Do You Need To Identify as an Alcoholic in Recovery?

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Most of us are familiar with the standard AA introduction, “Hello, my name is ___, and I’m an alcoholic.” But have you ever wondered if this is actually helpful or necessary? Could it possibly even be detrimental?

Many who have been successful with the 12 step approach believe in the importance of continuing to identify as an alcoholic, no matter how long one has been sober. Others, particularly many who have been successful with the Sinclair Method (TSM), consider the term a hindrance, and prefer to separate from the label and move on.

This article will compare and contrast these two perspectives, and why they might work better for different people in different situations. It will also explore the fact that, although the term “alcoholic” has a stigma attached to it, people have the choice as to how they identify in recovery from alcohol use disorder (AUD).

Why Some People Still Identify as an Alcoholic After Quitting

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Many people believe that keeping the label “alcoholic” can help you stay aware of your behavior. It is a reminder that alcohol addiction is an ongoing battle, and you can’t let your guard down and allow old habits to re-emerge.

Another strong argument for identifying as an alcoholic is that it can reduce stigma for others and offer encouragement—particularly if it is coming from someone of status in the public eye. People can feel a sense of validation and hope knowing that a highly respected individual is also taking things “one day at a time.”

One such example was highlighted in a 2021 Washington Post article on Labor Secretary Marty Walsh. Walsh speaks openly about being in a 12 step program, and famously introduced himself at the 2016 Democratic National Convention by saying “My name is Marty Walsh, and I’m an alcoholic.”

Being in a high position in government and continuing to use the term is an admission that the work of recovery is never done. It can be inspiring to others not to cover up one’s struggles. It can help change the narrative that addiction is shameful, and that one can only achieve success by completely erasing the problem.

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Why Some Prefer To Leave the Term “Alcoholic” Behind

On the other hand, many people believe that labels such as “alcoholic” or “addict” can actually worsen stigma and shame. This group advocates for language that puts the person (not the label) first. For example, one might say “I struggle with alcohol.” This type of statement conveys that alcoholism is secondary to the person, and is not their whole identity. Separating the person from the addiction can be empowering.

In his article “Never Call Someone An Alcoholic Or An Addict,” Dr. Adi Jaffe states, “Labels can have a huge impact on someone with an addiction, as they typically come with expectations and can alter not only the person’s performance, but also the way other people view and treat them.” Jaffe cites research showing how labels can influence negative bias towards those in recovery.

Sadly, there are many misconceptions out there, and we often hear people with addictions described as lazy, damaged, and weak, with no regard for the circumstances of the individual. The shame of this portrayal leads to a negative self-concept which can then fuel the spiral of addiction. Labels like “alcoholic” can also cause people to hide their addiction, making them less likely to reach out for help.

Finally, some who have successfully quit drinking using the Sinclair Method (TSM) may really feel the problem is behind them, and prefer to drop the term for that reason. TSM involves taking the medication naltrexone while continuing to drink, rewiring the brain to no longer crave alcohol. This can make long-term recovery much easier to maintain for some people.

However, while TSM shuts down the urge to drink, it is not a total cure. A person following TSM who drinks without taking naltrexone can still relapse. So, in some sense, being “in recovery” is always a life-long reality.

Alternative Ways to Identify

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Photo by Jon Tyson on Unsplash

So, perhaps there is a way to acknowledge one’s history of alcohol addiction—and share openly with others—without stating “I am an alcoholic.” The message may remain just as effective if one changes the language to something more positive and empowering.

Some people prefer to identify as a “recovering alcoholic” because, although it is still a label, it is less passive and indicates that they are taking action. However, some feel that using the term “alcoholic” at all is still too stigmatizing.

Ria Health recovery coach Mike Osborne prefers a middle approach, recognizing the process while avoiding labels:

“As someone who has worked with individuals with AUD, I think it is important to identify as ‘someone in long term recovery’ from AUD when talking about their challenges with alcohol. I believe it helps to avoid complacency, and is a reminder that recovery is generally life-long work to prevent falling back into unhealthy habits.

“I believe that negative ‘labels’ such as ‘alcoholic,’ ‘addict,’ etc unfortunately lead to additional shame and guilt that many with an AUD already feel … I believe that changing the language used is vital for the treatment and recovery field.”

You Have a Choice in How To Identify in Recovery

Whether you choose to identify as an alcoholic or not is a personal choice. In a Time Magazine article, Holly Whitaker, author of “Quit Like A Woman: The Radical Choice Not To Drink In A Culture Obsessed With Alcohol,” writes about her choice to stop identifying as an alcoholic. She states that, at first, identifying that way made sobriety easier, as it ended the questions and pleas to drink.

But within less than a year of sobriety it felt wrong and untrue, “like a machete” to her throat. Shedding the label freed her from explaining who she was and was not, everywhere she went.

Others may feel that not identifying as an alcoholic is a form of denial. In other words, “you have to name the problem, in order to fix the problem.” If a person struggled with denial for a long time in the past, keeping the label might feel important, and help affirm their choice to get sober.

The important thing is to acknowledge one’s struggles with alcohol, regardless of the language you choose. There is a difference between denying the disease, and refusing the label.

Finding Support

If you are concerned about your relationship with alcohol, you don’t have to be afraid to get help. Ria Health offers stigma-free support, right from your smartphone. We don’t require you to choose any particular label for yourself. Rather, we look honestly at the symptoms you are experiencing, listen to your goals, and craft a treatment plan that will help you become your healthiest self. We even offer moderation as an option, if it will be a good fit.

Learn more about how our program works, or get started today.

Written By:
Lisa Keeley
Lisa Keeley is a freelance writer who resides in upstate New York. She especially enjoys writing about health, wellness and living your best life.
Reviewed By:
Evan O'Donnell
NYC-based content strategist with over 3 years editing and writing in the recovery space. Strong believer in accessible, empathic, and fact-based communication.
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