In the same period that I was recovering from addiction, my mother was diagnosed with and recovered from breast cancer. From the moment she was diagnosed it was, by all means, a public affair. People lined up to offer their support, no one blamed her for what had happened, no one lumped her into a class of humans deemed weak-willed or self-indulgent or self-destructive. No one looked at her like a ticking time-bomb and secretly suspected that she might fall off the wagon and back into cancer. She knew who her sisters in the struggle were - all those that had gone before her and suffered the same condition - and every breast cancer survivor within six degrees of separation came out of the woodwork.
The first time I grasped the extent of the differences of our experiences in recovery was on the phone with her that summer. She'd called me to tell me she'd run into my best friend's mother at the oncologist and said that Mrs. B had asked her about me, and mom had bragged about how great I was doing at work. "I told her about your big promotion." I asked her if she'd mentioned that I was in recovery or anything about my sobriety, it being larger than my promotion. My mom was surprised and caught off-guard by the question. After a long pause she finally said no, there wasn't an opportunity to bring it up.
I told her I was proud of being sober. I said I wished she'd act that way, too. I knew she was proud of me, but I also knew in her mind, having a daughter in recovery wasn't necessarily something to brag about. (For the record, she won't stop bragging about me these days...time is a magical thing.)
As I recovered alone, with no support network because AA just wasn't my thing, knowing only three sober people for my entire first year of recovery, something started to crack - especially when it came to experiences where other people in my life were hiding it for me. It wasn't just Where the hell are all my people? It was also, Why the f**k are we all hiding and whose shame is this, anyway? Why aren't we recovering in public, why aren't we talking about it with our families and our friends, why don't we know whether or not the girl who sits next to us at work is sober or trying to be, and for God's sake, why is my mom ashamed to tell someone about the most important thing I've ever done in my life?
The answer, of course, is because chemical addiction is stigmatized. Especially addiction to alcohol. Our society glamorizes drinking and tells us it's normal to drink and abnormal not to, that we need it to be happy and celebrate and toast and network and date and have a good night out with the girls. We celebrate 21st birthdays as rites of passage, and we laugh about hangovers, and we say things like "Wine fixes everything just like duct tape does!" And then the moment we say we can't handle using the drug, that we are having some problems over here keeping up, that we just might be addicted, we are abandoned, othered, and left to our own devices. We are no longer normies who just get out of hand from time to time. We are alcoholics, and we are prone to lie, relapse, make bad decisions, have impulse control issues, and myriad other things people don't want to be seen as being prone to. We are told to go off into that little corner over there and either fix it or die and if we do fix it to also be hush about that. Because all those other people are still having fun, and you don't want to be a downer, you know?
When I first started out talking about what needs to happen in the addiction space for things to change, I drew a lot from my mom's experience in recovery. I wanted all of those things those breast cancer people had. I wanted 5k walks and ribbons and foundations and research and a recovery that was celebrated in the public sphere and not relegated to a church basement. I wanted parity and dignity and pride and empathy and for our f**king insurance cards to work and all those other things that tend to come with a life-or-death health crisis. I wanted it all, and I still want it all.
But as I've moved along this path and seen what I've seen and become more intimate with the way things change in this world it's occurred to me that there is a lynchpin in all of this, and that's the anonymity piece. In other words, none of those things we need to happen will happen if we - YOU, ME - don't stop hiding.
Since starting this journey, I've been consumed by this idea. How do we lift the veil, how do we come out of the closet, how do we own this part of us in a way that doesn't give in to the stigma and cost us our jobs or reputation? How do we stand tall and proud like a beacon in the night for all those that come after us and for all those next to us, and do it with pride? More importantly, how do we do it in a way that is observable without boxing ourselves into a label that has some extremely heavy baggage?
How the hell do we make this a thing? A good, desirable thing?
I watched The Anonymous People, and I've been part of stuff like the Facing Addiction march in Washington, D.C. And at first, part of me thought, this is it. This is where we come out of the woodwork and create a MOVEMENT. Except it didn't feel that way. Owning something like, "I'm an addict!" or "I'm an alcoholic SEE ME STAND" or even saying something like "We do recover!" or "I'm a person in long-term recovery!" is not like, for instance, saying I am LGBTQ. Or any other historically stigmatized group that has been shamed into silence. For starters, because people move THROUGH addiction, and claiming one is an alcoholic or an addict or even in "long-term recovery" is often a temporary label, if we even use it. Standing up and saying "I'm an addict" is just not the same as having someone stand up and say "I'm Gay" - there is a permanent association with the latter, and it is part of an individual's identity. Addiction, while it might help us forge a new identity, is an experience. Addiction is not an identifier and thinking it is just further stigmatizes us. Further, to say "I'm an alcoholic" or "I'm an addict" - try as we might - doesn't feel empowering. At least it didn't to me, and I know I'm not alone in that.
What does feel empowering and what is permanent, however, is the fact that I don't drink and I don't do drugs. That is part of who I am and a great source of pride.
