How Much Does the Name Matter?
photo of the author from his files
When I first began to question whether or not I might have alcoholism, I found the word to be vile. I’d never consciously thought much about the words alcoholic or alcoholism. Suddenly, I was thinking about them.
And I hated those words because somehow I had gotten the idea that alcoholics were the scum of the earth.
Where did I get that from if I’d never considered it?
I thought most of the words for druggies were cool, signifiers of a way of life that was on the edge.
Except for junkie. That struck me as most definitely something I did not want to be.
A head, even a garbagehead, was ok by me. Druggie. Pothead. Pillhead.
Anything but addict or junkie.
But I wasn’t into any of the terms used for big drinkers. Boozehound. Lush. Drunk. Alkie.
No, thank you.
I freely admitted, even happily copped to being a druggie. But, a lush? Them’s fightin’ words.
I suppose I had caught onto the hippie idea that alcohol was the older generation’s game, whereas pot and drugs were for the hip young people.
Of course, this made no sense because I drank alcohol as much as I used drugs. Which was a lot.
My idea that alcoholics were the scum of the earth vanished when I met a few sober people, including my alcohol counselor at the Alcoholism Council of Greater New York, who freely and openly described themselves as being alcoholics.
I was in a bad way, bottoming out. Physically, emotionally, spiritually, and psychologically crashing, if I didn’t do something soon I may not live long.
So I needed to find a solution.
When I stopped dithering, I looked to the example of my counselor, and others, and I stopped worrying about the term alcoholic. I knew that I had it bad and that I needed to admit it and start to deal with it.
The first time I heard a sober friend refer to alcoholics as “drunks,” that stung me. Damn.
But, I learned that one of the characteristics of alcoholics is being overly sensitive. I could get thrown off and fly into a rage or a crying jag by the slightest thing in the early days.
I worked to develop a bit of a thick skin in certain ways. I surely did not want to be closed off, as that is the way I had become by drinking and drugging so much. But I couldn’t be as raw as I felt and be able to make my way in the world.
As I got a bit of sober time and dug into my past and saw more clearly that I am indeed an alcoholic, I got more and more comfortable with it. I accepted it.
In a certain way, I was ok with the idea that I was a drunk. Because I am a drunk when I drink.
I got sober in ’89, so there’ve been extraordinary changes since then. Many words and phrases and names that seemed to be OK back then are anything but OK now.
And I do know that the term alcoholic/alcoholism are not the most precise and that they don’t carry specific medical definitions. But they work.
Here’s what Wikipedia says, which I think is pretty good:
“Alcoholism is, broadly, any drinking of alcohol that results in significant mental or physical health problems. Because there is disagreement on the definition of the word alcoholism, it is not a recognized diagnostic entity, and the use of alcoholism terminology is discouraged due to its heavily stigmatized connotations. Predominant diagnostic classifications are alcohol use disorder or alcohol dependence; these are defined in their respective sources. Heavy alcohol use can damage all organ systems, but it particularly affects the brain, heart, liver, pancreas and immune system. Alcoholism can result in mental illness, delirium tremens, Wernicke–Korsakoff syndrome, irregular heartbeat, an impaired immune response, liver cirrhosis and increased cancer risk. Drinking during pregnancy can result in fetal alcohol spectrum disorders.”
By any name, it’s some serious shit.
The National Institue on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism describes Alcohol Use Disorder this way:
“Alcohol use disorder (AUD) is a medical condition characterized by an impaired ability to stop or control alcohol use despite adverse social, occupational, or health consequences. It encompasses the conditions that some people refer to as alcohol abuse, alcohol dependence, alcohol addiction, and the colloquial term, alcoholism. Considered a brain disorder, AUD can be mild, moderate, or severe. Lasting changes in the brain caused by alcohol misuse perpetuate AUD and make individuals vulnerable to relapse. The good news is that no matter how severe the problem may seem, evidence-based treatment with behavioral therapies, mutual-support groups, and/or medications can help people with AUD achieve and maintain recovery.”
There are many paths to recovery, and I hope you find one if you need to.
For me, it was terribly difficult to admit my alcoholism to myself, and to others.
Once I learned that it is an illness, disorder, disease, condition, or however one thinks of it, it made it a bit easier to accept.
More importantly, I couldn’t change it. I couldn’t go back in time. I wasn’t going to be able to drink safely, so I needed to get acclimated to some new terminology and get on with the business of recovering.
It’s your recovery, no one else’s. Use the terms that work, but please don’t be precious about it. If you’ve got it, whatever you want to call it, you’ve got it. And it needs to be dealt with.
Warm and kind love is good love. And sometimes tough love is needed. Give yourself a lot of both, and seek out others who will do the same.
And don’t get too hung up on the name.