How we think about ourselves determines how we behave in the world. And how we think about ourselves stems from who we believe we are– our self-identity. We identify ourselves in many ways. These include where we live, our ethnic background, our hobbies, our religion, our political party, and what sports teams we root for. But most often, when you ask someone who they are, they will respond by telling you what they do. We identify ourselves most closely with our actions. “I’m an accountant.” “I’m a lawyer.” “I’m a chef.” “I’m a full-time mother (or father).” What we do with most of our time tends to be how we see ourselves.
It shouldn’t be a surprise, then, that someone who struggles with addiction identifies themselves as an addict. That’s how society identifies us. Our behavior is illegal and unacceptable, so we’re forced to hide it. This is true even for alcoholics– even though alcohol is legal, we have to hide how much and how often we drink. And when we get arrested, the judge doesn’t look at us as a parent or employee, he sees an addict or alcoholic who violated the law.
And our lives support this self-identity. We may have a job, but the purpose of that job is to provide money to get drugs or alcohol. We wake up thinking about our drug. We plan for how we’re going to get it and when. Our biggest concern is that we might run out. Our addiction is the central feature of our lives.
Of course, we won’t admit that to anyone else. Often we won’t admit it to ourselves, either. We tell ourselves that we’re good employees, good parents, and good children. But when faced with a choice between our job or our family and our addiction, we most often choose our addiction. I recall several times when I didn’t show up for family Christmas because I was “sick.” I wasn’t sick at all– I was too loaded to drive. My wife says that she insisted she loved her son above all else, but she would often put him in the car after she’d been drinking. The truth is, our addiction came before our family.
The only people who can understand the hold addiction has over us are other addicts. This creates a social bond between those who are addicted, and separates us from those who are not. We may even believe that people who don’t use drugs are the abnormal ones, because everyone in our social circle uses like we do. (If they don’t, we don’t hang out with them, so they don’t stay in our social circle long!)
But of course we lie to our using buddies, too. We claim we don’t have any drugs even when we do, hoping that they’ll take pity on us and share what they have. We steal each other’s drugs and drink each other’s booze–and then deny we did it. We lie about where the money came from and how much dope we have. Because if we tell the truth, we risk getting taken advantage of by someone who is just as desperate as we are to feed their addiction. Despite our social circle, we usually feel pretty isolated because there aren’t many people we can trust. We certainly can’t trust those who don’t understand addiction. And we can’t trust our fellow addicts, either.
So this is most often how we see ourselves: as addicts, alone in the world, struggling to survive, and no one understands us. The world is unjust. We are outcasts, unaccepted and unwanted by society. I remember thinking not that what I did to feed my addiction was illegal, but that I was illegal, because I didn’t believe I had a choice about drinking and using. (And if they really didn’t want me to drink and drive, the city buses would run at closing time!) My identity had become entirely focused on my drug and alcohol use.
When we try to stop drinking and using, this identity needs to change. But change doesn’t come easily. In the beginning, we see ourselves as addicts trying not to use. We still identify as addicts. We’re trying not to use, but we know that the definition of an addict is someone who uses. So we don’t really believe we can stop. We tell ourselves (and anyone else who asks) that we can. But deep down, we don’t believe it because we are addicts and that’s what addicts do. It doesn’t help if we’ve been through the justice system a few times and had cops, judges, and probation officers reinforce that belief, or if our families have given up on us in frustration.
How do we change who we believe we are? It’s a paradox. We change our identity by living differently, and by associating with other people who have changed their identity. But that means we have to live differently and associate with different people, which we don’t believe we can do.
This is where the Twelve Step programs really excel. They take a two-pronged approach. In the short term, you show up at meetings and don’t drink or use no matter what. Anyone can do that for one day, right? So you do it today. And tomorrow you do it again. In the beginning, this simply takes stubbornness and the support of encouraging people.
But there’s only so long we can do this if nothing changes. Eventually, something in our lives becomes overwhelming, and we only have one tool for dealing with it. We may last a week or a year. But eventually, we go back to drinking and using because it’s the only solution we have.
So while we’re stubbornly not using today, we begin doing the program of recovery. We learn tools for dealing with conflict and uncomfortable emotions. We learn new habits like connecting with other people in recovery, talking on the phone between meetings, and taking small steps toward risking trust in them. As we do this, we discover that not using becomes easier each day. We gain more tools in our toolbox. We find other ways to cope with the challenges of life.
As we’re doing this, we also begin to realize that we’re not just addicts trying not to use today. We have become addicts in recovery. And addicts in recovery don’t use.
There are practical ways we can support this change in identity. Perhaps most importantly, we take note of our clean date (our our sobriety date), and we hang on to it. Mine is May 12, 1985. There have been several times over the years that just knowing I would have to give up that date has motivated me to ask for help when I was in danger of relapsing.
We connect with people who are also in recovery, and we build relationships with them. We get to know them, and we let them get to know us. They will see our attitude changing for the worse before we do, and they can warn us that we’re not doing the things we should in order to stay in recovery.
And we become members of a group of recovering people. This is important. When we feel connected to a group, that group membership influences who we think we are, just as belonging to a political party or a church do for “normal” people.
And we begin to share our experience with others. This reminds us of where we come from and how we’re different today. My first sponsor told me that if I have 30 days clean, I have something to share with the person who only has one day clean. (It’s so easy to forget that when I had one day clean, 30 days seemed impossible!)
These are the basics of living a life free of active addiction. There are more tools, and we gain more experience, but these basics will take us well into recovery. And as we do, we probably won’t even notice that our self-identity is changing. But it is. We are ceasing to be addicts trying not to use, and becoming addicts in recovery. We are giving up a hopeless state of mind and beginning to live in hope.
But we don’t just live in hope, we become symbols of hope for those who still struggle. When we realize that, our new identity has fully taken hold.