There's a concept discussed in Jonah Berger's book, Contagious: Why Things Catch On, called "Social Proof" - which means, when people see other people doing something, they tend to do it. Social Proof is the reason that Apple laptops have a flipped logo - and why when I went to buy a computer as I was starting Hip Sobriety, a Dell was out of the question. Social Proof told me that independent workers at hipster coffee houses use Apple laptops, and you better believe that observable logo glaring at me has something to do with that.
Social Proof is also why people wear stickers that say "I Voted!", Apple headsets are white, people don't remove the tagline "sent from my iPhone" from their mobile email, Movember exploded from a group of dudes in Australia to a worldwide phenomenon, Nike sold 85 million yellow Livestrong bracelets, and we wait for an hour at restaurants with a line out the door rather than try the one next to it with empty tables and no wait. When we see a lot of other people doing something - when we observe a movement in our everyday lives - we tend to join.
The observable behavior also has to demonstrate some desirability. We want to identify with the Apple crowd, be seen as part of the voting class, be the dude with the handlebar raising money for cancer, tell you how good the food is at the Curry Up food truck (and how long we waited to get it).
So how do we do this with addiction and sobriety? How do we use the concept of Social Proof in a way that not only creates a tribe, but a tribe we want to be part of?
We re-brand that shi* into something we want to be part of. And then we wear the crap out of that re-brand. That's what we do.
Years ago, heading to dinner at my friend Michael and David's, I was informed that David wasn't drinking for health issues. Michael explained all would be fine, the rest of us would still drink, but that at present, "David is a Teetotaler." Now, Michael and David are incredibly cool. They have fantastic taste in everything and are tragically ahead of their time in almost every fashion. And something about hearing that David was Teetotaling - an old British term that means abstaining from the consumption of alcohol - made the evening light and what David was doing feel normal, if not covetable. Had Michael explained that David was an alcoholic…well, I'll let you do the math.
Earlier this year on our podcast, Laura and I started to think through different ways we could label ourselves that felt empowering, and though we joked about the word Teetotal, somehow it stuck. I liked Teetotal; I liked saying it. More than I liked saying "I don't drink" or "I'm sober."
"I'm a Teetotaler" is a club I want to join, and the Teetotal brand is one I want to identify with.
After reading Contagious, I thought about those Livestrong bracelets, and then I thought, maybe we do tattoos and gold necklaces and t-shirts because those are things our people wear. I sketched it out to look like an element from the periodic table, in a way to pay homage to the fact that it was chemicals that got me here, in a way to say this is elemental. The Teetotal element. Tt.
I texted Laura about it sent her the design. Then she came to town and we inked them onto our arms.
We shared those tattoos on social media along with the design, and others joined in. A few weeks later, one of our friends was in a yoga class, brandishing her Tt tattoo, when the teacher recognized the symbol, and they connected over their mutual sobriety. It was a stunning moment.
And so we thought, maybe, just maybe, this could be our Movember, or our "I voted!" sticker, or our yellow Livestrong bracelet.
Maybe the whole lot of us could get on board with calling ourselves something that reflected not a disease or a condition, but a proud choice that we've made. Maybe we could wear that choice on our shirts, on our skin, around our necks. Maybe we could do this and show up in our real lives as these people who don't do something, rather than these people who can't do something.
And maybe, just maybe, when the girl who sits next to us at work knows who we are she can tell us that she might be one of us, too. And maybe we can line up at her home with casseroles, and tell her what it's like in the first month and the fifth, and give her an example of what it's like in the 10th month or the 10th year.
And maybe, just maybe, it will become so big, so normal, that it will get to the point where she can tell everyone she's sick and struggling when she needs support the most, rather than having to hide it and do it alone. And maybe one day there will be so many of us that are doing this out loud that - just like the cancer people - we won't lose our jobs for it, or our reputations, or be called the many things they call us now. Maybe people will stop getting their crap ideas of who we are from a Law and Order episode, and start learning the glorious reality from seeing us in, well, real life.
And maybe, just maybe, then we'll get our 5k walks and ribbons and foundations and research and a recovery that is celebrated in the public sphere and not relegated to a church basement. Maybe then we'll get that parity and dignity and pride and empathy, our insurance cards will work, and we'll have all those other things that tend to come with a life-or-death health crisis.
Because then we will exist, and we will know who each other are, and everyone else will know it, too, and there will be too many of us to ignore.
How to create social proof for being a Teetotaler.
1. The design for the Teetotal tattoo is below. If you're *super committed* you can brand it on you.
2. Claim it by saying it.
3. Use hashtag #teetotaler or #teetotal on social media.
4. Purchase a "Teetotaler" shirt or a "Tt" shirt (or sweatshirt) from the HOME podcast store and take pictures of you wearing them. (I have to be clear here - I almost left this resource out because I don't want selling something to detract from the post, but it's the only Teetotaler gear out there. All proceeds go to produce the HOME podcast. We don't have a copyright on it and the Tt design as far as I'm concerned is open source, so feel free to make your own gear.)
5. Educate and engage with people who ask about it.
6. Create your own whatever. It's our movement. Not mine.