Tackling the shame that comes with alcoholic label
The myths that people who are dependent on alcohol are weak-willed, lacking in moral character or love drinking more than other relationships keep active the shame of being an “alcoholic.”
Many fear being labeled and seen as alcoholic. Substance-use dependence is far more complex than most appreciate. The disease vs. nondisease debate obscures the truth that the mental and physical condition damages relationships and spreads shaming in an attempt to behelpful.
More important is the learned self-shaming and development of a sense of self as a failure. People drink essentially for the effect produced. It becomes a change agent that treats being nervous, illtempered and unhappy. First-time drinking is an experiment made by choice, but with continued use people develop the need for more. As the amount of alcohol consumed increases, and the time periods between episodes shorten, people become bodily and mentally hooked.
I came to recovery with the outward appearance of success. I was the first of my family to complete college, obtain a master’s degree and get married — seemingly self-sufficient. Yet I had the feeling of not measuring up; being outwardly an adult, but inwardly still an adolescent.
I’ve made two public attempts to quit “once and for all.” The first turned out to be a “pause” rather than a “quit.” I clearly remember the hiding, selfshaming thoughts and feelings of failure with the return to using. Change can be unsettling and awkward, with a large amount of self-doubt. I’ve experienced and witnessed victim statements and self-shaming language, which I now see as barriers to successful change.
With one year of not drinking, I attended a 12Step New Year’s Eve event with my wife and my youngest child. The evening went fairly well until the traditional “sobriety countdown.” It started with, “anyone with 40-plus years of sobriety, please come to the center of the room,” and continued down to, “anyone with one year continuous sobriety.” I got up hesitantly and, filled with a heightened level of selfconsciousness and anxiety, walked to the center of the room filled with the shame, embarrassment and failure of having only one year of sobriety.
I cringe at the 12-step self-shaming introduction: “My name is Jim and I’m an alcoholic!” My condition as it relates to substance use is not who I am. As a person in long-term recovery, I find myself still grappling with shame. Learning to accept ourselves and others “as we are, where we are, who we are” just might be the antidote. It has been for me.
James Simac is the Director of Community Consultants in Sheboygan “Strengthening Individuals Through Integrated