I felt like such a fraud. The idea that I needed to quit drinking alcohol – that I fit the classification of alcoholic – filled me with doubt and shame. Sure, I was ashamed of the instances when I drank too much, argued with my wife and wasted days nursing dehydration while trying to put together the pieces of the previous night. But I was also petrified with fear that I wasn’t alcoholic enough. I was holding my marriage together, my employment and finances were intact, I had no legal issues and I maintained my house on the weekends just like all my non-addicted neighbors. I was lying and denying if I ignored my condition, but I was a fraud if I claimed the affliction of the gutter bum or someone who drank away his family and possessions. I believed making the self-diagnosis of alcoholic or not alcoholic was a binary choice, and I was stuck firmly in the middle.
I took lots of those 20 question surveys you can find on the internet designed to help us determine our alcoholic status, and I answered some of the questions yes and some of them no. I did drink to blackout sometimes. I did have trouble stopping once I started drinking. But I didn’t experience delirium tremens and I didn’t drink everyday. I didn’t want to label myself an alcoholic, and those internet quizzes gave me the ammunition of denial. But my trepidation was more than that. When I did feel the trauma related to the yes answers outweighed the innocence of the nos, I still felt like I would not be accepted by the “true” alcoholics of the world – like I didn’t have enough outward signs of calamity and enough life destruction, like my story wasn’t bad enough.
The idea of claiming the alcoholic label made me feel like a fraud.
So I suffered in silence, tried to control the uncontrollable and denied my truth. It was like being an alcoholic required standing in line for an exclusive nightclub and fearing that surely I would be turned away at the door because I wasn’t what the bouncer was looking for. I knew I didn’t deserve to drink anymore, but I didn’t deserve to call myself an alcoholic, either. It was as though there were limited resources reserved for alcoholics in recovery, and I would be a fraud if I breathed some of their air or stole some of their peace and serenity. I hadn’t earned it yet. I needed to go away and drink some more and come back with my life in shambles. I needed a perfect score on the 20 question alcoholic survey. I needed to be much more destroyed.
The decision to get sober is about much more than abstinence from alcohol. It is a change in identity. It is like taking the the table that supports our whole house of cards, and pulling it away while we watch our personality, our social groups and our go-to tool for fun and relaxation crumble to the ground. Sobriety is a massive undertaking, and the idea of pulling resources for recovery away from people who really need it, people with rock-bottom stories that would make a good Lifetime Network movie, is often more than we can handle. How can a fraud like me ask for help? How can someone stuck in the middle seek treatment when so many others need it so much more? I only answered yes to 10 of the 20 questions about alcoholism. A real alcoholic would surely tell me to stop being a wussy and drink like a man, right?
Here’s what I’ve learned about the 20 question alco-quizzes. Twenty questions is 18 too many. There really are only two questions you need to ask yourself if you think you might be in trouble with alcohol. Do you think about alcohol when you are not drinking – either anticipation of the next drink or regret from the last? And, is alcohol causing negative consequences (major consequences or minor consequences) in your life? If you answer those two questions affirmatively, your relationship with alcohol is far likelier to get worse than it is to ever get better.
And that’s kind of the point, really. It’s a point I failed to understand for the ten years from the time I first started to wonder about my alcoholic status until I finally got permanently sober. The point is, alcoholism is a progressive disease. It always gets worse and it never gets better. The point is that if I think about alcohol frequently and alcohol is causing damage in my life, the time to stop is now. The question is binary and there is no middle ground on which to be stuck.
I call myself an alcoholic because I find immense benefit from owning the label. But the label isn’t the point of the decision to quit drinking. What you call yourself isn’t the binary choice. The decision is about removing the source of the damage. You can do it now or your can remove it later. But if you don’t, it will slowly and insidiously take everything that matters – including your last human breath.
A participant in our SHOUT Sobriety program reminded me this week of those days of feeling like a fraud because I wasn’t alcoholic enough. I was an underachiever in the alcohol-induced life-ravaging department, and I was ashamed to seek treatment because I thought the real alcoholics would laugh. I was stuck in the non-existent middle. I was a man with career goals and family plans, but with no sense of who I was because of a dysfunctional relationship with alcohol. I had built my life around being one of the beer drinking guys. And now, I was weak and humble and lost – a man without an identity.
Feeling like a fraud was like blinders from the truth. For so long, my shame prevented me from getting unstuck. The simple truth that eluded me was that the very best time to seek treatment and address my trouble with alcohol was as soon as it started to cause me trouble (sooner, really, but preventative action requires insight that can’t coexist with alcohol).
When we seek treatment early, we consume less resources. When we start climbing before we have dug all the way to the bottom, we don’t have as far to climb. The notion that we should save the help for those who need it more is ridiculous, really, unless our goal is to be that desperate and severely needy person ourselves someday.
And the shame is like the glue that keeps us stuck. I was ashamed of my behavior when drinking, but also ashamed the real alcoholics would consider me a lightweight with a willpower problem. What I’ve learned now in my third year of sobriety is that everyone admires someone who identifies his challenges and musters the strength to be vulnerable, face the decision at hand and choose health over denial. Notice that last sentence says nothing about alcoholism. Most of the world is in denial about something. The admiration isn’t limited to alcoholics. I’ve felt admiration from all segments of the population of people suffering from the human condition.
We spend so much time fixated on the alcoholic label and analyzing our diagnosis. The truth is, most people don’t care what you call yourself. If you take action to remove damaging influences from your life, your friends and family will stand up and take notice – not because you wear a certain label. They will notice because you have the courage to snatch victory from the jaws of defeat. That is a rare trait, and one worthy of admiration.
We are a few weeks into the life of our SHOUT Sobriety program. Many of my readers have indicated a desire for help and a need for a program that reveals how I found permanent sobriety. Most of them are stuck, and moving past the first step of the program is very hard for the majority of the people who show interest in enrolling. But the ones who follow through are taking action and doing the work to establish a new identity. Along the way, they will win the admiration of family and friends who don’t care what they call themselves. They have already made me an admirer for their desire and passion to get healthy.
If you are ready to end the debate, leave behind the shame of drinking too much and the shame of not drinking enough, I hope you’ll join us in the SHOUT Sobriety program. It is free to participate because I don’t think you should have to pay for your freedom. We solicit donations from people who believe in this work and want to support our efforts to help people find the enlightenment that saved my life.
For more information about SHOUT Sobriety, or to donate and help keep the program free for the people who need it, please click the button below and learn more about what we are trying to do. Maybe it will help you end the pointless debate about your alcoholic status and find freedom from shame. Maybe it will help you get unstuck.