What to Say When Saying “Alcoholic” Doesn’t Feel Right
When I first started to critically examine my relationship to booze (and realized there was a pretty huge problem), the label “alcoholic” immediately did not resonate with me. I’ve probably used it <5 times in all my years when talking about myself but in the rare moments that I did use it, it was largely because I didn’t have alternative language and there didn’t seem to be a ton of options to convey my experience.
Now that I’ve been sober for 3.5+ years and critically engage on the daily with sobriety, addiction, and recovery, I not only have more language but also the critical analysis to actually take apart why the term alcoholic never worked for me.
First, alcoholic as a term/label is in line with the brain disease model of addiction (which also doesn’t sit well with me - more on that here) and is a term that’s been popularized by the Alcoholics Anonymous community. It’s operational usage posits that those who are alcoholics struggle with the disease of alcoholism. Unless diligent on the daily, they can (and will) slip back into the throes of their alcohol addiction. Being an alcoholic is a lifelong condition and disease, one which you will never escape from.
When seeking sobriety, I wanted freedom from my addiction, not to continue on with the daily battle and suffering. That’s what my addiction became in the end - a daily struggle - so the idea that living with the affliction of alcoholism until I died sounded pretty effing terrible. When getting sober, I committed to recreating my life in a way that didn’t revolve around booze and prioritizing my sobriety in a way I never had before.
Over the last 3.5+ years, I have created (and continue to create) a life and a lifestyle that fully supports my sobriety including changing my beliefs and mindset around alcohol, drinking and myself; developing a deep connection with self; getting super clear on my priorities (and why alcohol compromises literally all of them); and importantly, getting radically honest with myself. I mention this because I want to be clear that overhauling your life is a ton of work. Sustaining sobriety is a ton of work and obviously requires maintenance but this feels very different to me than taking on the identity of being an alcoholic, having to struggle day in and day out (for the rest of your life!), with the disease of addiction and the threat of relapse looming over you. That’s not my current experience and I didn’t want that as a part of my sobriety journey so I instead created something else for myself.
But back to why the term “alcoholic” just doesn’t jive for me.
The term alcoholic is used and applied as an identity rather than something we experience. When it’s applied, it becomes about who we are rather than what we do - an alcoholic rather than someone who struggles with alcohol addiction. It also makes the person struggling with the addiction the problem rather than identifying alcohol (you know, the HIGHLY addictive, highly toxic substance) as the issue. Holly Whitaker also speaks to this in Quit Like a Woman and I’m so glad she did because it’s an important distinction to make. We don’t label those struggling with a heroin addiction “heroin-aholics” so why do we collectively frame alcohol addiction this way? We can recognize heroin as highly addictive and highly toxic yet we still don’t feel compelled to make it the identity of the user. Why can’t we call alcohol what it is (again, highly toxic and highly addictive) rather than stigmatize those who struggle with addiction?
In using the term alcoholic, we also create an insidious divide between those who can drink “normally” aka normies and pit them against the nefarious alcoholics who can’t control themselves or their consumption. When it comes to drinking, it’s equally toxic for everyone who consumes it. Which we don’t talk about. We also don’t typically talk about the fact that everyone who struggles with addiction has undergone (typically) a significant amount of trauma, lacks healthy coping strategies and is more susceptible to developing an addiction for a variety of reasons, which we also don’t really talk about. Addiction starts long before we take our first sip but again, this isn’t part of the conversation. We don’t recognize that people turn to substances to create relief and/or escape for themselves because they literally don’t have any other options. We simply fault the “alcoholic” for making “bad choices” or not exercising will power. Addiction is highly nuanced and complex and requires precise language. The on-going use of the term “alcoholic” simply does not capture the layered complexities of those dealing with alcohol addiction (or any addiction, really).
Language matters. A lot. The words we use to describe ourselves and our lives are important so turning our awareness to this topic is essential. As I continue to work in the world of addiction and sobriety, it is becoming more and more clear that a huge part of my mission and purpose is to upend and challenge the existing language and narratives that dominant the recovery world. Side salad: even the word recovery is one I feel we could benefit from overhauling but that’s an article for another day.
“I am …” is the most powerful statement you can make about yourself so I urge you to add words to it that feel empowering, authentic and inspiring. With this in mind, if using the label “alcoholic” feels empowering for you, keep using it! This article is intended to share my experiences with the word, an urging towards critical thinking about this word (we don’t simply have to blindly accept the language that we’re given) and its use and alternatives, should you want them. I have encountered many other women for whom alcoholic doesn’t resonate and I’m guessing there are even more of us out there.
At the end of the day, women - and people journeying through sobriety more broadly - can really benefit from things that empower them, affirm their decision and importantly, reflect their experiences. In so many ways and for so many years, women have been disempowered through language, institutions, the patriarchy, communities, the laws and so on. Creating a sobriety journey that feels empowering and using language that feels good is our right and it’s time we exercise that right fervently.
With this, here are some awesome alternatives to alcoholic. Use what feels good!
- sober curious
- retired drinker
- in recovery
- you don't have to label yourself as anything because no one is owed an explanation of your relationship to booze