When you’re young and alcoholic, a recovered alcoholic, it can be alienating. Because it feels like you’re the only one. You seem normal to people and when they find out that you don’t drink it’s strange to them, shocking, and they need to know why, why would you choose to not drink? They don’t understand and need to get to the bottom of it…there must be something wrong with your character, some deficiency, or you’re boring or a square, no fun. Or there must be a story, some reason that you’ve made this odd, odd choice.
And you’re left there stammering because you don’t want to lie, damn it, you shouldn’t have to, but the truth is embarrassing, is so personal, you don’t want to tell a room of almost strangers that you’re a recovered alcoholic, that you had to quit drinking when you were 33 because your life was being ruined and you were sick of being sick. That you don’t know when to say when, when it comes to alcohol, to anything, really, you were never good at saying no, or at slowing down and taking things easy.
After over six years of being sober, I still haven’t figured out a way to say that I’m a recovered alcoholic, without actually saying the words, “alcoholic”. The word has so much stigma around it, that the second you assign it to yourself, you’re putting yourself in a category. I know that for most people alcoholic means out-of-control loser who can’t be trusted. It’s the asshole on the street asking for money. It’s the woman making a fool of herself at a party or going home with any guy she finds at the bar. It’s dirty old men.
But it’s not me. It’s not the nice woman who works in the office with you who makes everyone laugh all the time. It’s not the lady next to you at yoga or buying nice clothes on Main Street or hiking out in nature somewhere with her dog.
So that’s why it’s so hard for people to grasp that I might have a past that includes a decade of struggling with addiction and all of the issues and disorders that go along with it. Why I’m still left searching for the right words as I try to gauge yet again how the person or people asking the (always direct) question this time might feel about that past, and how much of it I should reveal this time. Or if I should reveal all of it and just say the words, “I’m a recovered alcoholic”. I haven’t yet had the courage to say those words. They just come with too much baggage, and reveal too much, more than I’m usually willing to expose to the person asking. Because if they don’t know about that part of me yet it means they don’t know me very well; as much as I try to live free of my alcoholism, it is a constant presence in my life, I am reminded daily of the fact that I will never have alcohol again, or that I might, but I can’t, or I shouldn’t. It’s always there.
It’s not something that I want to discuss with a room full of people, and yet, every time I turn down a drink from someone for the first time, I am required to explain why. And if I try to avoid the question it’s awkward. So again, always, this uncomfortable moment when I am forced to reveal what I feel is a personal aspect of myself. One that I don’t want revealed, and why is that? It’s a disease. I didn’t choose to be alcoholic. I was born this way, and I struggled and went through all the stages of disease, and was able, through strength, resolve and amazing support, to stop drinking before the final, inevitable stage which is death. Because alcoholism is a fatal disease. It causes the person affected to be addicted to a toxin and to consume it repeatedly until they die, are forced to stop through some calamity, or stop themselves.
When the toxin in question, alcohol, is not only readily available but socially encouraged almost constantly to the point where it is odd when one doesn’t drink, it is hard to quit. Add to that the social stigma of being alcoholic, plus the fact that most people aren’t offered help until they have no choice, until they are dying, or have killed someone else in an accident, or have committed a crime, or are homeless and have nothing left because they’ve drunk their whole lives away, then they get help. Or die.
And even after they get help, it’s Alcoholics Anonymous, it’s talking and will power. The alcoholic is still left to quit by themselves, unless they are a really severe case and they are admitted to rehab.
But millions of alcoholics are struggling because social stigma is making it almost impossible for them to get help. They’re afraid, they’re alone, because they keep messing up, they keep drinking, and they’re getting further and further away from their families and friends, they’re isolating themselves with their disease. All alcoholics do this. They hide and consume, slowly killing themselves in secret. Or out in the open and these are the alcoholics that society hates, that it laughs at. The drunks on the street, or acting out in bars and parties. They’re sick and everyone just thinks they’re a joke. Why is that? Why is there still so much misconception about alcoholism and so little help for alcoholics?
