By April W. Smith…
“Clean and sober!” said the pastor of my church, by way of congratulations. I replied that I don’t use either word.
“So how do you refer to yourself?” he asked.
“Cat-positive radical feminist vegan cupcake goddess,” I wrote.
But I elaborated. Why don’t I call myself clean and sober? I mean, I don’t do drugs. I am consciously, willfully abstinent from alcohol, benzos, and other drugs.
I despise the word “clean” when used in the context of addiction. It reminds me too much of biblical purity codes and the shame inflicted on people who are deemed unclean. You know, lepers, untouchables, women who are menstruating, etc. Describing someone as “unclean” is about as bad as you can get. Calling a formerly drug addicted person clean implies that when using, they were unclean. If we buy the disease model, which I think is pretty functional if not entirely biologically accurate, then a person who is addicted to drugs is no different from a person with a virus or an infection or cancer or diabetes. We in the developed world no longer refer to these people as unclean. It’s highly stigmatized. Let’s just drop it.
“Sober” is tougher. I am sober, as in not drunk. I suspect that you reading this are as well, at the moment. You don’t identify yourself by that current state, however, unless you’ve had an alcohol or drug problem. You might drink and get drunk tonight, or this weekend. For all I know you’re drunk internet surfing even as you read. This is a biological state, not an identity.
To me, being abstinent from alcohol is a precondition for everything else in my life, including being alive. I have that kind of severe biological reaction to alcohol where I almost immediately lose my rational mind as soon as I take a drink and can’t stop drinking without experiencing severe blood curdling withdrawal. It wasn’t always like that – it took years to progress and it progressed the most and fastest during long periods of time when I wasn’t drinking at all. But that’s how it is now. It’s as though I have an allergy, a metaphor that isn’t perfect but works pretty well. Dr. Silkworth used it years ago in the Big Book of Alcoholics Anonymous.
My uncle Gerald is allergic to almonds. So allergic that if he eats an almond, he may have to go to the hospital. I think he carries around an epi pen. I live many states away from Uncle Gerald and I still feel vaguely awkward when I eat an almond. Given that I eat almonds every day, I think of Uncle Gerald often.
I don’t define Uncle Gerald as an Almond Allergic. Sure, he limits some of his actions due to almonds, but it doesn’t severely impact his life. He lives without Marzipan, and seems just fine. He has a PhD, is an ordained minister, and is the longest serving employee at Duke University as an academic dean. His almond allergy is not stigmatizing. It’s just, well, not a thing.
My alcohol problem has been more of a thing. It affected my life a lot. It’s an experience I had, and it shaped who I am, but it did not make me who I am. I am not my disease.
It’s something I survived, much like sexual assault and the GRE. (To be fair, I liked the GRE. I test well.) Being a survivor of sexual assault has presented me with some traumas that I had to work through. It helped a lot when I finally got some help, professional and otherwise. The same is true for alcohol.
Defining me as sober sets me apart from you, if you are not a former addict. We are likely both not drunk at this moment, but my status of “not drunk” can be made to take on meaning different from yours. I don’t want to be labeled that way. I refuse to buy into the stigmatizing idea that I am always going to be a disease from which I have now recovered.
To call me clean and sober, even when you mean it as a compliment, sounds condescending to me. I define myself. You can respect my identity or not. I appreciate that my pastor asked how I would refer to myself, and I try to refer to others as they define themselves, not as they are stigmatized by society.
We have all had many experiences, traumas, and problems. You may have had credit card debt, but even if you have paid it off now, I wouldn’t refer to you in public as “debt-free” because that brings up the notion that it was ever my business whether you had debt or not. If you’re not defaulting on loans from me, it’s just not my business. If I try to claim that you have a character defect and are less than I am because you had credit card debt, regardless of your current credit score, I suspect we are going to have an interpersonal problem.
This is not to trivialize either the disease of addiction or the weight of credit card debt. It is to let people out of jail if they have suffered from a stigmatized situation, and to allow people to define themselves, not be labeled.
I do not need to be defined as an alcoholic in order to remain abstinent. I recognize much better than you can imagine that if I drink I will die. In fact, the re-stigmatization can be demoralizing to the point of being a self-fulfilling prophecy. What we say we are is what we become.
I choose to call myself an alcoholic when at AA meetings because that’s contextually appropriate. However, I’ve cut back on my meeting attendance and stopped working the steps because I don’t want to allow the subtle subconscious messages that I am somehow damaged to infect my self-image. For those for whom frequent AA meetings and the steps work, great. I have no quarrel with you. For me, that is not the one true path. I’ve found my way through AA and other programs, like SMART Recovery. But most of all, I’ve found my own self-reliance, a practice that AA discourages.
For those who wish to define themselves as alcoholics and addicts, I respect your right to identify however you choose. There is a sign in the staff kitchen of my food co-op that shows a picture of two kinds of sponges and says, “I’m a dish sponge. I’m a counter sponge. Please respect our identities.” I respect your identity as you define it.
I ask that others respect mine. Those who want to be in communion and communication with me recognize that I do not want to be defined by a disease from which I suffered greatly, any more than I want to be defined as a sexual assault survivor. I am not the sum total of my traumas: I am a living, breathing, growing and evolving human being. I am an incredible baker of vegan cupcakes, one of the best organizers you’ll ever hear about, and a darn good kitty mommy.
Call me a radical feminist. Call me a crazy cat lady. Call me maybe. But don’t call me clean and sober.