The Problem with Over-Identifying As An Alcoholic

For years I over-identified as an alcoholic. I went to at least 3 AA meetings a week and would introduce myself as an alcoholic, and was quick to tell people that I was one. During my time in AA, too, I really only truly allowed myself to relate to other alcoholics but didn’t fully understand that I was doing it.

But, in AA, this was seen as identifying as an alcoholic and as accepting “powerlessness” and that my life was “unmanageable”. It was and still is seen as a good thing and as a vital part of “getting and staying sober”.

I believe today, though, that it was over-identification. Today I don’t even really see myself as an alcoholic and don’t even really see myself as having an alcohol use disorder, even though I’ve been diagnosed as such. I just see myself as a person who had a problem with drinking, but even then this diagnosis is not any more important or a part of me than any other health problem or issue that I have. Furthermore, I don’t let that problem or any other problem that I have run my life.

A big part of the reason why I don’t identify myself as such is that I do not like the negative connotations that are associated with these words and diagnoses. I also believe that these ideas that I am an “alcoholic” and that I’m “powerless over alcohol” result in learned helplessness. And, learned helplessness showed up in many ways for me after I started identifying myself as an alcoholic and accepted the ideas in AA.

The main way that I showed learned helplessness was simply due to my membership in AA. Once I was told that I was powerless over something, anything, and that my life was unmanageable I felt like I had to depend upon the organization of AA and the members in it not to just stay sober but to live a good life. When I heard that I was insane/not sane and that the program would restore me to sanity, I just ended up even more dependent on the program. Basically, what I experienced was that AA cut me down to the point where I felt like I had to follow the suggestions in the program and rely on the people in it just to survive. This resulted in pretty severe learned helplessness and a host of other issues.

Due to this, I do not believe today that it is healthy to depend on something outside of myself for any reason. And, I’ve learned that I do not even need to identify as an alcoholic at all in order to stay sober. All I have to do is really think about how I want to live my life and I can easily see that drinking would not be a benefit for me. I do not have a need to constantly rehash my drinking or think of myself as an alcoholic to stay sober, and probably never did; but AA convinced me that this was the case so I needlessly went to the program for many years and unfortunately devoted my life to it.

Now I can see how you might sit there and say, if you go to AA, that I just must not be an alcoholic or have had an alcohol use disorder because by saying this I am not fitting your definition of what it’s like to be an alcoholic and what it takes to stay sober (admitting step 1). Or, you might think that I just say this because I really don’t want to stay sober or do the work to do it. But the truth is that there are many out there who are just like me, and we are no less willing to stay sober or not drink than are members of AA. These people who stay sober outside of AA or who have left the program might share about their experiences in blogs like mine, with friends, on Facebook, too, but much of the time they stay silent because they don’t want to hear the scorn and judgement from members from AA for sharing how they feel. I worry about this, too, because I know that members of AA can be really confrontational and rude to a person who does not agree with AA, although they might not even realize that they are being hurtful. This is because this kind of harmful behavior is tolerated and seen as beneficial to one’s sobriety in AA.

This brings me back, now, to learned helplessness from identification as an alcoholic. What happened to me during my years at AA is that once I identified/over identified as an alcoholic and a person with alcoholism, soon I also began to over identify with the rest of my health problems. It was like a snowball effect, and the result was a very severe worsening of anxiety and depression. Before I went to AA I did have health problems, including Hashimoto’s Thyroiditis, yet because I didn’t over-identify with it I was able to graduate from college anyways and make it through graduate school despite it. It was a part of my life but not my whole life, and I practiced self care I was very much focused on my health, well-being, and on school. This diagnosis and others did not rule my life or my thinking. But, once I started to identify as an alcoholic and let that rule my life and thought processes soon I was doing the same with Hashimoto’s, my allergies and asthma, depression, anxiety, PTSD, migraines, and anything and everything else.

This put me into a spiral that I am still working to get out of. And, it only made my learned helplessness and health problems worse. It seemed that the more that I identified, thought about, and ruminated on my many health issues, including alcoholism, the worst they got. As a result of this I also developed even more health problems, some of them severe. I also had a much harder time taking care of myself after I went to AA and discarded some of the self-care habits that I had learned over the years in order to keep up with the “suggestions” in AA.

So, when my health really took a turn in 2009, I had to re-learn how to slow down and practice self-care all over again. I had developed chronic fatigue and fibromyalgia. Still, I continued to push myself to go to AA meetings and to have service commitments, sponsees, etc., because I really thought that my life depended on it. But I believe that in the long run this was more ruinous to my health than alcohol ever was.

But really, I know now that I did not put in the energy to participate in AA the way that I was in order to stay sober and live a good life, but I continued to do so because I felt like my life depended on it. And, because of this, my health eventually just fell apart. AA really was incredibly unhealthy for me, but I was in total denial about it. The worsening of my health conditions only raised fears of drinking and I fell more and more into learned helpless even though I wasn’t consciously aware of it. Denial was the name of the game here because I just couldn’t let go of my AA membership and participation. Thus my dependence on AA and other people just continued to increase, and I continued to get sicker and sicker until I finally couldn’t even work.