Seriously, why is that?
Why is there still such a stigma around alcoholism, even now? Why do most people still see alcoholism as a weakness or flaw of character? Why are alcoholics still a sad joke?
Because the truth is, this is why alcoholics still live in hiding, or on the margins, dying alone, slowly or quickly, without support. Because they’re afraid of exposing what they know will be seen as a weakness of their spirit. They are ashamed of themselves. They struggle alone to battle a demon that rides their shoulders constantly, trying and trying to halt a pattern that they are biologically predisposed to repeat, that they keep returning to even as they watch their lives fall apart around them and their body and mind degenerate.
Why can’t we talk about this? Is it because to admit that alcohol is a problem would mean an adjustment of society so large that it seems impossible? Is it because alcoholics are better left to their own devices? Or is it a simple matter of not enough resources?
The truth is alcoholism is a disease that, in this society, is fought on the ground by lone soldiers who a) need to recognize the disease in themselves, then b) need to seek help for themselves through any avenue that may or (in most cases) may not be available to them, then c) through great will, effort or by the grace of some spiritual entity, quit drinking altogether, sometimes with no support except for a group of strangers in scheduled meetings that are completely voluntary.
Essentially, a person with alcoholism is required (except in extreme cases) to diagnose and cure themselves, without medication or regular support from a physician–as is the case with other diseases–but purely by his own will. If her case isn’t severe, or she doesn’t have a support system to help her, she will suffer on her own.
Alcohol is a disease with symptoms that are seen by all, that are often displayed publicly, loudly and with much consequence, but that is still seen as a sign of personal weakness.
I believe that normalizing alcoholism is the answer. It’s still seen as shameful. Family members who are obviously alcoholic are tolerated and talked about. Friends just stop inviting the woman who keeps embarrassing herself and those around her. There aren’t enough interventions. There isn’t enough support. It’s a progressive disease that, left untreated, ends in bodily failure and death. But people who are known to be alcoholic are left to figure it out for themselves and get themselves help in their own time, when they hit “rock bottom”–which should never have to happen in the first place–or when they have no other choice because they’re either ill or homeless or in jail. Why does it have to get to that point? Why are alcoholics left out in the cold until they bring themselves to a cure?
The answer of course, to many, is: “Alcoholics don’t want help. How do you force an adult to get help if they don’t want it?” And that is a damn good question. But I think one that needs to be explored because the cost of alcohol abuse on society is too great. It is killing people, destroying lives and tearing families apart. The lost potential of the multitude of people–many of them creative, intelligent individuals–who are living on the fringes because they are slaves to alcohol, who otherwise would be contributors to our society, in itself is uncountable but undeniably staggering.
Not to mention all of those who did achieve, the countless people who did accomplish great things and were in the midst of fruitful lives only to have them cut short by alcoholism and its myriad mental and physical consequences.
Also, not to mention all of those who had nothing to do with alcoholism at all, but were killed by an alcoholic who was driving drunk.
The whole mindset around alcohol needs to change. There needs to be more talk about alcoholism in schools, more education and more communication about it in families. It needs to be normalized. Alcoholism needs to be looked at right in its ugly face, and addressed for what it is which is a killer and a destroyer. Alcoholism needs to be more commonly recognized and diagnosed, and treated without shame, by doctors with the aid of counsellors. There has to be a solution because right now it’s not good enough. It’s not okay that so many people are needlessly suffering because they are too ashamed to seek help. Or their family members are too ashamed, or scared, to confront them, or they just don’t know what to do. There needs to be a more solid support system in place for alcoholics and their families. I know that it is hard to bring an adult to help when they don’t want to go there. But the reason is shame and fear. This needs to be talked about. A solution needs to be found.
Are you an alcoholic, recovered or otherwise? Let me know what you think–reach out in the comments!