But I’m Not an “Alcoholic!”

Posted on July 9, 2013

Labels Get in the Way of Making Values-based Choices
~Sara Suman, LMSW, SMART Recovery Volunteer

MAN IN THE GLASS EIGHT, Artist: Brent Schreiber

“But I’m not an alcoholic!” I cannot count the number of times have I heard this statement. I’ve said it to myself numerous times over the years. I’ve heard it from newbies at SMART Recovery meetings, and I hear it in the groups and individual sessions at the treatment center where I work. I witness people with substantial substance abuse problems wrestle with these words/labels to the point of not being able to start on the journey of recovery. SMART helped me realize that these labels are not necessary. The way I relate now to these loaded words is a reflection of my own process of coming to terms with what it means for me, “to have a problem with drugs and alcohol.”

Without getting hung up on labels, SMART helped me cut to the chase by identifying the most important things in my life through the Hierarchy of Values (HOV) tool*.

This is mine:

1) Family & Friends 2) Health/Mental Health 3) Career 4) Financial Stability 5) Spirituality

Were drugs and alcohol getting in the way of any these values? Yes, every single one of them, each in bigger and smaller ways. And that’s what it came down to for me, not whether I was an “alcoholic” or an “addict”, whatever that actually means. All that mattered was this simple fact — substances were getting in the way of every aspect of my life that was most important to me. And that is the most common understanding of what a Substance Use Disorder (SUD) is: continued use despite negative consequences.

And even more basic, drugs and alcohol were putting at risk this one little life that I have the opportunity to live out these values that I hold so dear. I have only one life and one chance at reaching these goals: of one day being a mom, of being a loving wife, sister, daughter, friend, clinical social worker, responsible, self-actualized world citizen. If alcohol is getting in the way of these fairly universal human goals, then why not get rid of it, especially if it’s something that I have control over. The exciting part is that the nano-second that I committed to stop drinking and using for good is the nano-second that I was able to start living the life I desired.

*SMART tools such as the HOV (Hierarchy of Values) can be found in the SMART Handbook and online at SMART Recovery.

About the author: Sara works at an outpatient substance abuse treatment center for dually diagnosed, mostly mandated clients. She is a SMART Recovery online member and a former online meeting facilitator. Currently, she continues her volunteer support for SMART in the 3D world by speaking in support of SMART in the NYC area and arranging SMART presentations in different settings.

**Photo courtesy of: Addiction and Art, a website devoted to continuing the Addiction and Art project, ‘Innovators Combating Substance Abuse’, a Robert Wood Johnson Foundation national program to foster innovation in the substance abuse field.

10 thoughts on “But I’m Not an “Alcoholic!”

  1. Jay T.

    I agree with what you say and all I read about Smart recovery, I have a particular dilemma that I am finding hard to address. I will try to accurately put words to it but I am afraid I will be misjudged as having a personality problem or ego maniac. Actually I have a degree of humility and those 2 factors are not a problem.

    I have 32 years clean and sober in AA with plenty of involvement as a speaker, secretary and in recent years a regular attendee at AA Agnostics meetings. Three years ago I went through a divorce and retired after 20 years working as a therapist/addiction counselor at a sophisticated behavior modification program. I did individual therapy and behavior groups covering behavior change, communication and social skills, relapse prevention, conflict resolution, family dynamics, etc. with a diverse population of men and women some college grads and others court committed drug dealers.

    OK I am an older guy, ex Marine, know it all with living problems that require process by me with a forum. I dislike religion, labels, and much of the misinformation floating around recovery in 12 step groups. Lately listening to the “God stuff”, “turning it over”, “my will vs God’s will” etc. is driving me crazy. What to do – where to go?? Like the idea of Smart Recovery but don’t know if I would be a fit. I have an 11 year old son and I still live in a large condo sharing expenses with my ex wife who is a psychologist.

    1. Admin Post author

      Hi Jay:

      Your recovery of 32 years and all the contributions and work that you have done in the service of others is impressive and inspiring!

      Very cool that you’re still looking for ways to grow and learn. As to whether SMART Recovery would be a good fit for you, the only to know for sure is to give it a try!

      We look forward to “seeing” online or in a face-to-face meeting soon.

    2. Chris

      Relinquishing control to God is not necessarily a weakness; in fact it can be construed as, “Intelligent Delegation.”

    3. Ken Witt

      I am an 8 year Air Force veteran with one year in Vietnam. Like you I am self willed and the 12 step ideas did not work for me. I did not buy the religious turn everything over to God concept. God gives us science and matters or rationality and wants us to use them.