I’m now on social security disability. This is a long ways off from what my life was like before AA, when I was winning national awards for my research and excelling in graduate school and experimental psychology.

Over time it became harder and harder for me to go to AA due to my health issues and because it became a PTSD trigger for me. I believe that all of the shame, blame, and other abuse in AA that so commonly is seen as positive in the program created PTSD on top of the PTSD and CPTSD that I already had. I have talked to other people too who feel that attendance and participation in AA created PTSD as well. For me, though it was rather extreme because I had so much fear that centered around my participation in AA due to my health issues and the stress of going when I didn’t feel well enough to go.

At some point I felt pretty out of control concerning my need for AA. I kept going despite the fact that it was causing flashbacks and bringing up repressed memories and was extremely detrimental for my health. Somehow, though, because of this I began to see the many problems that occur in AA.

So, with the help of my counselor and David, I did leave AA. Since then I have been trying to unwind all of the conditioning, mind control, and brainwashing that happened to me there. I also have been working on identifying and seeing myself simply as another person on this planet rather than an alcoholic or identifying as any of my other health issues. I feel like this part of my journey has been vitally important in my recovery from trauma and from my time in AA.

And honestly I just feel so much better now that I don’t have to hang on to the alcoholic label. It feels really freeing, and like a load has been taken off of me. I am just relieved that I do not have to base my life off of managing my health problems. Instead, I cope with them today and look for solutions to lessen their effects on my life. I feel very fulfilled for the first time in a long time. I also feel like I no longer have to put myself down in order to “stay sober”, and because I am not identifying with my health problems as much my anxiety is beginning to lessen. I believe that removing or taking emphasis off of these diseases after years in AA has been one of my great accomplishments in life.

Today I feel like I am in control of my life, and that I don’t need to be dependent on anything or anyone, including AA and it’s members. I’m becoming more and more independent every day. Still, I wonder if I’ll be able to take what happened to me and turn it into some kind of asset, not in the way of helping others like is told in AA, but in a way that helps me.

Thanks for reading! Feel free to comment below.

6 thoughts on “The Problem with Over-Identifying As An Alcoholic

  1. Walter Klausmeyer April 2, 2019 — 12:44 pm

    It’s sad to think how many people are right now going through what you described here – and being told that it’s their only option.

    Thank you for speaking your truth.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Thanks! One thing that I noticed in AA was that there were a bunch of people, women in particular, who would develop strange auto-immune diseases or silent/strange health problems while they were going to AA. Or, like me, their existing auto-immune issues would worsen considerably. For a long time, I just chalked this up to coincidence, age, etc., but when I really think about it, it seems suspicious and happens all too often to AA members. It’s like people’s bodies are reacting to the abuse yet their minds stay in denial about it, and then this results in just more health issues that they now have to “manage”. It almost feels, actually, like a power and control game to me. I remember that I used to gain a false sense of control by how well I perceived myself to be managing my health issues, including alcoholism, and the truth is that I probably needed that to survive AA. I see people in AA all the time also trying to gain power and control in all kinds of ways due to the powerlessness they feel in the program. It’s no wonder that abuse and violence is so common in AA because if an abuser is made to feel powerless by AA, then they are going to do everything they can to regain that power. This must contribute to the safety issues in AA.

      Liked by 2 people

  2. Wow! I can totally identify! For me, I had to change the whole wording from “I am powerless over alcohol” (or anything else) to “Sobriety is powerful” or “health is powerful”. I had to get rid of the entire concept of powerlessness completely.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. My wording seemed to change as I worked through sexual assault. When I first started working through it in 2015, I called a sexual assault center to get some help with what I was going through (I was also going to counseling as well). When I called myself a victim the advocate told me to call myself a survivor. A counselor I went to too emphasized the importance of the words that I use. So I started referring to myself as a survivor. It seems as though this change of wording affected not only my healing but also seemed to permeate the influence that AA and the ideas of powerlessness that I had learned. I think that it just wasn’t congruent with my new goal to really feel like and become a survivor of trauma, so I just sort of shifted. I’m pretty sure that using and identifying with the word survivor, rather than over-identifying as a victim due to AA, probably caused some cognitive dissonance and so I shifted my entire belief system. Anyways, thanks for your comment! I think that is a good way to reword things.


  3. Wonderful article. I can relate to a lot of it. Have left meetings after attending for 25 years, was so hard I had to taper off gradually. Has been hard to discard the alcoholic persona after so long, in the last 16 months. But articles like this help and are treasured.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Thanks! I’m glad that this article is helping! I too had to taper off of AA and 12 step groups gradually. I’ve heard that this works for other people as well. I hope that best for you in your journey out of AA!


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