As a forty nine year old woman, in recovery since 2001, I don’t find the term ‘alcoholic’ offensive or derogatory. Quite the opposite in fact and when I use it to introduce myself to other people in the same position it serves as positive reinforcement of a common bond and commitment. Every day thousands of men and women, young and old, from every walk of life, find strength and hope in an organisation built around the ‘A’ word or two ‘A’ words to be exact.
For us, ‘alcoholic’ conveys surrender, unity and hope, not offense or derision. An AA meeting provides an informed, empathetic audience we can’t reasonably expect outside ‘the rooms’ but perhaps with some effort on both sides, we can promote a better understanding of what it is to be an alcoholic and why it doesn’t really work as an insult, intended or otherwise.
What does trouble me is negative stereotyping and having seen it in action, I think the subject merits debate. Probably the worst example was a psychiatric nurse, out of uniform, brimming wine glass in hand who whilst holding court at a BBQ referred to her work with “filthy alcoholics.” I don’t believe her attitude is representative of the profession but the message received by her ‘audience’ was that alcoholics are dirty and if the expression on her face was anything to go by, utterly worthless.
With sobriety comes better ‘peripheral vision’ and the strength to be our own person and not be told where we do and don’t belong. It’s easy to be wise years down the line but tough at the start when everything is chaos and shame. I liken recovery to doing a difficult jigsaw puzzle – impossible to find all the right pieces the first time we look but with perseverance and vigilance the picture comes together. Sadly, there’s nothing to be done about the piece eaten by the dog.
Only part, not the whole
In the early days of recovery we lack the experience to see that addiction is only part, not the whole, of who we are and as history proves, society is keen to demonise and stigmatise behaviour that strays beyond the realms of ‘normal.’ I have the benefit of a first-hand, rounded understanding of what ‘alcoholic’ does and doesn’t mean and acceptance of the fact that I am an addict is more important than the label I choose to describe my relationship with alcohol.
I don’t need third party validation of my ‘achievements’ and equally can’t be knocked off course by insults confected from ignorance. It took a while to get here but I now know who I am and perhaps that’s the key.
‘Normal’ is subjective and in a room full of people addicted to alcohol, alcoholism and being an alcoholic is one version of normal; a common trait we all share. Each of us has read the book and bought the T-shirt. Some of us bought two. Outside the meeting, however, the world is a different place and we are no longer ‘standard issue.’
A whiff of deviancy
Fuelled in no small part by the media and in common with many addictions, alcoholics and alcoholism retain more than a whiff of deviancy within the public domain. But take a closer look and you’ll see that these things go by degrees. Addiction to food is every bit as real as addiction to alcohol or heroin but unlikely to provoke the same feelings of revulsion and fear. So, is society selective in its judgements? Is there an addiction leader board and, if so, just who is allocating the marks?
Stereotyping is one consequence of being different or noticeable. Society seeks to assign a value to our differences and from that pronounce a positive or negative value. And be in no doubt, aspiration and exclusivity play a part in the decision making process.
When cocaine was the purview of the upper classes and the rich and famous, it was seen as glamorous and risqué – an unavoidable consequence of fame, too much money and a limited gene pool. Today, when we can all get our hands on it, that glamour has worn as thin as the souls addicted to it.
As a fully signed up member of one of the groups subject to valuation, I’m happy to stand up and be counted but will demand an informed, well thought out argument as to why my addiction makes me any less valuable than the next person if indeed that’s what you believe. Just to be clear, it doesn’t make me any better either, it just makes me different.
With addiction comes stigma and sometimes those ‘not of this parish’ demonstrate scant sensitivity or understanding. But should we blame them? Is it really their fault? Organisations well placed to educate and challenge negative stereotyping do little to help. The alcoholic trapped in the ‘drinking, affair, remorse, short lived period of abstinence’ cycle is a predictable addition to many a TV drama and not just the ‘soaps.’
There is any number of TV alcoholics (active and sober) who’ve had an onscreen affair and felt guilt at their actions. Non-alcoholic characters frequently do the same because when all is said and done sin sells and the scriptwriters know it. But there’s a subtle difference, more inferred than overt and that is that the antics of the alcoholic cheat, irrespective of gender, are somehow more sordid and any apology not to be believed. This does nothing to better inform the viewer who has for years been told just what to expect from us and doesn’t want to go to bed disappointed.
Is it reasonable to argue then that the people best placed to challenge stereotypes are those with more of the facts and most to gain? Probably but society is full of different groups, all pushing their own agenda so it’s no easy task. The media loves a ‘dirty’ story or photo and an unfortunate ‘celeb’ snapped in the back of a limo with a short skirt, but minus her knickers, sells any number of red tops. If she’s drunk, so much the better.
Morbid curiosity is an undeniable human trait and personal views can be shaped by anecdote, urban myth and the media. This stuff is everywhere and when the subject matter is beyond arms’ length, opportunities for opinions to change based on personal experience are limited. So, with that in mind, what can we, as the subject of Nurse Bigot’s rant, do to help?
© Billie Gledhill 2014. RA (recovering alcoholic not Royal Academician) Part 2 to follow soon.
‘The Share’ by Billie Gledhill, will be available on line at the end of 2014. It aims to help people honestly assess their relationship with alcohol and offers support, empathy and advice should they decide to stop drinking and seek sobriety. Based on the author’s own experience of what’s been helpful and unhelpful in recovery, it examines the difference between being ‘dry’ and being ‘sober’ and why that understanding is key.