Is sobriety a journey or a destination? Your perspective on recovery — and on your relationship with it — is important to understand as you consider how you prefer to think of yourself.
Recently I spoke with a man who’s had close to two decades of sobriety from alcohol. He flinches at the idea of thinking of himself as being “in recovery.” He said he feels that if he were to identify himself this way, he’d risk being trapped in the mindset of “once an addict, always an addict.”
He and many others who’ve stopped abusing substances see the “in recovery” label as a link in the chain that keeps them bound to the addiction and stigmatized by the label. When he goes to meetings, instead of describing himself as in recovery, he simply introduces himself by his name. He said he lives his life according to his own values, not those dictated by what he feels are stringent ideas of “thou shalt” and “thou shalt not.” His approach seems to be working for him.
How Do You See Yourself?
His view raises the question of whether those who’ve faced addiction — to a substance or a set of behaviors — ever fully recover, or whether they must always be vigilant, lest their demons be lying in wait, ready to pounce.
What if some people viewed themselves instead as survivors rather than victims of addiction? How empowering might that be?
Imagine being chased by a lion in a safari park — heart racing, feet pounding the soil, sweat dripping from every pore — then leaping over a fence and being scooped to safety by a driver in a Jeep. How likely would you be to venture back into that setting? A survivor of an addiction would remember that narrow escape the next time he or she considers making that choice.
Benefits and Drawbacks of Each Mindset
There are plusses and minuses to each way of framing sobriety. Upsides to using the label “recovered” include:
- Ownership of actions — the person isn’t blaming problems on the addiction
- A feeling of empowerment to make positive choices
- A sense of freedom and success in having escaped the “lion”
But there are downsides to this label, such as:
- Underestimating the risk of relapse with thoughts such as, “Oh, one drink won’t hurt.”
- Denying the need for sober supports
- Selective memory about how damaging the behaviors were
Likewise, there are benefits to labeling yourself as “in recovery,” including:
- Motivation to continue working the program that best suits the individual
- Awareness of the person’s inability to drink or use substances the same way someone who doesn’t have an addiction to them would
- Feeling like a part of a community of people with similar issues
But there are downsides to the “in recovery” label as well, such as:
- A sense of helplessness — one that could even be used as an excuse to relapse if the person believes he or she’s helpless to resist temptation
- A feeling of being stigmatized by the label, as if the person is damaged goods
- A risk of alienating others by categorizing them as “addicts” and “sober people”
Perspectives Based on Experience
Three professionals who’ve faced addiction themselves share these views about their personal journeys:
“As far as thinking of myself as ‘recovered,’ I’m old-school: I believe I just have a daily reprieve. I never considered myself an addict, perhaps because my thing was alcohol and I always went straight for the term ‘alcoholic.’ But really I’m a person in recovery, someone who takes my medication, which includes regular attendance at meetings, continuously working on the 12 steps, and helping others. I’m not so much someone who was broken and got fixed as someone who was sick and got better. I could always get sick again. As with other health issues, for me being well means taking preventative steps, taking care of myself, avoiding the things I know to be bad for me, and not living in denial about my illness. And if I get sick again, I need to look at what I haven’t been doing so that I can start doing those things again to make myself better. I can understand why some people say they’ve recovered: They prefer to live in the positive present, where they’re indeed in recovery. Some who’ve battled cancer think of themselves as survivors; some hate that analogy. Who am I to tell people who’ve had cancer how they should refer to themselves? I’ve always believed my recovery and my sobriety are just that — mine. Although I’m not comfortable calling myself recovered, who am I to say someone else can’t?”
“I don’t identify as someone ‘in recovery.’ Drinking is just off my list. I know I can’t, and I have no desire to try. I see myself as an addictive personality, but not an addict. I try to channel my addictive tendencies into positive places, such as exercise, travel, and anything else that charms my mind/body. I do everything the best I can. I couldn’t imagine any situation in which alcohol would re-enter my life. What’s the point of having a drink? It would just make me want another — and then bad things would happen.”
“I’m always ‘in recovery,’ never ‘recovered.’ It’s dangerous for me to think that I have this cured. I maintain sobriety with daily maintenance of my spiritual condition. I might add that this ‘work’ isn’t easy, and the world is constantly challenging my progress. My most recent epiphany has been the precarious nature of balancing self-care with my desire to be a good giver. It’s obviously, and thankfully, different for each person, and the ebb and flow changes constantly. I think the critical juncture is awareness and bravery to face whatever truth is found. The intimacy of this relationship with self is key!”
Consider also whether you want your language to define you by your addiction or as a person first. Some people refer to themselves as “a person in long-term recovery” rather than as an addict or alcoholic. And an alternative to the terms “recovered” or “recovery” overall could be “evolving” — as in, adapting and adjusting as you continually become an improved version of yourself.
Follow Edie on Twitter at @EdieWeinstein1By Edie Weinstein, LSW