Am I an Alcoholic?

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 airofelsewhere@gmail.com.

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13 thoughts on “Am I an Alcoholic?

  1. Pingback: Am I An Alcoholic? A Self-Interview | The Air of Elsewhere

  2. This is a great piece of writing and very clever idea to interview yourself – i bet it helped to clarify things for you! Am I an Alcoholic? Yes, i think so – im still struggling with the whole concept and dont want to be in a group that is in many ways ostracised from society – but then i have always felt myself a little ostracised anyway – like i was different, weird, did not fit in etc etc, probably a touch of your special snowflake syndrome – but there it was and a drink or 2 always made me feel better about interacting with people – and i think that is a good indicator that i am alcoholic – i change when i drink – get a bit wilder, a bit too excited, a bit crazy, my husband reminded me this morning how a few months ago when i was still drinking i told a couple of young men at the pub that they would be doing the world a favour if they went and assassinated our prime minister! I mean – what was i on? Alcohol. thats it – and i need to get right off the stuff – cos yep i am an alcoholic. thanks for the opportunity to let this load go! luv your blog. xx

    • Thanks, love your blog, too! Not sure why I hadn’t found it before. Your description here sounds very much like me. Always felt a little ostracized, which a couple drinks seemed magically to remove, yet with increasingly negative consequences, probably because it rarely stopped at a couple drinks. And while there’s obviously stigma attached to the alcoholic label, there are also a ton of admirable, unstigmatized people who are (often sober) alcoholics. 🙂

  3. Great post! Thanks for sharing your thoughts on the topic of being an alcoholic. I still struggle with the word itself- mostly because I don’t get it why there is a different word for people with alcohol addiction as opposed to other addictions. If I am a drug addict why am I not a drugaholic? Anyways, semantics. Which are sometimes important and sometimes not. I don’t have a problem saying I have an alcohol addiction, but the word alcoholic doesn’t feel authentic to me.
    Anyhoodles- alcoholic or alcohol addict- whatever kind of acceptance of a problem that gets someone through the door and into recovery works. I’m glad AA is working for you. I went in the beginning and found it helpful. Now I go to RR. I hope you check out a meeting one day! It’s fairly similar in sharing style etc… just a different perspective. Keep us posted 🙂

    • I don’t get it why there is a different word for people with alcohol addiction as opposed to other addictions. If I am a drug addict why am I not a drugaholic?

      Ha, I never thought of it this way. It reminds me of one of my favorite Onion articles: I’m Like A Chocoholic, But For Booze

      I was reading your post about Refuge Recovery; it’s so cool you go regularly. I really need to get my butt over there and check it out. I’m starting to feel a little complacent in my meeting schedule; time to shake things up!

      • Haha just read that Onion article- very funny. I guess we do use “aholic” with some other things but it’s sarcastic. Language is weird!
        Refuge recovery is pretty cool, but it’s still new and growing. My group has been going for about 6 months. We’re all learning together. Which makes it neat on one hand to be a part of something from the beginning. But I can also see liking the security and familiarity of AA.
        Let me know if you check it out, I’d be interested to hear your thoughts!

  4. This is a fantastic post, and I identify with all of it. I especially love this: “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.” I have accepted the label for meetings and I get that I fit the clinical definition, but the word still bothers me sometimes. I think it would be better if I could release the hang-up about it. Your words resonate. Looking forward to reading more–thanks for finding me so I could find you!

    • Thanks, your blog really resonates with me, too! It seems like we have similar thinking. Identifying with the label in meetings is a huge step and perhaps all you need to do to get the support you need. Great to meet you!

  5. Like you I believe AA works – it does for me and has done for 11 years. I feel on the whole comfortable in it. I’ve had a few periods where I’ve not felt totally like that but…

    Regarding the Christian or at least religious basis to some of the literature etc. I agree. There are however some NOT AA APPROVED literature about the subject – notable Vince Hawkins ones which I’ve read alongside the AA literature and found them very helpful for me. http://www.vincehawkins.com/buy-self-improvement-books-by-vince-hawkins.php It was a question at conference last year in the UK whether AA should do more in the literature regarding this – consensus was to not – not my feeling but there is often a “don’t meddle with stuff that is working for us” mentality in AA which I can appreciate. I have found me being open about my issues with “the God thing” has helped me come to terms with it – surprising when you say it out loud in a room how many others then identify with you. I have a little closeknit group of atheists and agnostics that support each other.

    Finally like you being around a recovery community is I’m sure vital to my continued sobriety and growth. AA is the most convenient, largest, most active and also the most welcoming I’ve found.

    Once I started to look at my drinking and my relationship with alcohol which once I’d got it out of my system and was in rehab it pretty quickly became clear to me that frankly it was all wrong from a lot of viewpoints. Obsession, never in control, drank far more than was healthy, physical results of intoxication, behaviour changes due to drinking etc. I was happy enough to say “I’m an alcoholic”

    • 11 years! That’s amazing. Thanks for the book recommendation. One book that has been incredibly helpful to me so far is One Breath At a Time: Buddhism and the 12 Steps. I actually want to write a post about it.

      I totally agree with what you say about the community aspect of AA. I was just reading this article about why AA works and it says this: “We have been able to determine WHY these 12-step facilitation interventions work,” said Kaskutas in an email. “And we have also been able to determine WHY AA works.” Simply put, “People who self-select to attend AA, or people who are randomized to a 12-step facilitation intervention, end up having people in their social network who are supportive of their abstinence,” she said. Reams of research show that social networks, and the norms contained therein, are powerful drivers of behavior.

      This is the full article: http://nymag.com/scienceofus/2015/03/why-alcoholics-anonymous-works.html

  6. I followed the link to the self test…scored a 22 (answered it how I would’ve a couple weeks ago) I’m 16 days sober, but if I ever start to think I can go back to moderating, that little test will be a good reminder. Thanks for sharing!~

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