For the last several years of my drinking, I’d often ask Google: “Am I an alcoholic?” I wanted answers. I wanted someone to tell me definitively whether or not I should be drinking. Turns out, it doesn’t work that way. Sure, I scored an 18 on the NCADD Alcohol Abuse Self Test (a score higher than 8 indicates “a serious level of alcohol-related problems requiring immediate attention”) but that was only when I was being completely honest, and I also know a lot of people who’d score similarly, and they weren’t quitting drinking.
The DSM used to divide alcohol abuse and alcohol dependence into two disorders. As a binge drinker, I fit the criteria for the former but not the latter, which further fed my denial or perpetuated my confusion, depending on how you look at it. (The DSM-V now classifies them together, as the same disorder, which will hopefully help more people.) I was at risk of losing everything to alcohol, but I had not yet lost everything. I did not drink everyday. I had a boyfriend and a job. What finally got me into recovery was a therapist who made me realize I did not want my decision to quit drinking to be precipitated by losing everything. She made me realize quitting was a decision I was going to have to make sooner or later. I could either make it now, when I still had a decent life, or later, when I had nothing.
I wanted to post this interview with myself because it’s the kind of thing I might have found helpful to read back when I was Googling “Am I an alcoholic?” on a weekly–okay, nightly– basis. I also enjoy interviewing myself because it makes me feel like I’m famous.
Do I identify as an alcoholic? I do now, yes. A few years before I got sober successfully (as in, at the time of writing this, I have gone almost a year without drinking), I tried “dropping in” on a few AA meetings without identifying as an alcoholic. You’re allowed to be at an AA meeting if you don’t call yourself an alcoholic (the only requirement for membership is a desire to stop drinking) but it feels pretty alienating. I didn’t speak once, even to introduce myself, and soon started drinking again.
Now, I find simply embracing the alcoholic label has opened up a whole new world of friends, resources and opportunities. Acknowledging my alcoholism is probably the best thing I’ve done for myself. But as a victim of Special Snowflake Syndrome, I also understand the resistance to labels. I thought I had all these exceptions, but it turns out none of them were that exceptional. A lot of people like me were simply calling themselves alcoholic and getting on with their lives. I wanted to get on with my life, too, so I followed suit. Identifying myself with a well-worn label has been important part of keeping my ego in check and reminding myself why I don’t drink.
Do I tell people outside AA that I’m alcoholic? I’ve told my partner, my immediate family and some close friends. There is alcoholism in my family, which sometimes makes my sobriety feel awkward, but everyone I’ve told has tried their best to be supportive. I’d like to get more comfortable being open about why I don’t drink, since I think it’s important for people to have exposure to sober alcoholics. Otherwise, the only alcoholics they see are the drunk ones, who aren’t doing great things for the public image.
How do I feel about AA? I feel lucky to live in a city where there are hundreds of meetings per week. I go to AA because it’s the most accessible recovery community available, and I figure getting sober is hard enough without watching someone reinvent the wheel. AA is free, everywhere and has been around for a long time. I also believe it works. But like any human enterprise, it’s imperfect. There’s a Christian basis (though not necessarily bias) to the literature, which can definitely be alienating, and some of the outdated language can be sexist or exclusive. But I’m also not the only person in AA who feels this way, and it’s possible to be a part of the fellowship without taking every word of the Big Book as gospel. I think finding a meeting that works for you is essential. I’ve been lucky enough to find a few meetings made up of people (mostly women) with whom I can identify and share honestly.
My spiritual understanding is more Buddhist than Christian, and I’m interested in trying out some Refuge Recovery meetings, which are available in my area. So far, I haven’t gotten around to it, largely because I’m getting a lot of support from the 2-4 AA meetings I attend a week. I’ve also attended some Buddhist recovery meetings at the Zen Center and Shambhala Center. I don’t believe it would have been possible for me to get sober without some kind of recovery community. I have written more about why I feel this way here.
If I’m wondering if I’m an alcoholic, does that mean I’m an alcoholic? That’s what they say. But I never found this maxim particularly helpful. I’m a hypochondriac who has managed to previously convince myself that I have a brain tumor, appendicitis, diabetes and various types of cancer. Turns out I don’t have any of these things (although just by writing that I feel like I’m jinxing it–knock on wood) but I do have alcoholism.
So I guess it’s possible that another hypochondriac could think they’re alcoholic when they’re really not. But I guess the difference between realizing that I was an alcoholic and believing I had a brain tumor was that the symptoms that made me think I had a brain tumor went away. The symptoms that made me think I had alcoholism never did. They weren’t always getting worse–sometimes, they plateaued–but they never went away, no matter how hard I tried to ignore them.
And what symptoms were those? Blacking out was probably the biggest one. I was so tired of it! As Amy Schumer says: “Nothing good ever happens when you blackout.” Things I did in blackouts included: cheating, driving, calling and emailing, fighting and even hitting. Most of these activities were not things I wanted to do sober, so I’m still not sure why I was compelled to do them drunk. It was a very Jekyll and Hyde situation.
I also had terrible hangovers, which would often incapacitate me for entire days with physical illness and deep guilt and despair. And I was unable to trust myself to do basic things, like keep secrets or leave a bar (ever). Finally, I was incredibly preoccupied by alcohol. I guess you could say I still am, seeing as I’m writing this blog. People without drinking problems tend not to write blogs about their drinking. But if I’m going to preoccupied by alcohol, I’d rather it be in this way–creative and potentially helpful–rather than destructive and hurtful. Plus, alcohol is everywhere. Maybe some people can quit drinking and not think twice about it, but for me, the decision not to drink still takes processing. I drank for 15 years and grew up in a family of drinkers, so I have a lifetime of conditioning to overcome.
Are you an alcoholic? I don’t know, and I can’t tell you. But I’d be happy to talk with you more about drinking, recovery, AA or anything else. You can comment here or email me at email@example.com.