Re-framing the Phrase ‘I am an Addict’
Re-framing the Phrase ‘I am an Addict’ – Strength and Hope in Recovery via Identity and Identification
By Chula Goonewardene
‘My name is Chula, and I am an addict’…my experience has taught me, can be quite a controversial statement to make, outside of a 12-Step fellowship environment. In both personal and professional settings I have come up against individuals who feel horrified that I would own my addiction in this fashion, they look at me with much bemusement, and endeavour to convince me that it is incredibly harmful to my psyche, and to my long-term recovery, to ‘label’ myself in such a way, claiming that doing so increases my chance of relapse because it keeps me stuck in a false-belief that I will always be an addict.
The World Health Organisation recognises addiction as a chronic, not acute, illness, and the truth in my opinion, is that I will always be an addict, but today I can choose to be an addict in recovery or an addict in active addiction. Until I found myself able to completely accept and admit that I am an addict, I didn’t feel that I had that choice.
Frankly, the arguments against this personal statement of intent, fall neatly into the ‘red herring’ bracket, as they are generally based on the presumption that when it is said, it is describing oneself in one’s entirety, and as we know, this is not the case. We all call ourselves many things in life; I am a…Mother, Brother, Student, Actor, Pianist, Therapist, etc., but we are not presenting the totality of ourselves when we are doing this, we are merely using a relational concept to define a facet of our personality. So why do some people get so upset when we say ‘I am an addict’?
Perhaps it is their own judgement of what an ‘addict’ is, the separation of seeing themselves as ‘well’ and the afflicted as ‘other’, in order to elevate themselves to a place where they can walk the moral high-ground, of being in control of every choice that they make, but failing to see how they are consequently discounting the realities of cognitive conditioning and automaticity.
Embracing the identity of becoming an ‘addict in recovery’ has actually been one of the most empowering things in my life, it saved me from an ever-losing battle, gave me the understanding that my addiction wasn’t due to a moral deficit, and showed me that with the right support and guidance, I could make the change. What I see in other recovering addicts is that they gain great strength from finally admitting powerlessness over their addiction and from facing their unmanageable lives. They have been caught in a stasis of painful ambivalence for often many years, and the freedom that is gained from admitting defeat, giving up the fight, and starting a new way of life, is a prize beyond measure.
Not to contradict what I have just said, but another aspect of identity that I have observed is that for the most problematic and entrenched individuals, the identity of being a; Junkie, Anorexic, Stoner, Crack-head, Cutter or Drinker, for example, may almost become a badge of honour, a vocation in life, that temporarily extinguishes the trauma, attempts to dull the shame, and may also excuse the unavoidably-related, self-destructive behaviour, through the denial of one’s reality. If someone has held a distorted security in a familiar persona for a significant time, then how must it feel to consider giving up this role, along with the substance/behaviour of choice? What will take its place? Obviously, we hope that people will engage with substantial therapeutic work in the hope of developing to a point where esteem-driven reinvention is possible, but how long will this take? How is it done? How much and what type of therapy is needed? Can we really educate or ‘treat’ someone into a new and robust identity?
There will always be the question of; ‘Who am I and what will I be?’ on the cusp of entering recovery, there will always be a large, gaping hole, where the addictive lifestyle has becoming the defining factor of existence and there will always be insurmountable loss and extensive reparation to be faced, so the question that often lies beneath is; ‘Who can I be, and what must I become?’ in order to survive this transition, from desperation and despair, into strength and hope.
This is where identification becomes the key, as the power of addiction can rarely be overcome on one’s own. It is only with the help of others that healing can be found, and even though this concept has been intrinsically known by humankind since the dawn of time, and acknowledged in the field of therapy for many years, it is in fellowship that the therapeutic value of one person helping another has truly flourished upon equal terms, across boundaries of race, age, class, religion, etc. and as far as I can see, proved itself to be without parallel.
Hearing a room full of people; stating that they are addicts, sharing their lives openly and honestly, giving accounts of abuse and trauma, compounded by self-induced chaos and destruction, and at the same time being completely free from active addiction, is indeed an inspiring experience for the newcomer letting go of their past identity.
It is at this point that most people realise that they don’t have to become the dreaded ‘normal’, that they can remain attached to a sub-culture of society, retain their individuality and also find recovery from the consequences of their active addiction. Being able to say; ‘I am an addict’ with the knowledge that you didn’t use yesterday, haven’t used today, and probably won’t use tomorrow, re-frames the phrase itself, giving positive connotations and life-affirming meaning to being an addict, when all that has been known previously is the seemingly never-ending cycle of compulsion, oblivion and emotional avoidance.
An aspect of this which I find most powerful is the unconscious learning that takes place within the process of identification, especially during 12-Step meetings. After several months of therapy groups in residential rehab, I was very sceptical of how a group could be beneficial if members did not give direct feedback to each other. How am I supposed to learn and grow? I thought; ‘if nobody is going to challenge, confront, or even interact with what I share’. What I quickly picked up on is that this unique format supports what is probably the most powerful learning tool in a human-being’s repertoire…listening.
Because I wasn’t expected to give feedback, I didn’t analyse; because I didn’t analyse, I didn’t dwell on questions to ask; because I wasn’t focused on questioning, I didn’t project my issues onto the other person; and because I wasn’t projecting, I was able to listen and connect with my feelings, which in turn restricted my avoidance mechanisms, and left me with my own truths.
In addition to this inter-relational process, the fact that people generally share from the ‘I’ meant that when an individual made an ‘I’ statement that could have been my own, it was almost as if I was saying it, and having to remain silent whilst others spoke enhanced this positive reinforcement, because again; I couldn’t deflect, interrupt, or change the focus in any way, I had to sit with what was in the room and what I was feeling, a rare opportunity for the social and highly-opinionated animal.
My experience has taught me that the unconscious resonance brought into the ether by shared truths, results in personal validation and a significantly deeper understanding of self at a profound level, and it is through this identification, of experiencing others who we consider to be like us, and witnessing them maintain their recovery through all the trials and tribulations of life, that we as unique individuals are able to gain a sense of strength and hope for our own future in recovery, and find belief in the identity that I, as an addict, need not ever use again, just one day at a time.