What you hear when I say I’m an alcoholic

(or, more precisely, a recovering alcoholic)

Hello kittens,

As some of you probably already know, Big Mama Schlomo is going on about 7 months sober. I quit drinking at the end of last October, and by and large, I’m doing great.

In the past seven months, I’ve had the opportunity to think a lot about the ways people react to someone saying they’re a recovering alcoholic, and today I’m going to dive down deep into some of them.

First off, to dispense with an easy one: if someone says they’ve quit drinking and don’t immediately follow with “because I just converted to a religion that forbids drinking” or “because I’m on a low-carb diet,” the answer to the question “why?” is virtually always “because I have a drinking problem.”

But I want to get into a lot thornier areas. Let’s start with some back story.

I never fit the classic clinical American model of alcoholism. I did not drink alone. I did not hide alcohol. I did not drink alcohol in the morning. And, perhaps most saliently, I was probably never *physiologically* addicted to alcohol. When I quit drinking, I did not “detox,” or experience physical withdrawal symptoms.

And yet when I filled out a British drinking behavior inventory, I was kindly informed I should “seek immediate help for what may be a serious drinking problem.”

So what gives?

What basically came down to nomenclature and semantics helped propel my drinking problem forward for years. I had known I had a drinking problem for actual years before I quit drinking, but I always passed those little online tests.

In this country, we seem to focus on the internal, secretive side of substance abuse, and emphasize both physiological dependence and legal trouble as markers for alcoholism.

The American alcoholic is essentially introverted and has external problems. But being extroverted with internal problems meant that I could have a terrible drinking problem right out in the open.

One of the things I find really interesting is that people are openly willing to challenge me on terminology when I say, for the sake of brevity and clarity, that I am a [recovering] alcoholic.

And I still find this is the most expedient and efficient way of explaining things, because if you don’t say “alcoholic,” but instead say, for instance, “I don’t drink,” people will goad you mercilessly to drink. They will (in my case), challenge my masculinity (as if I don’t challenge it enough myself!), and generally just get way more up in my business than I’m really comfortable with. So, if you just say, “I’m a [recovering] alcoholic,” most people get what I’m trying to communicate.

But some other people, especially ones I know better, will not stop there. A gentleman I dated recently would correct me when I would gloss my alcoholism, insisting on saying things like “self-reported.”

As opposed to what other definition? Who else would you like to report on the matter?

This gentleman was well within his rights to probe deeper into my history of substance abuse. But it is at this point that we arrive at what I really want to discuss:

people seem fundamentally disappointed in my “self-reporting” about my drinking problem.

I never got a DUI. I never got in a physical altercation. I never wrecked a car or lost a job. In fact, I managed to graduate from college, write a book and make a couple of records, all while barely ever being sober.

And people seem just a •little• sad that this •doesn’t• end with “and that’s when I mowed down those picnickers.”

It’s true, you couldn’t really make an after-school special about my drinking problem. I have a couple of drinking stories, but what person who’s ever had a drink doesn’t?

The reality of my drinking problem is no less dramatic to me, though: all the external damage we expect alcoholics to inflict on the world was damage I instead directed at myself.

The drunken arguments were mostly with the racing thoughts in my head. The picnicking family I mowed down was my own ability to cope with even basic life stress.

I was trying to kill me, the inner me – trying not to have or at least experience my own terrifying internal life. And I tried to do that by arranging my life such that I’d never have to be alone – mentally or physically – and that alcohol would be there for us all.

If you “problem drink” most days of your life – if you arrange your life to be a never-ending party – then does it really matter if you’re “technically” an alcoholic?

I know my story doesn’t have the grizzly panache most people expect in a recovery narrative, but it’s borderline cruel to be disappointed that I turned my life around before I actually hit bottom.

Oh, and by the by – if you view my acknowledgment of my drinking problem as an indictment of your alcohol use, that says more about your alcohol use than anything I could think about you.

Would you prefer a gnarly story about vomit and court dates? Would that make me easier to understand for you? Would I fit better into your dichotomous key?

Alcohol was threatening to ruin my life. But I can only tell you that from my perspective. As though it could actually come from somewhere else.

I really think we’re going to have to expand our ideas of substance abuse. Because I really feel like I could have drunk myself to death in front of everyone I know, even though I wasn’t an “alcoholic.”

If you remember nothing else: people self-reporting about their own lives is all the fucking evidence you need. Don’t come for someone with your dictionary bullshit when they’re trying to open up. It is literally the least you can do.

All the love,
Big Mama Schlomo

3 thoughts on “What you hear when I say I’m an alcoholic

  1. I completely agree with what you’re saying: just because I’m a self reported alcoholic, it doesn’t mean I’m not really an alcoholic. I’ve had substance abuse problems in the past and my recovery took a long road but I don’t miss being high at all. In fact, when I remember the times I’ve been under the influence, I think WTF was I doing to myself?

    If those people can’t understand you, don’t hang around them. Surround yourself with people that understand and respect your wishes. Anyway, I hope the best for your recovery and that you continue being strong.

  2. Thanks for writing this. I’m not quite awake enough to write anything intelligent/emotionally honest about my own experiences quitting drinking, but so much of what you’ve written here resonates with me. I actually had a psychiatrist question my decision to not drink – not because she thought I *should* be drinking, but in a way that suggested only she could tell me if I was an alcoholic. I didn’t go back to her.

    Congratulations on being seven months sober!

  3. omg yes I feel this so much. See also: people AND mental health professionals who think you can’t have an eating disorder unless you are dangerously underweight. people AND mental health professionals who didn’t take my suicidality seriously because I was getting perfect grades in school. It’s almost as if these people need to be told “mental illness is all in your head” heh

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