by Renee W.
Labels can be incredibly damaging.
They come with all kinds of biases and connotations, whether positive or negative. However, how we label ourselves defines not only the lens through which we see ourselves but how we act.
There are always negative connotations to the label “alcoholic” or “addict,” even if those people are in recovery.
We have a long way, as a society, to destigmatize addiction, but we can start with ourselves by using labels wisely and with caution.
If you are like me, you had no idea who you really were until you were in recovery, maybe even years into recovery.
Newly sober in 2014, I did not know what I liked, what I didn’t like, what I believed, what I didn’t believe, or even how I would act in any given situation.
I had spent my entire life hiding behind my addiction and not only hiding from others, hiding from myself.
Though this may sound bizarre, substance abuse masks our true self since it alters chemical and brain structures. It’s no wonder I had no idea who I was.
This left me wondering about my identity, where I fit in, and what I wanted out of life.
All I knew was that I was an alcoholic, so being an alcoholic became my label for myself.
After I labelled myself an alcoholic, all I saw was someone worthless and useless, whether I was sober or not.
I could only focus on the negative stereotypes that alcoholism holds: that I was untrustworthy, that I was dishonest, that I couldn’t hold down relationships in my life, that I would never amount to anything.
The Problem with Labels
Labels can cause those struggling with addiction more stigma and shame. We need to keep this mind: we are human beings first before we ever develop an addiction. As Dr. Brian Sherman says, “the ‘addict” label suggests the whole person is the problem, rather than the problem being the problem.”
During a research study at the University of Pennsylvania, researchers found that when people use the terms “addict” or “alcoholic,” a strong negative bias formed, which followed by a negative attitude toward the person, rather than the behaviour.
Researchers also found that “using “person-first” language (for example, “person with an addiction”) resulted in less negative bias.”
As seen in this research, the problem with labels is that they encompass a person’s entire identity rather than simply addressing the behaviour.
Living out labels that are put on us can be detrimental.
You may, like I did, decide that you have no hope because you are an alcoholic, and therefore act like you have no hope.
Finding Your Identity in Recovery
I ended up relapsing in 2017 after 3.5 years of “alcohol abstinence.”
I say abstinence and not sobriety because what I experienced during those years was not sobriety.
I was so bogged down in labels, I felt like I was doomed because of all my past wreckage, and quite frankly, I did not believe I deserved happiness or peace.
My identity was so lost.
I felt fake with everyone I came in contact with. I could not cultivate relationships. I never knew if what I told myself was true or not.
I truly had no idea who I really was.
When I went to treatment in early 2019, I stopped drinking again. I decided I would unlearn everything I thought I knew about myself, alcoholism, and recovery, and completely start over from scratch.
I literally would tell myself, “You know nothing. Everything you learn today will be brand new. You have never known this before.”
It took a while to reprogram my brain this way, but it eventually became natural, and it worked!
I did not connect myself with my past in detrimental ways. When I labelled myself, I was careful to say I am in recovery and sober one day at a time.
I learned, with vigour, like a child learning new things. Everything I learned became incredibly real because it was the first time in my life that I’d ever let myself discover something for myself.
I know that now.
Over the past year, I have experienced true recovery, and I rarely ever think about labels.
I have realized that while I had an addiction, I am not my addiction.
Sure, I say I am an alcoholic at AA meetings, but I don’t live out the negatives that come with being an alcoholic.
I say that I am a recovering alcoholic if I think it will help me to connect with someone who is struggling.
I can live fully, with peace, and I now know who I am, the core of my being.
Recovery brings to light our true self and makes us comfortable enough to embrace who we are.
Disregard labels, look for your true self and live out your recovery.
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