back in reality, any level of alcohol consumption increases the risk of developing an alcohol related cancer and that level of risk increases in line with the level of consumption.
But wait, you’ve had too much of this addictive substance at all of those socially sanctioned drinking activities and now you require increased amounts of this drug that’s sole purpose is to make you crave more of it over time??!!! Ummm, well then, there’s something wrong with YOU and we shall label you Alcoholic and you probably shouldn’t have anymore of this drug ever again. Also, if you do drink again and you cannot hold to this standard of perfection and abstinence then we will shame you for being weak-willed and not disciplined enough. Now go over there and we’re going to get super awkward when you come around us. How does this make sense when alcohol effects everyone’s brain in the same fashion, just to varying degrees based on sex, size, age, etc., and there is no blood test you can take to determine where you land on an “alcoholic spectrum”. So, once again, “alcoholic” is just a subjective term.
If you’ve made it this far, first, I applaud you, but I’ll just repeat what I’ve said in the past which is that I have no problem at all with people who choose to drink. It is an individual choice and I know people are going to do it. What I have a problem with are the stigmas placed around alcohol and those who are hurting from it, which are reinforced by the alcohol industry and our own government. I’m all for capitalism and making a profit, but in this case it really is profits and tax dollars over people.
So, let me get back to my original reasons why I waited so long to change my behaviors. Since there is no definitive way to quantify or test whether you’re an alcoholic, it is very much a personal decision to identify as and use that term. If it empowers you and helps you to make a change and it keeps you on the right path, then that is amazing, definitely use it. If you think applying the term to yourself would be a detriment to getting the help you may need because you think you will be judged unfairly, or treated differently, or it just doesn’t work for you, then don’t use it.
Words hold weight. Words have power. We are seeing this more and more today and it’s uncomfortable to confront words that have been used for decades, centuries, or millennia, but that doesn’t mean we shouldn’t do it. Words are how we communicate and as we evolve some words just don’t work the way they once did.
So, don’t let words hold you back from making a change. I never felt like an alcoholic, or, I should say, what I perceived an alcoholic to be. Even at the heaviest point of my drinking when I asked myself this question, I didn’t know the answer. Some would say I was in denial and I’m sure I was. But we don’t need a 20 question test to determine if we have a substance use disorder. We know if we’re looking online for signs whether we have a problem or not that we probably do indeed have just that.
TALK ABOUT IT
Which leads me to the reason I thought of this post. The reason I just celebrated 500 days in a row without alcohol. I opened up about my drinking. That’s the funny thing about alcohol, it’s so pervasive in our culture that it is so easy for someone with a problem, who’s struggling or hurting, to hide in plain sight. We don’t see everything. We don’t show everything. I hid in plain sight for years and sure, my weight kept creeping up and I didn’t look healthy, but who, besides my brothers of course, are going to openly give me shit for that. All the while we do battle with a drug that’s sole purpose is to get us to consume more and think we’re enjoying it (of course in a responsible manner… did I mention we were supposed to be “responsible”?).
I needed to talk about what was going on in my head and why I couldn’t ever stop drinking once I started, but when you’re so deep in the shame and self-loathing of not being able to control something that almost everyone else SEEMS to control, who can you turn to for help? I needed something different to break me out of my deep rut that I worked myself into over many years. I needed someone different and nonjudgmental to be able to maybe change the path in which I was headed. So I saw a therapist for the first time in my life. I could have gone to an AA meeting. I could have signed up with The Luckiest Club or other online support groups. I could have just created an Instagram account and been anonymous to get ideas and support being alcohol free there. I chose online therapy.
Actually talking to someone about what bothers me and any issues I am having has been one of the great experiences of my life. I mean that. I connected with my therapist and felt like I could share anything with her which is important. As a man, and this is a stereotype, but more true than not, I would not open up and share my feelings. Ever. I never felt like I should or could do that. I handled those feelings on my own, until I couldn’t, and that’s when I would lean more on alcohol.
So talk about what’s going on in your life and what troubles you are having. Talk to someone, anyone. There are support groups, therapists, counselors, etc. out there for every imaginable problem that we as humans face. Do some research and reach out for help. Don’t let what other people think hold you back from doing something to help yourself. After all, they aren’t the ones waking up with your hangover. They aren’t the ones who are feeling your shame at once again not being able to control yourself around drugs. And don’t be fooled, it is all drugs. There are no “drugs and alcohol”… just drugs. You, we, us… we’re the ones dealing with those consequences. There’s no shame in asking for help.
Fuck stigmas. Fuck Shame. Let’s start talking.