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The ‘A’ Word – Offensive, Helpful or Irrelevant? (Part 1) by Billie Gledhill

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Billie-GledhillAs 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.

Negative stereotyping

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.

The media

From 'The Share' by Billie Gledhill

From ‘The Share’ by Billie Gledhill

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.

[Visit Billie’s website  theshareuk.com, email her directly:  admin@theshareuk.com and follow on Twitter @BillieGledhill]

    7 Responses to "The ‘A’ Word – Offensive, Helpful or Irrelevant? (Part 1) by Billie Gledhill"
    1. Innocent Abroad says:

      Well, I hope, Billie, that you call yourself a recovering alcoholic.

      As to that nurse, well, if she was working with street drinkers, some of them may well have been filthy. (And yes, she might or might not have been incubating a problem of her own.) If perhaps one of them had behaved in a way she felt was sexually abusive, and she was pissed at her managers for expecting her to have the resources to deal with that herself rather than running for help, she might well have derived relief from such labelling. A mile in the other’s moccasins and all that…

      14 years’ is long enough sobriety, surely, to face the fact that addiction isn’t a disease in its own right, but a way of coping with something more serious: a mental or emotional incapacity that goes way, way back. But perhaps I only think I’ve walked in BG’s moccasins…

      • Hi there and thanks for your reply. Yes, I do think of and refer to myself as a recovering alcoholic and as long as I’m sober, always will. I can’t cure my alcoholism whatever I do, only manage it by not drinking, honestly analysing my thinking and behaviour and changing things when I need to which is quite a lot of the time. Talking and listening to other people in the same position is the thing I value the most.

        As for the nurse, I know that working in such a demanding field comes with huge challenges but whether it was a throwaway comment or a way of venting a grievance I believe it was a mistake.

        I doubt you’ve walked in my moccasins unless you are also a size 3. Perhaps we have spent some time on the same road though? As for sobriety, I haven’t had a drink since 2001 but I think sobriety and being ‘dry’ are different things. Some days I’m more sober than others, as in my thinking and behaviour are more sober. On other days I realise how much work I still need to do. It will always be this way.

        I don’t see alcoholism as a disease in its own right either but as a compulsion to ‘fix’ ourselves and numb out feelings and anxieties that we don’t want to experience. So I believe it has emotions at its base. I don’t know exactly when I crossed the line into alcoholism but looking back at behaviour throughout my life, the ‘ism’ or emotional defects were there right from when I was a very young child and yes that’s a long way back.

        Thanks again for replying and have a good day.

        Billie

        • Detox Nurse says:

          I’m intrigued by the idea that ‘alcoholics’ drink to numb or fix feelings they’d rather not experience. It’s quite an appealing explanation, though I wonder if this is too simplistic a view.

          In my experience (and at this point I should point out that I have not had a dependency myself), while it’s definitely true that people use alcohol and an array other substances to cope with negative feelings, only a small (but significant) percentage end up with a dependence. Conversely, I’ve met many people in recovery (both professionally and personally) who are some of the most laid back, care free people I know. Far more laid back and care free than I am.

          Maybe that’s why I find the disease model so appealing. I kind of explains by suggesting that some people have a biological predisposition to dependence whatever the reason they start using substances. That said, this view is probably over simplistic too.

          • The idea of a biological, genetic predisposition to addiction is fascinating and I remember going to a ‘talk’ on the subject when I was in rehab. At that point the jury was still out but evidence was leaning towards there being a link. I’m not sure where that’s all up to but will do some digging. I wonder then if it’s fact or myth that addiction runs in families? I’ve heard it suggested many times by people in just that position, that it does. It’s true that sometimes people use alcohol and other substances and behaviours to help them deal with anxiety and negative feelings (probably the case for most people to some extent) and that only a fraction of these people become dependent. A beer to unwind after a tough day or a bit of retail therapy are innocent enough but in my experience of talking with other addicts, many describe wanting to numb their feelings and even a desire for ‘oblivion.’ I think it’s this ability to not feel anxiety or stress that becomes addictive and of course our bodies become physically addicted too. This difference between addict and non-addict drinking is one of the first subjects I talk about in ‘The Share.’ I didn’t just drink alcohol, I used it as my standard MO for getting through the day. For 99% of the time there was nothing terrible going on I just found life unbearably uncomfortable because of paranoia, over-sensitivity and ego – all character flaws. Alcohol ‘fixed’ those feelings of discomfort and made me less shy and socially awkward.

            There are some conditions where ‘nailing’ the causes, symptoms and treatment is done and dusted but as yet I’m not sure addiction is one of them and as you say, any one of the things we’ve talked about is, on its own, probably too simplistic.

            Billie

    2. Margaret Morris says:

      Over the years in recovery I myself have stopped introducing myself as an Alcoholic. I don’t think the term is negative, however it certainly doesn’t define me. I have a name.. it isn’t alcoholic and it isn’t my identity. I am much more than a title indicative of substance abuse.
      I’m also a Christian, I don’t introduce myself that way either. I am Maggie. I am many things.

      • djmac says:

        “I’m also a Christian, I don’t introduce myself that way either.”

        You kind of just did.

        I guess people use different descriptions of themselves in different contexts. Someone defining themselves as a recovering alcoholic might also describe themselves as a mother or a nurse or a stamp collector in a variety of social and work-related settings. None of them need be the overarching identity of the person, but each might be a part of how they see themselves.

    3. Jo says:

      Interesting blog.

      Margaret I understand your perspective & experience – and you are Maggie and you didn’t introduce yourself as a christian, you referred to it as an example.

      Briefly, and in my opinion I think that alcoholics have become more stigmatised in the last five to ten years. Before then drug users took the majority of stigma and alcoholics were more pitied than stigmatised – and again this is based on my experience. In roughly the past five – ten years the government & DOH (PHE) have stepped up the education & promotion of risks, at the same time running parallel to that is the demonisation of alcohol & its users. Whilst the education & health promotion is positive and addressing the massive costs is essential I can’t help but feel there has been political gain to further stigmatise alcohol users as a form of social control.

      These are my musing whilst watching TV and if anyone has read Stigma by Goffman they will understand where I’m coming from. Looking through history at patterns of stigmatised populations & stirring in a bit of moral panic I’m interested in how policitalised the alcohol agenda is in 2014?

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