Label, labels, labels in recovery

Do we need a label?

Labels everywhere

The recovery space is very label orientated. We are labelled as alcoholics, diseased, alcohol-dependent, addicts, as having alcohol use disorder etc. There are labels everywhere. We are always asking and wondering what we are, we seem to always need some sort of validation. I think this is probably human nature, but I feel that if we don’t find a label that fits, we can stay stuck in a cycle of behaviours for much longer than we need to be.

Can labelling and indeed not labelling, be dangerous?

I think it can. When I was drinking I was constantly googling to see if I was considered, ‘bad enough’ to be classed as an alcoholic. To me, I would only need to stop when that particular label applied to me. This delayed my recovery by years and years. Because when we think of alcoholics, we think of morning drinking, we think of being unable to control when we drank. We think of rock bottom, losing everything and DUIs.

I was not at that stage (yet – always add the yet, I was heading that way). The fact that I was looking for a label to tell me when to stop was dangerous. My drinking was at dangerous levels, my drinking was starting to cause me physical and mental difficulties, but it wasn’t at the level that I would have been classed as an alcoholic by definition.

On Twitter recently I saw a tweet that really made me think about labelling. A user had tweeted that they had found an AF drink* that they really liked. Another user responded with, “congratulations, you are not an alcoholic”. This both infuriated and worried me. Taking away that label, if that person identified as that, could easily put thoughts into their minds which would lead to relapse. It also, made me consider how precious this person must be about that label. You had to fit into all criteria to be allowed into the alcoholic gang. If not, then you were out.

*drinking AF drinks is a whole other topic, some can, some can’t.

Comparing yourself to others

I have written many times about my time at AA. I would attend those meetings and I would hear desperately sad stories, stories told by people who had lost everything and got back up. Amazing people. But not people that I could identify with. Because my story was nothing like theirs.

This would then make me wonder if I should be attending these meetings as I wasn’t the same as the people there. Saying I was an alcoholic at the start of my sentence didn’t work for me. I didn’t feel I was an alcoholic and it felt disingenuous to say so. I would say that this feeling contributed to my relapse. I didn’t feel like I fitted into the traditional notion of the alcoholic, so therefore I could carry on drinking.

Fitting in

As much as I didn’t want a label, I realise now that I actually did need a label. I wanted my behaviour to fit in somewhere. I wanted some validation that my behaviour was not ‘normal’ and that others were the same. I wanted to know that it was not dramatic to feel that I needed to stop. I knew that the normie label was not about me, but neither was alcoholic.

This is where books like Mrs D is going without by Lotta Dan or The sober diaries by Clare Pooley, really helped. I was finally reading about people who had drank in similar ways to me but wouldn’t have been labelled as a traditional alcoholic. They were grey area drinkers.

The relatively new term “grey-area drinking” describes people who consume more than a moderate amount of alcohol but don’t meet the criteria for dependence. Although they might not drink every day or have a drink first thing in the morning (the widely held view of an alcoholic) they are likely to be preoccupied with alcohol and have difficulty giving up.

Ian Hamilton Associate Professor of Addiction, University of York (1)

I felt that I had now found my label, I was a grey area drinker. I am not saying that I would not have evolved into alcoholic drinking, I think I probably would have. As long as I stay where I am now, then I have stopped when I was at the stage of grey area drinking.

In my mind, grey area drinkers, still have a major issue, they still need to stop or they will face serious consequences and they still need to work at their sobriety. I finally have my label, I have something I can work with.

Do we need labels?

I think we do. I think as humans we always feel the need to belong. We need validation of our actions and feelings, we need to know we are not alone. But I also feel that labels can be dangerous when it is presented in a black and white way. I.e. you are an alcoholic or you are not an alcoholic. This can enable people to carry on with a dangerous behaviour for much longer than necessary.

I love the fact that the recovery space has evolved to now accept that there are various levels of dependency. That not all drinkers are the same, that we don’t all hold the same beliefs around alcohol issues. I like that we are moving away from the word alcoholic and we are using terms such as alcohol use disorder which I feel is much more inclusive. Having issues around alcohol is a dangerous club to be in. It is so important that everyone who is struggling feels that they are worthy of help. I love the fact that we are moving more towards helping people to believe that.

As always, I would love to hear your thoughts.

Much love,

B xxx

(1) –– the article from Ian Hamilton about grey area drinking.

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