Over five years ago, as I was coming to terms with my confused and destructive relationship with alcohol, I was terrified of the stir I would create and rejection I would face if I had to admit that I couldn't control my drinking. Admitting I was an alcoholic seemed to be the most horrible thing I'd ever have to do, a one-way ticket out of everything I loved and cared about.
When I wrote this piece the first time, less than two years into my sobriety, I found myself in another terrifying position with relation to that alcoholic word: I rejected it entirely, and I thought everyone should. But in my new found circle of sober friends and the (then burgeoning scene of) sober social media, my opinion was an outlier. People who could not drink worked the steps, lived their lives One Day At A Time (hashtag ODAAT), reminded each other they were one drink away from being a drunk, and reminded themselves about their disease of alcoholism. I sat quietly in that space and didn't often speak up about what my experience was, or how I saw things differently, or how I had stopped calling myself an alcoholic a short time after I started. That all ended one night in December 2014, when I finally got the nerve to publish this piece. Believe me when I tell you, I thought I was alone in the world, that the AA police would show up at my door, that somehow putting this manifesto out into the world would get me burned on a pike. But I published it anyway. And while there were absolutely death threats and plenty of AA folk throwing internet tomatoes - while I was told that I would be responsible for the deaths of many who would use my points as an excuse - I did survive, and not only did I survive, I found thousands of people just like me that felt the same way.
A lot has changed since December 2014, and yet not much has. More people publicly think like I do, and yet we still are governed by an idea that there is only one way to recover. I don't believe there is one way to do anything. This piece here, while written in absolute terms, is not asserting the only truth. It won't be true for everyone. It's meant for people that need it. It's not meant for people who don't.
Hi, my name is Holly, and I'm not an alcoholic.
In October 2012, I burst onto the bar scene sans alcohol, announcing to all that I was now a Non-Drinker. Not an alcoholic mind you. A non-drinker, like a non-smoker. I had read Allen Carr's Easyway To Control Alcohol, and from that had come to believe that anyone who consumed alcohol was on the spectrum of addiction. I didn't say that to anyone, but in those early days, not drinking was a smug refusal to be part of pedestrian drinking culture. This EasyWay method (as in the method where I reframed my mind and just called myself a non-drinker and that was that) served me on its own merit for two months, but proved a hard approach to sobriety. Because: it confused the hell out of everyone ("you're just not drinking?"), I was pressured to drink still, I had no tribe, and - most significantly - I didn't do the work on what had caused me to use alcohol in the first place.
The second time I stopped drinking - in April 2013 - I prepared for sobriety, using that same EasyWay method (i.e., I read the aforementioned Allen Carr book) plus I did at least five million other things (yoga, meditation, Emotional Freedom Technique, massage, coaching, therapy, soul plans, church, acupuncture, etc. - the things I share on this blog). I also went to 12-step meetings, and I absorbed the label alcoholic.
Identifying as an alcoholic made sobriety easier for some reason. First, it ended the questions and pleas from friends to drink. Second, It was even more subversive than just not drinking - I found it to be more shocking than talking about my vagina with my friend's husbands, and a terribly amusing way to make people feel uncomfortable at parties when offered a drink/asked about my drinking. "I'm an alcoholic, you dick."
The alcoholic label created an edge and a boldness and a courage I had previously felt lacking, and it also came with a new tribe. Most importantly, it became my cause. After experiencing first hand the severe lack of resources and understanding, the alienation, the shame, lack of health care parity, the stigma - all the shit that accompanied that label - it inspired in me a determination to fix the mess that is addiction in America. "Hi, my name is Holly, I'm an alcoholic, and I am going to change the world for alcoholics."
But as I've continued on in this space, researched more, experienced more, come to understand how addiction works and who it affects, seen the statistics, lived both sides of the label, grown up - all the things! - I've come to not only ditch the label entirely, but further come to the conclusion that it needs to be eradicated from our vocabulary.
Don't get me wrong - I believe that alcohol is addictive, that addiction is a progressive health issue, that some people are wired a bit differently and more vulnerable to addiction to alcohol, etc. I'm not refusing scientific fact or what is. I just firmly believe that we've created a separate disease called alcoholism and forced it upon the minority of the population willing to admit they cannot control their drinking. That instead of looking at how insane it is to consume the amounts of alcohol we do in this country on any level, we've instead systematically labeled anyone who can't hang in that insanity as having the problem.
The label "alcoholic" and the disease "alcoholism" confuses and muddies. It keeps us focused on a label and a construct and distracts us from the real problem at hand, which is our individual relationship with alcohol. We should be able to ask ourselves this simple question, and honestly so: Does alcohol negatively impact our lives? And if so, should we take steps to address it? Without the fear of having to accept a new alcoholic identity. Without the fear of having to accept that we might be different. Without the fear that we might have an incurable disease.
