Editor’s note: The author of this piece chooses to use “alcoholism” and “alcoholic” to describe individuals with alcohol use disorder. It is The Temper’s policy to refer to persons who have an addiction to drugs and alcohol without using these terms. The author’s choice of wording in this piece reflects their point of view and not the policies or viewpoint of The Temper.
When I was thirty years old and newly sober, breaking my anonymity anywhere beyond my immediate family or other recovering members of twelve-step programs was unthinkable. Following inpatient treatment, twelve-step membership was the foundation for my recovery. It was not just “the last house on the block” (as it was referred to by insiders) but also the only house on the block.
Stigma still exists today, but for many reasons, including the opioid epidemic, the recovery movement has gone mainstream in the past decade. According to The National Safety Council, the opioid epidemic is the worst drug crisis in U.S. history and, with that crisis, addiction has increasingly become recognized as something that doesn’t just happen to “other people.”
According to the Centers for Disease Control, from 1999 to 2017, more than 700,000 people have died from a drug overdose and 68% of the more than 70,200 drug overdose deaths in 2017 involved an opioid. CDC statistics establish that this fast-moving epidemic does not distinguish among age, sex, or state or county lines.
When your daughter, son, sister, brother, spouse, parents, or other relatives and friends turn up dead from an overdose, it’s harder to discount the effects of addiction as a moral issue, as a human failing, as specific to so-called character weakness, or as something that happens to weak people. It becomes evident that it can happen to anyone. It becomes harder to stereotype, to discount, and to deny.
When your daughter, son, sister, brother, spouse, parents, or other relatives and friends turn up dead from an overdose, it’s harder to discount the effects of the disorder as a moral issue, as a human failing, as specific to so-called character weakness, or as something that happens to weak people.
Shame and stigma are decreasing also in part because the demographics of those affected now include so many children of white suburban dwellers — and, unfortunately, because we live in a systemically classist, racist, and patriarchal society — it’s these deaths that have caught the public’s attention and compassion.
Additionally, although celebs like Betty Ford, Kitty Dukakis, and Elizabeth Taylor were early groundbreakers in lessening the stigma for women in need of recovery, popular culture and the rapidly growing recovery movement among younger people and women today has evolved into a wider awareness and growing acceptance surrounding addiction. This is due, in part, to the advent and power of the internet and social media, which makes information more accessible, and help is just a google away even if it’s just online contact with other recovering people.
In the early eighties, when I was a young thirty-year-old mom of two pre-pubescent girls and a disc jockey and music director at a top Denver radio station, cocaine was part of doing business in the music industry. When I couldn’t stop using and it jeopardized my job and family, I reached out for help with my “little coke problem” and was admitted to an inpatient thirty-day treatment center, which my insurance paid for in full. While undergoing treatment, an exploration of my alcohol and drug history revealed that perhaps, with my first drink and blackout at age fourteen, I didn’t just have “a little coke problem” but was a full-fledged “alcoholic and polysubstance abuser,” the terms which were used at that time.
The language used to describe addiction in the eighties, when I received treatment, versus today is another indication of how far we have come in terms of stigma and shame. In the latest edition of the Associated Press Stylebook, guidelines state that “addict” should no longer be used as a noun. Instead, journalists are directed to use people-first language, for example, “he has a substance use disorder” instead of “he’s an addict.”
I was introduced to the twelve steps and it saved and continues to save my life. But as I observe women sobering up today, I can’t help but notice how much less stigma they are facing as well as the variety of recovery options available to them— the progress is remarkable. When I came into the rooms at thirty, I was told I didn’t have to hit a bottom as severe as many of the old-timers had. I could, as they said, get off the elevator at any floor.
Following inpatient treatment, twelve-step membership was the foundation for my recovery. It was not just “the last house on the block” (as it was referred to by insiders) but also the only house on the block.’
Around twenty years sober, I went through a period of withdrawal from the program I attended when I became convinced that I had addiction licked. I was well now. I could make it on my own. I attended fewer and fewer meetings and, when the meetings in a small town I had moved to consisted of many newcomers fresh from their last drink, I began to distance myself because it seemed like my last drink was so far away I could no longer relate. I had forgotten the basic tenet of my recovery program, which is, if not an obligation, a sacred duty: To help other alcoholics sober up as I had been helped. With my education, acquired after getting sober, as an MSW and a license-to-practice clinical social worker, with my new status as a therapist, and my double digits of sober time, I began to think maybe I could drink safely again.
At twenty-four years sober, I took that first drink. It was an expensive experiment. My alcoholic thinking progressed and I plummeted into darkness so deep, I couldn’t see any way out. But I had a good foundation in recovery and, as soon as I admitted to myself that I was in trouble, bread crumbs appeared like tiny flickers of light and I embarked on the long road back.
When I came into the rooms at thirty, I was told I didn’t have to hit a bottom as severe as many of the old-timers had. I could, as they said, get off the elevator at any floor.
