You don’t look like an alcoholic

Last week I wrote my story. I detailed an open and honest account of my drinking and how I came into recovery from alcoholism. As I was writing it I realised that, for easily twenty years, I had been having an internal dialogue about my behaviour around alcohol that I had never shared with anyone else. To share it, would have been to confirm that there was a problem and that something had to be done about it. So, I kept the conversation strictly to myself. I listened (to myself), offered advice (to myself), made plans and promises (to myself) and what I discovered was: 

I’m really bad at giving advice (to myself)! 

The other obvious side effect to my self-analysis was that no one else in my life had any clue about how I struggled every day to not be consumed by my obsession with alcohol and how, on many occasions, I lost that struggle. So, when I finally let others in I shouldn’t have been surprised at their reactions; but I was. Not for the reason you might assume, I was surprised that they nodded their acceptance and offered their support. I had expected a choir of voices singing “but you didn’t drink that much” or “but your life wasn’t chaotic” and other such declarations.  

Yet, I don’t doubt that they will come, those rather well-intentioned, but ultimately naïve comments. After all, people wouldn’t be wrong: my drinking, whilst daily, wasn’t by any means of “binge-worthy note” (although by official definitions it was), and when it was, well, those were ‘social’ occasions and I made sure that I never had those with the same people regularly in order to avoid any hint of a reputation. It wouldn’t be unreasonable for most people to think “Him? An alcoholic?”. Or would it? I mean, how do we define alcoholism as a society? 

NICE defines alcoholism as “characterised by craving, tolerance, a preoccupation with alcohol and continued drinking in spite of harmful consequences.” It doesn’t list a series of flawed characteristics or personality styles, it doesn’t say whether you have to be rich or poor, employed or unemployed, living in a palace or on the streets. Nevertheless, it is a common misconception that an alcoholic is easily identifiable, not just by their behaviours, but by the outcomes of those behaviours: the status of their relationships, employment, accommodation etc… but a misconception it is.  

I have a home, a good job and I’m married with children. All of those people and things were affected by my drinking, but it did not result in me losing any of them. To outside appearances I have everything going for me and yet every day I craved and was preoccupied by alcohol, my tolerance of it increased and I continued drinking despite obvious problems at home and at work. Crucially, I wanted and yet could not stop drinking, however hard I tried.  

Times are changing though and there is an increased understanding that terms such as ‘alcoholic’, ‘addict’ and ‘high functioning’ can become barriers to people seeking help when they need it. In fact it is estimated that only 1 in 10 adults seek help for addictive behaviours with shame and stigma being identified as some of the biggest barriers.  

Whatever term is used to describe addictive behaviours, it is our perception of what an addict looks like, how they behave and what their status in society is that really needs to shift. That change will come as more people like me feel able to admit their problem and seek help; and if removing labels that hinder that is necessary, it’s important to do that. 

So, come forward all the ‘people with an alcohol addiction’, declare yourself and seek help. I did and it was the best decision I’ve ever made. 

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