by Paul S. (Punanai 2011)
I was at a bookstore some time ago, perusing the titles in the alcoholism and addiction section. Two teenage girls nearby started to rifle through the shelves until they got to where I was standing. Upon discovering the topics of the books, one of the girls turned to the other, and with a hint of disdain in her voice, announced, “Oh, those books are for alkies.”
Now, I don’t have an issue with the terms “alkie,” “drunk,” “booze pig,” etc. I use them on myself often, almost always in jest or in moments of truth. I use them amongst other alcoholics for jocular identification. But for many of us even the word “alcoholic” carries something greater and deeper than just the fact that we cannot ingest alcohol in any normal manner.
I recall a time standing in front of my mirror, years before going to treatment, mouthing the words, “I’m an alcoholic.” I couldn’t say it out loud. While I was cognizant of what I truly was, announcing who and what I truly was, even to myself, surrounded me with some shame.
To an active alcoholic, wearing shame is as common as a dog wearing a collar and leash. It tends to direct us, move us, and place us in a spot where only more drinking can cover up the terrorizing triumvirate of shame, guilt and remorse. This further drinking then brings us deeper into the shame. Lather, rinse and repeat.
The stigma of being an alcoholic or even an addict is something I understand. I get it. I see others in and out of the rooms who struggle with “the ‘A’ word.” Attaching themselves to that word is almost like buying into the distorted and uninformed societal view of who and what we are. The morally maligned. The weak of willpower. Emotionally bereft hedonists. Street sweepers who shotgun men’s cologne underneath a bridge in a cardboard box.
We clearly are not those things, although circumstances may bring us to physical, mental and emotional pitfalls. And yet, with all the information out there about alcoholism and addiction readily available, we are still in many ways that kid in the class who eats worms: no one understands why he does it, nor wants to, and does everything possible to avoid him. We are the ones whispered about in the hallways scattered about in our lives.
What held me back from recovery many years ago wasn’t the acknowledgment of my condition, but the idea that others would know, that the truth would be unearthed, that my secret would no longer be. That I would be stamped with an “A” and forever be identified as weak and undisciplined. That I would be drafted a failure, that no one would look at me in the same light, that the whole hollow world I had created would crumble at the touch, and all eyes would peer at me in disgust.
I knew what others thought of alcoholics and addicts; I too had those very same thoughts. I didn’t want to be one of them – and that’s what stopped me in my tracks, even when I knew that my alcoholism was progressing quickly. Although I knew that treatment and recovery were what I needed, what I desired, my pride and ego held sway. How I thought I would be branded kept me in the muck and mire of my mess.
The stigma I felt towards myself and what others would perhaps think of me was also based on the thought that I was terminally unique – completely different than my fellows. Maybe I wasn’t normal, but I wasn’t one of those alcoholics. What I saw in recovery, being in the rooms and surrounded by other alcoholics and addicts, was that I was not alone. I saw men and women who were like me, who drank like me, who felt like me. Our external circumstances were varied, but deep down we were linked by something that transcended all that.
Recovery and being in a fellowship helped to remove my imagined stigma of being an alcoholic. I saw that I was sick, not bad. I saw that I was someone who needed some tools, some love, and some guidance. I learned that it wasn’t the label attached to me, but the person underneath it all, that mattered.
I was a child of the Creator, a father, son, husband, brother, uncle, employee, neighbour. My alcoholism didn’t define me, but the journey from there catapulted me to a place where attachment to anything but love and tolerance was immaterial. I finally had a seat at the table of life.
My name is Paul and I’m an alcoholic. But first and foremost, I am Paul.