Within two short years, I returned to my twelve-step roots and achieved recovery again, an even stronger recovery, and my earlier decades of sober twelve-step experience served me well. I leveled up and have a deeper respect and understanding of this illness, especially the part about abstinence being key, not just one day at a time, but one day at a time the rest of my life. At the time that I took that first experimental drink after twenty-plus years abstinent, it made no rational sense for me to drink, even if I wasn’t an alcoholic. I had two daughters, both now also sober and in long term recovery. I had based my life on recovery. My thinking had clearly deteriorated as evidenced by the insanity that convinced me that taking a drink at that point and context in my life made any sense whatsoever.
Alcohol and drugs are not an option for me.
In 1984, identifying as an alcoholic and addict as a woman was debilitating. I grew up in a conservative, religious family who, given the stigma that both addiction and mental illness represented at the time, preferred I be diagnosed mentally ill over alcoholic. My family considered mental illness less stigmatizing than addiction, which they did not consider an illness at all. Further, they were in denial that substances had played any role in the various problems I had.
Nevertheless, I called and continue to call myself an alcoholic and an addict (mostly an alcoholic as alcohol is the world’s oldest known drug, so I see no need to hyphenate the two) and, thirty-four years later, I am largely comfortable with it. In the rooms, I collect chips annually, counting from November 27, 2010, which is when I returned from the two years I spent back out drinking. When people ask, I tell them I have thirty-two out of thirty-four years sober and I own it. A two-year relapse after twenty-four years clean and sober was not worth dying from.
In spite of the shame attached to relapse for those in long term twelve-step recovery, it was my decade’s long sober experience and twelve-step practice that saved me.
My experience told me that I couldn’t give shame the time of day, that I had not lost the time I accrued as a sober woman over twenty-four years, that even if I had lost my status in the rooms, I could never lose the evolution in consciousness and quality recovery I’d gained. I held my head up. I raised my hand. I admitted to my powerlessness over alcohol and gained new understanding regarding the illness of alcoholism. I would never be able to safely drink or drug. No amount of filling in the blanks of the developmental stages where I’d missed key tasks due to trauma and subsequent substance use would mean I could go back and use again. No amount of inner child work, therapy, or self-actualization would make me a “normal” drinker. No master’s degree or clinical training. The twelve steps could and had given me a way to live, a daily practice, but they would never make me anything except myself, and I am an alcoholic.
When people ask, I tell them I have thirty-two out of thirty-four years sober and I own it.
The gift of the program and the twelve steps, I realized, is myself. Flawed, alcoholic, and deeply human; the gift, I finally learned, is self-acceptance. Failure is necessary. But if I accept failure, success is inevitable.
My cousin’s son died of an opioid overdose on November 27, 2011, which marked one year back, as they put it in the rooms, “on the beam” for me. He was thirty years old the day he died, the same age I was when I got sober in 1984. My anniversary date is less a celebration and more an honoring of his life and prayer on behalf of so many loved ones lost, dead or alive, to the same illness that took his life, and continues to threaten mine. I understand today that it is shame, not alcohol, that will kill me.
In contrast to what I and countless other women faced sobering up in past decades, I am fascinated by the options available to the newly recovering woman today. A new paradigm around the issue of identity and addiction is being forged. Shame and stigma are being sidestepped by the suggestion that one look at drinking and drug use with an eye as to whether or not it is adding anything to one’s life, whether or not it’s healthy, whether or not it serves.
Today a person doesn’t have to label herself an addict or alcoholic in order to recognize drinking and drugging as unhelpful and basically, just plain counter to one’s best interests. Whether or not one drinks alcoholically is beside the point, almost. There is a movement afoot that challenges drinking culture in our society in general, that says, alcoholism aside, why is alcohol such an integral part of our daily lives and culture?
While a change in drinking culture will not cure alcoholism, it will allow for healthier lifestyles and choices for all.
While a change in drinking culture will not cure alcoholism, it will allow for healthier lifestyles and choices for all, and for those of us for whom drinking and drugging is not an option, an environment where alcohol and drugs are not normalized, where health and self-care is, can only help in our journey to wellness. To quote from a widely used recovery text, “Alcohol is but a symptom.”
What radical change might occur in all our lives if we address the underlying conditions that create a culture that fosters sickness and encourages instant relief for whatever ails us? What if seeking health and wholeness versus blind consumption and escapist pleasure became our everyday expectation and reality? What if part of changing drinking culture meant not only a paradigm shift in how we view our choices around drinking but also how we view those who need help around those choices?
Anonymity is a tradition in twelve-step programs for reasons based on necessity and stigma. When I sobered up, like my predecessors, I faced shame and judgment. It was like being a drowning person; when a boat came along and threw me a rope, I grabbed it. Today that’s shifting—there are lots of boats and they’re throwing out ropes. I hope you grab one.