The Other Scarlet Letter “A”

“Yeah, but am I REALLY an alcoholic?” “MUST I take on this label?” Those are the questions we wrestle with, especially the “high-functioning” types among us, right? I just read a great blog post from one such newly sober woman. Also, I just saw this video. I wish I’d seen it at the beginning of my two-year moderation odyssey–it would have been a lot shorter, I think. I identified myself as an alcoholic in my first post. That’s only because I wrote it several months into sobriety. Here’s what I wrote to my friend Joe when I first I reached out to him on day two:

“…Mostly I’m afraid of taking on the big “A” word as part of my identity. I may very well fit the clinical definition, but still, I’d rather just say to myself and others, that I’m not drinking because I was starting to drink more than is healthy and quitting altogether is the best way for me, you know? That is a true story, if not the whole entire story in vivid detail.”

Why didn’t I want to identify as an alcoholic, even as I knew I needed to quit drinking?   The stigma, obviously.  Not wanting to be mistaken, at some unknown future point by unidentified people, for someone who was physically dependent, which I never was. (Not that anyone gives a shit about the semantics of my drinking problem, but you know what they say–we alcoholics are a self-absorbed lot!).

Plus, let’s face it, it’s confusing. The line is fuzzy between “problem drinker” and “alcoholic.” Some definitions draw that line at physical dependence, but most seem to define anyone with addictive behavior around alcohol as an alcoholic, whether or not they must drink daily to avoid withdrawal symptoms. It seems even the clinicians can’t figure out what to call whom. Although maybe they finally have—the American Psychiatric Association has revised their definition in the DSM-5. They put it all on a continuum called Alcohol Abuse Disorder with mild, moderate, and severe categories.  So my type A brain can now be happy that I can give myself a clinical diagnosis that makes sense to me—I’m in recovery from a mild-to-moderate alcohol abuse disorder. But I doubt the new terminology is going to make it into the recovery lexicon anytime soon, at least not outside clinical circles. So I still have to deal with the word “alcoholic.”

There was another reason for my resistance. I was under the impression that people who embraced the label took it on as the primary thing that defined them, and the recovery program became just about all their lives are about. I have heard people say things like, “I made AA my life.”  I was shocked to find out that even after many years of sobriety, a lot of people go to meetings most days or every day. That scared the crap out of me. I wasn’t yet sure if I wanted to go to meetings at all, never mind every day—not now, and certainly not years from now.  It seemed that accepting the label meant throwing myself whole hog into this subculture.   That’s great for people who want to do that, or people who must in order to stay sober. But I knew it wasn’t my path.

Then I found my sponsor, “Susie.” I worked with her on a project years ago and she’s one of the sparkliest people I’ve ever met. I ran into her a few times over the years, and each time I thought, “Now there’s someone I’d like to get to know better.” When I had about three weeks of sobriety, I remembered her telling me she had been in recovery for a number of years, so I contacted her. She enthusiastically assured me that sobriety is “PURE FREEDOM!” and we made plans to meet for a walk. She told me her story and how she has stayed sober for 23 years. She did the 12 steps with a sponsor “military style,” exactly as prescribed in the program. We talked a lot about my discomfort with the program and the insistence in the AA community that people who find a different path are doing it wrong and will surely drink again. She said that while she loves the steps and did them in the traditional way, her one issue with the program is the insistence that one size fits all. This scares people away from recovery, she said.   She also rejects the notion that all alcoholics must attend meetings often and forever in order to stay sober, and in fact only goes a few times a year herself at this point. What IS critical to sobriety, she said, is continuing to work on yourself either through the 12 steps or some other path to spiritual growth, and to keep sobriety “always in the forefront, never in the background.”

Now here was a woman I could relate to. Here was someone who DID have what I wanted. Long-term sobriety, a happy, productive life and a recovery program that supported her but didn’t define and overtake her whole existence. Yes, I’ll take that. She offered to be my sponsor and said she would be happy to take me through the steps formally as she had done them, or just be there to support me if I chose to go about my recovery in another way. She also did not insist that I ADMIT RIGHT NOW THAT I’M AN ALCOHOLIC. She said I was the only one who could decide that, and if I would rather just call myself a problem drinker, that was fine with her, too. I am so grateful to her and to Joe for their light touch, and for supporting me in finding my own way to a recovery approach that makes sense to me and feels right.

© soberfire, 2015

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5 thoughts on “The Other Scarlet Letter “A”

  1. I have trouble with the Scarlet A, and the idea of AA. I found this post most helpful in untangling the wad of thoughts in my head on both subjects. I keep kicking around the idea of trying out a meeting or two. Still kicking….

    Thanks for the shout-out!
    Ella a/k/a Unconfirmed Alcoholic

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Thank you. I completely relate to this issue. I think it is why it’s taken me so long to give up. I don’t want to be defined by my issues but I want to be taken seriously when I reach out.

    Liked by 1 person

    • I wonder how many of us would have stopped sooner if we had found encouragement somewhere–recovery world? larger culture?–to just go ahead and stop and figure out the rest later, with a clearer head and some perspective. If we didn’t feel such pressure to make grand declarations first, even just to ourselves. This was an article I read pretty early on that I found interesting.
      I don’t share her view that recovery is ever a done deal–for me I believe it will be ongoing process (though not defining me, as we’ve been talking about). But I think she is onto something when she says, “If we wait to admit and accept we have a drinking problem in our society? We are waiting for end-stage alcoholism.”


  3. Pingback: Drinking the Kool-aid | soberfire

  4. Pingback: The Challenge of Kicking Off the Summer Sober: It’s Like Christmas | soberfire

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