I used to take the Quiz. You know, the “Am I an Alcoholic?” one — with twenty questions promising to reveal whether or not you should stop what you’re doing and head to a 12-step meeting.
I took it in my twenties and, to my relief, answered “no” to enough questions. I took it again in my thirties and stopped answering around question 5 — “Have you given up hobbies or activities you used to enjoy?” — because I thought that was stupid. Of course I’ve given up hobbies and activities I used to enjoy — I have a toddler.
Maybe you’ve never taken the quiz, or maybe you have. I know my in-box is full of emails from people who are asking themselves the same questions that quiz asked me. And their answers pulse with the same level of unnecessary detail and caveats I used to mutter at my computer screen.
I’m going to offer a completely different alternative. This suggestion is likely to make some very smart and well-meaning heads explode, but it’s a question worth asking if we’re ever going to really change how we view this stuff.
Who cares if you’re an alcoholic?
Honestly. Who cares? What would it mean if I told you that you were? What would it mean if I told you you were not?
Let’s play out each scenario:
Scenario 1: Yes, You Are an Alcoholic
Congratulations, you’ve acquired an unwanted label! Instead of feeling empowered to explore your relationship with alcohol with openness and curiosity, it becomes a thing. It means you possibly have to…what? Seek support? Go to a 12-step meeting? Confess your condition to your friends and family?
And now suddenly changing your relationship with alcohol — which could have been a positive choice you make for yourself — now becomes an impossible chore, a “broken piece” in you that you have to “fix,” a standard for judging yourself and others. Your perspective shifts from How can I take the best care of myself possible, so I can feel connected and alive in my life? to feeling jealous and comparing yourself with others who are “not alcoholics” and “get” to drink “normally.”
Now maybe, you don’t mind taking on the label alcoholic because it gives you a real reason to abstain from drinking. It’s cold, hard proof you can show your friends and family and coworkers when they ask why you’re not having wine with dinner. “Oh, I can’t do that anymore,” you say, as you pull your alcoholic ID card from your wallet and lay it on the table with a satisfied smile, “I am an alcoholic.” Kind of like turning down dessert because you’re diabetic. Because what other reason is passable? You couldn’t possibly just…choose not to drink. Shudder.
I’m making this scenario sound absurd because it is. Most people would rather be diagnosed with a personality disorder than alcoholism. What it really comes down to is this: Do you give yourself permission to make your own choices — choices that are good for you?
Scenario 2: No, You’re Not an Alcoholic
You sigh with relief. Thank God, you think. Now I can go back to drinking my wine without worrying that I’ll soon find myself drinking vodka out of the bottle in my bathtub — just to keep from beating the kids.
Maybe you skip the wine here and there because you remember how great you felt for that month and a half when you gave it up for Lent. Maybe you do a Dry July or a Sober October, and each time, you feel that same surprising sense of optimism and openness to life.
But you go back to alcohol because, well, you’re not an alcoholic. Your spark dims a bit. That pesky anxiety gnaws at you. You’re generally hazy and less motivated. But that’s just life, right? You’re not an alcoholic, so these feelings can’t be related to the margarita you had last night. Alcohol’s only real side effect is a hangover, right?
Besides, you can quit easily — whenever you want. What’s two glasses of wine with dinner, anyway? Life is meant to be lived! C’est la vie and carpe diem! You’ve never suffered any negative consequences from drinking, really. You’re not like the girl whose book you read, who crashed her car and got a DUI and left her daughter unattended during a blackout. Or the person who drank in the mornings, or the one who lost custody of his kids, or the one who lost his job because he called in sick too many days because he was hungover.
It’s not like that.
It’s not like you’re an alcoholic.
* * *
See what I mean? The label means too much. Addiction is so stigmatized in our society that we think there are only two types of people when it comes to drinking: alcoholics and everyone else. And if you’re not in the first bucket, drinking is fun! In fact, who would quit unless they had to?
One woman wrote me a letter describing how her mood and outlook improved after a month without wine, and — because feeling so much better surprised her — she was concerned she might be an alcoholic. As if only alcoholics feel better when they don’t drink.
Being an alcoholic or not had no bearing on the anxiety and cravings she felt around dinnertime the first week she didn’t drink. No, those cravings surfaced because alcohol is an addictive substance and a social buffer and she wasn’t using it anymore. She’d become used to life with alcohol and had maybe even become addicted to it. Because it’s addictive.
Here’s the dirty little truth no one likes to admit — everyone feels better in the long run when they don’t drink. Not just alcoholics — everyone. Because putting alcohol into your body isn’t life giving; it’s life sucking. Nobody’s life actually improves because of alcohol, even though most people I know would scoff at that — That’s what you think [*wink, wink* *clink, clink*] — and society tells us otherwise ten ways to Sunday.
Most people have no idea what their bodies feel like without it for an extended period of time. Alcohol is so normalized, so everywhere, so much a part of the fabric of mainstream society that most people will never experience life without it unless they’re forced to.
Isn’t it completely f@#king bizarre that we don’t question (and, in fact, highly encourage) regular consumption of a drug that’s more harmful and causes more deaths than cocaine, heroin, and meth combined? If someone stopped doing coke for a month and felt better, we wouldn’t sit there and wonder whether they were an addict or could go back to recreational line snorting. Or let’s look at smoking, which we were duped for decades into thinking was actually fine, and even healthy! Now that we know better, nobody questions the decision to stop smoking. Smoking is just so obviously stupid and dangerous.
And yet, alcohol is still cool. Unless you’re an alcoholic. In which case you’d better deal with it…
…without ruining the party for everyone else.
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Laura McKowen is the bestselling author of We Are the Luckiest, host of the Tell Me Something True podcast, and founder and CEO of The Luckiest Club, a global web-based sobriety support community. Beloved for her soulful and irreverent writing, Laura has been published in The New York Times, and her work has been featured by The Atlantic, The Wall Street Journal, the Today show, and more. Visit her online at http:/www.lauramckowen.com.
Excerpted from the book We Are the Luckiest. Copyright ©2020 by Laura McKowen. Printed with permission from New World Library — http://www.newworldlibrary.com.