      I go to smart recovery. You come across as a reasoning person. You cannot make a rational decision as to if SMART is good for you unless you go.

      BTW, SMART is not anti-religious (nor does it promote religion, I am a minister and am also a SMART facilitator

  2. Red S.

    I found this tweet interesting

    “If you get a DWI and you tell me you’re not an alcoholic, I’ll say, so your only allergic reaction to booze is to break out in handcuffs?”

    Sometimes word games get in the way, don’t you think? In fact, sometimes the public mask even appear to conflict with the private reality of our own truths. Words meant to attempt to differentiate one program from another slip so easily back into our tweets because let’s face it: Labels are not evil. We use hundreds of them in our daily lives. Professional titles, informal titles. They’re descriptors. Wife. Husband. Father. Mother. Son. Daughter. Social Worker. Catholic. Recovery Volunteer. Student. Each one tells other people bits of information about us.

    I’m a recovered alcoholic. That’s not something I typically tell people outside of recovery circles. Inside of recovery circles, it communicates some very important information about me. Nor does it end there. It also communicates to the listener, and if that listener is seeking recovery, it states that they CAN recover.

    Now I’m not about to tell anyone who gets a DWI that they’re an alcoholic. That would be inappropriate labeling. Based on a single impaired charge, I don’t have enough evidence to determine what kind of problem they have. On the other hand, I’m certainly going to suggest that they certainly experienced a problem, otherwise they would not of received a DWI.

    What’s my point? Labels aren’t the problem. Inappropriate labeling on the other hand . . .

    1. Ken Witt

      you said labeling isn’t the problem, Research indicates labeling is a very big part of the problem

  3. Kevin

    This is a pretty decent article about an important topic. No labels should be placed on an individual. If a person or client WANTS to call themselves addict or alcoholic, then let them be. However, no one should be forced into something they do not want, which brings me to my next point.

    As good as this idea is, there is still an underlying theme of “I don’t care what you call it, but you really. really, really should do it my way”. I see in your info that you work with “mostly mandated clients”. I would guess that a good percentage of these would be DUIs. Does everyone who is mandated, especially for DUIs, want to abstain? I don’t think so. Most times, treatment is a way to get around or through the judicial system.

    Does that mean they can’t learn something? No, in fact they can. You can yell and scream and shout till your face goes blue that a client has to abstain, but that doesn’t mean the client will listen. Even if a client doesn’t want to abstain, it doesn’t mean you can’t help them. A client may not want complete abstinence, but may agree that changing a specific behavior is appropriate. You could focus on that one behavior with them. For example, drunk driving.

    If you focused on that single behavior and helped a client understand that they can do something better then they were before, everyone wins. REBT/CBT is a good method for doing this, even for those who do not want to abstain. As you know, in REBT, you change you emotional and psychological responses. This allows you to think differently. Showing them this tool can allow the clients to come to this understanding and use these tools to make better choices with drunk driving.

    This is using REBT methods to help with Harm Reduction. Let’s face it, the number of people that will leave your center and continue abstinence is small at best. Yet, you can still help those who do not want to, or end up choosing not to practice complete abstinence. Who knows! Maybe making small changes in their current behavior now will lead them onto the path of complete abstinence later!


    1. Sara Suman

      Hi Kevin,

      Thanks so much for your response to my blog post. I appreciate you taking the time to do so. I agree that no one “should” do anything, a core concept of REBT. If someone finds it preferable and helpful to use the term “alcoholic” then that is supported. At my program it’s “whatever works”, no one is encouraged or discouraged either way, as can happen in 12 step culture.

      I am fortunate enough to work in place where no one has to do anything “my way” or any other way really. We don’t require attendance at 12 step meetings. I apply the SMART model in all of my group and individual work. As a result I have almost no power struggles with mandated clients. To answer your question, about 15 percent are DWI, the rest are mandated by alternative to incarceration programs, by Child Protective Services, treatment and drug courts, and husbands and wives. Some come in seeing it as a way around the judicial system, and some of those people experience a shift, and decide they do in fact have a problem and then start to work on it. Some are simply trying to get out of Riker’s Island, but who blames them for that? I sure don’t, nor do I feel conned by them when they leave and start using again. My goal is to provide the individual the best possible opportunity to get clean and sober for him or herself. My goal isn’t to get them to stop using because no one person can get any other person clean and sober.

  4. Reid K Hester, Ph.D.

    Well said. And research on whether clients in alcohol treatment accept or reject the label of alcoholic found this: There is NO relationship between accepting or rejecting the label and outcomes following treatment.

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