Q.  I do not like identifying myself as an addict. I feel it is something I have, not something I am, and saying it constantly just reinforces the mistake, in my opinion, that we are addicts rather than that we have an addiction. Is it appropriate to abstain from identifying myself that way in AA or NA meetings?

A.  I have diabetes, so I’m a diabetic.  That’s not all of what I am.  I am many other things: a writer, a father, a husband, a photographer, a recovering person, a brother, a geek, a lover of nature, a birdwatcher, a friend, a person who attempts to sustain a spiritual life, and so forth.  However, if I forget that I am a diabetic, I’m in trouble.  If I fail to practice the behavior appropriate to my condition, then the quality of my life will be far less, and its length substantially shortened.

The reasons we in the 12-step fellowships have evolved the tradition of identifying as alcoholics, addicts, or what have you, are several.  We do it to let others in the meeting know that we belong there.  We do it because humans love ritual, and little rituals like that build cohesion in the fellowship, as do others like reading How It Works in AA, the several excerpts from the Basic Text that are read at NA meetings, and similar customs at other fellowships.  We do it because it shows a willingness to identify ourselves as one of the group.  But the most important reason is precisely the one that you allude to above as being an undesirable thing: we do it because it reinforces the self-knowledge that we are addicted — a fact that, should we forget it or begin to question it, could kill us.  It is one more defense against the denial that comes along with addictions of all kinds.

By nit-picking at little details, we distract ourselves from the initially uncomfortable fact that we are, in the most important respects, just like the other people in the room.  We make pious statements about “labeling,” when in fact if we were — for example — a PhD, we would have little resistance to labeling ourselves at the drop of a hat.  So, if saying I’m an addict makes me uncomfortable, I have to ask myself why. Is it because I’m “different?”  Is it because I’m still not convinced that I have a chronic disease?  Is it because, deep down, I don’t want to be associated with “those people” because of pride?

As our denial lessens, and as we begin to identify with the reality of our dilemma and realize the safest path out of it, we become less resistant to calling a spade a spade.  In the meantime, if we need to be just a little bit different, we can identify as a person who “desires to stop drinking,” or is “addicted to smack,” or something that we believe suitable.  They will serve the purpose.

But let’s not kid ourselves about why we’re doing it.

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