Whether this resonates or aggravates, it's my truth. My still forming truth. My truth as of today. As I said, putting this out there terrifies me. I care deeply that I do good, that I do no harm, and of course, there will be people that say this does harm. But it is what I must do.
..HERE ARE 9 REASONS I FEEL THE WORDS ALCOHOLIC AND ALCOHOLISM SHOULD DIE.
1. It asserts that it's normal to consume an addictive substance with ease, and abnormal to not be able to.
One time, a dear friend who had stopped drinking some 90 days previous posted that "she has a body that cannot handle alcohol" to which I replied "NO body has a body that is meant to handle alcohol." And that is 100% true. Alcohol is a drug, a carcinogenic neurotoxin, and no human body is designed to tolerate it with ease. Just because we as a society have come to believe that tying one on or relaxing with a glass of wine (or two or three) or suffering hangovers or beer yoga is "normal" doesn't mean that it's what we are supposed to do or what we are designed to do. Doctors smoked in the 1950s and suggested it to patients, and were depicted in cigarette ads. Just because they did that doesn't mean they were right. It just means that we accepted it as being right. It just means we didn't question.
2. It prevents ALL drinkers from observing their own behavior as abnormal or dangerous and provides a false sense of security.
We tend to completely think in black and white here. There are normal drinkers and alcoholics, and we are one or the other - and so long as we are not alcoholics, we are okay. I found that by identifying as an alcoholic, my friends and close acquaintances began to draw lines between my behavior and their own, justifying their alcohol consumption and yes, abuse, as "normal" against the depths of my "abnormal." They wanted to know how bad it got in the end, and from that benchmarked their own relationship with alcohol. It was a relief to most. A free pass. "I never did that, so I'm okay." They failed to compare all that time before it got bad. They failed to remember that once upon a time I was just binge drinking, too. Or that once upon a time I limited myself to a glass or two of wine after work, just like them. They failed to take notice of the progressiveness, or that they occupied the same space on the spectrum that I did for the larger part of my drinking career, and that the outlying behavior or my "alcoholism" was just a fraction of it.
3. It suggests the problem lives on the extreme end of the spectrum - addiction. And that's not where the majority of problem drinking is.
90% of problem drinkers are not addicted. Let me repeat - 9 out of 10 people who struggle with alcohol are NOT clinically addicted. NOT "alcoholics." A 2014 story in the New York Times, Most Heavy Drinkers Are Not Alcoholics, by Tara Parker-Pope, referenced a study which showed that 29% of the adult population aged 18 and over meets the definition for problem drinking. Or: 51 million Americans qualify as problematic drinkers, and only 5 million of those Americans qualify as addicted.
This is crucial to understand. First, because problem drinking leads to addiction, leaving those 90% who are not clinically addicted vulnerable to developing a chemical dependence. Second, this overlooked segment suffers deep consequences. Some 88,000 deaths a year in the US are attributable to alcohol - it is the 4th leading cause of preventable death. Put another way, 1 in 10 of us dying an alcohol-related death. Third, because we have come to accept that only those who are addicted truly need to fix it, we don't have adequate or meaningful prevention programs or treatment modalities for the population that is most at risk. We treat ADDICTION. We wait until people fall off. We completely fail to address those who are not addicted but who simply struggle, which is waiting for a heart attack to check cholesterol, and then treat it.
4. It scares the sh*t out of people.
It creates fear. Fear that you will always crave. Fear that you will forever have to use willpower. Fear that you will spend the rest of your life just trying not to drink. Who wants to be an alcoholic? I'll tell you who. No one. NO ONE! And why? Because we have told everyone it's an incurable disease. Because our idea of an alcoholic is someone who attends AA for the rest of their life, assumes a lifetime label, lives with a "paler set of colors," and is stuck in perpetual craving - one drink away from being a drunk, one day at a time. Because our concept is that alcoholics are different and outcasts and social pariahs and weak willed and a whole host of other things. I can't begin to tell you the number of conversations I have where someone who struggles with alcohol says to me "I'm not one of them," or "I'd rather keep drinking than suffer that fate." The truth is that anyone that consumes and can't live without it is to some degree hooked on it - regardless if it's once a week or a bottle a night. Adding in a label with a heavy stigma attached does NOTHING but keep us in a fear state about our own drinking, instead of just being able to observe our own drinking as it is in our own lives.
5. It asserts that the majority of drinkers drink "normally" and are able to control alcohol.
Alcohol is an addictive substance. End of story. And everyone who consumes it to some degree has to exert control over it. I'm not asserting that everyone who drinks has a problem…because there are people - like my mother and her one or two glasses of wine a week - who have no degree of difficulty managing or controlling it. But that doesn’t mean my mother doesn't exert control over limiting it to that one or two, or isn't in some way hooked or reliant on it. Ask someone who says "I can take it or leave it" why they wouldn't leave something that, again, is an addictive, carcinogenic neurotoxin (that oh by the way also alters our DNA), and they'll give you reasons they like it, which often sound like the same reasons any "alcoholic" would tell you they drank.
