I recently celebrated a decade of sobriety. Yet, I find myself having an identity crisis of sorts. This crisis has nothing to do with staying sober but is all about defining sobriety for myself. I struggle with my label. Am I an alcoholic? An addict? Sober? In recovery? A survivor? Alcohol-free? A warrior? All of the above? Yes and no, depending on the day the question is asked. I cannot seem to define my sobriety in one label and maybe I don’t have to do so.
Evolving Sobriety Definitions
Before I go any further, I’d like to clarify that support the current efforts to refrain from naming people by their disease. I understand that it can be dehumanizing to refer to a person as a diabetic or schizophrenic rather than as a person with diabetes or schizophrenia. I get it. However, I struggle with some of the terms being used for those of us who have abused drugs and alcohol such as Alcohol Use Disorder (AUD) or Substance Use Disorder (SUD).
I agree with much of what Holly Whitaker discussed in her book Quit Like a Woman, although I had to listen to her book in parts because it challenged so much of what had become the foundations of my sobriety. Whether you believe alcohol contributes to your health in any amount is only for you to decide, but I am starting to wonder if healthy alcohol use exists. Either way, society should not view me as abnormal because I don’t drink.
Recovery is Ongoing
Perhaps I can’t define sobriety because it is very personal and has no endpoint. I don’t believe that there is a day that I will awake and think, “Okay, I’ve got this now. I can stop doing the work.” I say that because, over the course of ten years, there have been times when I have slacked off on doing that work. Most of the time, I got away with it without too much harm. That was, until a few years ago when life circumstances caused me to struggle.
I was fortunate enough to escape without picking up a drink or a drug, but that doesn’t mean I escaped unharmed. My belief is that you can relapse without relapsing. I switched out the drugs and the drink for spending, food, and Olympic-level avoidance. Food became my numbing agent of choice; I lost and gained the same 15 pounds five times over before landing at my highest lifetime weight. When I finished my BSN, I pursued a Master’s degree instead of taking a break, volunteered for organizations I didn’t have time for, and binge-watched more shows than I can count. I’m not even going to talk about the retail therapy. Frozen by the emotions I was facing, I managed to hide it well. Anyone looking from the outside would have thought I had it all together and that life was grand. This went on for nearly two years and I’m still cleaning up the wreckage.
I think of my recovery as complicated recovery, much the same way as some grief can be complicated. In complicated grief, painful emotions are so long-lasting and severe that you can have trouble recovering from the loss and returning to living your own life. My recovery is layered. I may have put down the alcohol and drugs in 2010, but my recovery only started there. The layers weren’t even visible to me in the beginning and, the more work I do, the more layers I find. I’ve had to work through childhood trauma, toxic relationships, sexual abuse, dysfunction, and more. Learning that the very things that served me well in surviving my childhood are not healthy adult coping mechanisms has been challenging. Avoiding what’s right in front of me, numbing emotions, and withdrawing into myself are so ingrained in me; I have to be vigilant to refrain from using those skills. I don’t see myself as returning to living my life so much as learning to live my life.
My Definition of Sobriety
How do I define my sobriety? For me, I need a label that covers it all and some of the predefined labels just don’t fit. I have no problem saying I am an alcoholic or an addict, but those labels feel limiting and lacking for me. Instead, I have chosen to be in recovery. “In recovery” serves as a nice umbrella for all of the things I’m in recovery from and conveys that it’s ongoing.
I am a woman in recovery.