The other day I was giving my ‘elevator pitch’ about my coaching business to a woman in my networking group, and I mentioned my history with alcohol use. As soon as I said it, I could see a subtle shift as her face dropped into that expression of pity. She nodded her head sympathetically, “Oh yes, such a shame. My friend’s sister’s ex-husband is an alcoholic too.”
Mm-hm. She clearly gets it. And yet, there’s that word: Alcoholic
We think we know what it means, as we toss it around in respectable society – Oh, my brother-in-law is an alcoholic; My cousin was married to an alcoholic. There is a classic image that appears in the mind for many: the dirty drunk in the doorway, the red-nosed barfly, the embarrassing boozy aunt at Thanksgiving. We have defined what being an alcoholic looks like our society, and for most of you “normal drinkers,” you know that it looks very different than YOU.
I used to use that word alcoholic to describe my past-self to people. A starting point so that they would know how far I’d come—how much I’d grown these last four years. I WAS an alcoholic, I would say, but now I’m sober.
Describing myself with that word seemed to make other people feel better. It provided a clearly-defined space between MY drinking problem and their “social drinking.” It enabled them to place me in a category of “otherness.” Alcohol was a problem for me because I AM an alcoholic. Alcohol would never be a problem for them, because they are NOT alcoholics.
But guess what?
The CDC no longer condones the clinical diagnosis of ‘alcoholic’ …because there is no clearly defined line that determines when someone passes from being ok with drinking to becoming an alcoholic. There is is not a definitive checklist that one can mark off to secure their designation as ‘alcoholic’ versus ‘not-an-alcoholic.’ (Believe me, there was a time when I used to Google this relentlessly. If I could just get a clear answer, I could decide if I needed to do something about my drinking or not!)
The term ‘alcohol use disorder’ or AUD is more widely used these days. It is a socially-acceptable way of labeling someone whose numbing tool of choice is alcohol (rather than Oreos or gossip or scrolling). But still, it is a diagnosis that implies wrongness. DIS-order. Even my third grader is learning that adding the prefix ‘dis’ to a word means that it is incorrect, or has no order.
And while, yeah, for most of my drinking years I felt pretty out-of-order, I balk at the implication that my alcohol use was ‘incorrect’, whereas regular people were following the social guidelines and using their goblets of wine as God intended.
I mean, I went to happy hour like all the other self-respecting 9-5ers; I swirled my two fingers of golden hooch on the Kentucky bourbon trail; I brought the obligatory bottle of wine to mom’s night out. I was following all the rules laid out by middle-class society. I drank to have fun, to relax, to connect, to fit in.
Just. Like. Everybody. Else.
What if there is no ‘disorder’? What if the only difference between me (the alcoholic) and you (the normal drinker) is that I used this (legal, socially acceptable, highly addictive) substance to numb life’s little traumas and then forgot how to cope in any other way?
What if the only difference is that the ‘alcoholic’ had a big trauma and turned to the most effective tool they knew? What if the addict was just a young mother who was prescribed pain meds and discovered they silenced the screaming grief over losing a baby? What if the alcoholic was a nurse who took the secondary trauma of her patients home with her daily and discovered that wine quieted the anxiety and helped her sleep? What about the friend whose occasional wine indulgence becomes a daily distraction after her unexpected divorce?
That means that addiction is no longer someone else’s problem. It is everyone’s.
A friend of mine said yesterday that none of us are immune to pain and suffering in our lives. Some people just haven’t experienced it yet. Suffering is a part of every human journey at one point or another, and many of us aren’t taught how to process and cope in healthy ways when it does. There is a very pervasive message in western society that says alcohol eases pain of stress and overwhelm. When I was studying to become a teacher there were no classes on how to not take it all home with you. Or how to reconcile low pay with high expectations. Or how to give your heart and soul each day and still have something left for your family.
In high school we had a teacher who was caught with multiple bottles of vodka under her desk. As a young person I judged her as weak and pathetic. But now I understand. She was no different than any of us. She was taking it all in — the work, the emotions, the struggles, the loneliness — and had nowhere to put it, so she drowned it. And once you’re addicted, it’s really hard to do anything else.
I invite you to rethink the words alcoholic and addict.
These words draw a line in the sand where there is none. When you meet someone who has struggled with drugs or alcohol, realize there is no label that will differentiate them from you. We are each separated only by the small twists of life.
Skye Nicholson is a certified This Naked Mind empowerment coach. If you are questioning whether alcohol is taking more than it is giving to your life, visit www.soulstruthcoaching.com to see how personal coaching might help you regain control over drinking.