There are no "normies" that don't have to control it and "alcoholics" who cannot - it's just not that simple. There are degrees of control unique to each one of us, unique to our genetic make-up, our exposure, our trauma, our other coping mechanisms, the age we started drinking, our environment, our anxiety, our depression, our peer groups, and on. There is NO normal, and the only way to have 100% control over it is to eliminate it entirely.
If this doesn't make sense, think about cigarettes. We once thought about cigarettes the same way we did about alcohol, and with all we know now, we wouldn't say someone who smokes a cigarette a day isn't hooked.
6. It's a self diagnosed disease.
This is one of the parts that confounds me the most. That we self-diagnose, and we do it on the basis of a loose set of judgments. Check for yourself in the attached test, where if you score 8 or more points you may be an alcoholic. If your tolerance has increased over time, you can't remember things you have done, you sometimes feel uncomfortable when alcohol is not available, you regret things you have done drunk, have been advised to cut down by a doctor, sometimes feel guilty about drinking, have felt depressed after drinking, etc., then you might be an alcoholic. If this is the case, then everyone I went to college with and perhaps 90% of San Franciscans are alcoholics. Alcoholism Test.
7. It keeps us stuck in a story.
On the phone with a guy I'd met on the internets who also didn't drink, I mentioned casually that I was stressed about not accomplishing enough in my day. He quickly replied: "That's your alcoholism talking." We never dated because, no.
The story is that alcoholics are different, alcoholics struggle more than others, alcoholics are a certain way, will always be a certain way, and minding the truth of "who we are" and remembering our "faults" will keep us out of trouble, in check. In other words, it limits us to what we have created. It becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy. One of my heroes in this space, a sympathetic soul, even quips in his book: "How do you know if an addict is lying? He's moving his lips."
The truth is we can change. We can rewrite our past and our story. We can rewire our brain with meditation and chanting and yoga and food and CBT and a whole host of other modalities and practices from what we now know of neuroplasticity. Epigentics tells us we can even change our gene expression. The bottom line is our story is always evolving and growing and changing. But when we hold tight to an idea of "we are just this way," we settle for being just that way. "Hi, I'm Holly, and I'm an alcoholic" insures that I will remain in that mind space. "Hi, I'm Holly, and I'm a writer, CEO, activist, and addiction advocate" works a lot better for me.
8. It is the only drug in the world where, when you stop taking it, you are seen as having a disease.
Because it's the only socially accepted drug, because most of us consume, and because we have come to believe that there are "normal" drinkers and there are "alcoholics," because it is self-diagnosed - essentially all the above points - it is literally the only drug in the world where you get a label and a lifetime disease once you admit you need/want to stop. I never had a problem when I was out 3 or 4 nights a week drinking the same amount as my friends. I never had a problem when I was doing Ski Shots with my coworkers or when I stayed out until 4am in New York before heading into the office at 9am. I didn't have a problem as I finished my third or even fourth glass at my friend's wine bar and caught a beer with her after. But when I stopped and tapped out, when I said "I can't do this anymore" was the moment I had a problem? Let me be clear on the insanity of this - when I drank (and clearly, abused), I did not have alcoholism. When I said I cannot drink, I became an alcoholic. Because we believe everyone "should" be able to drink ethanol and those who can't as somehow defective, we assign them a label and a lifetime disease: Alcoholism. They are different. Everyone else consuming a variant of the same thing we fuel our cars with is normal.
9. It's an "incurable disease."
The need for alcohol is perpetuated by the consumption of alcohol. Pure and simple. You were not addicted before you imbibed, the same as you were not addicted to cigarettes before you smoked. Further, it has been shown time and again that people not only move out of addiction to the substance, able to ditch it entirely, but go on to not want it at all. People like me. I'm not one drink away from alcoholism or addiction. I'm beyond the need to intoxicate to get through life or have fun at a party. Not because it has to be this way. Because I prefer it this way. Because I LIKE life without a crutch. Because I LIKE not having hangovers or forgetting parts of the night before or living in a fear state. Because I LIKE not having to think about alcohol.
We think that "cured" means we can drink again without going overboard or our life going to sh*t, we think "cured" means being able to imbibe like the "normal drinkers." No. Bull. CURED IS NEVER HAVING TO DRINKG AGAIN. Cured is enjoying life every bit as much if not more without the need to rely on alcohol or reach for a glass of wine to unwind a day or enjoy an event. Cured is the ability to remain present and ride the ups and downs without having to numb or escape out of them. Cured is being free altogether.