Tackling the shame that comes with alcoholic label

The myths that people who are dependent on alcohol  are weak-willed, lacking in moral character  or love drinking more than other relationships keep active the shame of being an “alcoholic.”

Many fear being labeled  and seen as alcoholic.  Substance-use dependence  is far more complex  than most appreciate.  The disease vs. nondisease debate obscures  the truth that the mental and physical condition  damages relationships  and spreads shaming in an attempt to behelpful.

More important is the learned self-shaming and development of a sense of self as a failure. People drink essentially for the effect produced. It becomes  a change agent that treats being nervous, illtempered  and unhappy. First-time drinking is an experiment made by choice, but with continued use people develop the need for more. As the amount of alcohol consumed  increases, and the time periods between episodes  shorten, people become  bodily and mentally hooked.

I came to recovery with the outward appearance  of success. I was the first of my family to complete  college, obtain a master’s degree and get married — seemingly self-sufficient. Yet I had the feeling of not measuring  up; being outwardly an adult, but inwardly still an adolescent.

I’ve made two public attempts to quit “once and for all.” The first turned out to be a “pause” rather than a “quit.” I clearly remember  the hiding, selfshaming  thoughts and feelings of failure with the return to using. Change can be unsettling and awkward, with a large amount of self-doubt. I’ve experienced and witnessed  victim statements and self-shaming language,  which I now see as barriers to successful change.

With one year of not drinking, I attended a 12Step New Year’s Eve event with my wife and my youngest child. The evening went fairly well until the traditional “sobriety  countdown.” It started with, “anyone with 40-plus years of sobriety,  please come to the center of the room,” and continued down to, “anyone  with one year continuous  sobriety.” I got up hesitantly  and, filled with a heightened level of selfconsciousness  and anxiety,  walked to the center of the room filled with the shame, embarrassment and failure of having only one year of sobriety.

I cringe at the 12-step self-shaming introduction:  “My name is Jim and I’m an alcoholic!” My condition  as it relates to substance  use is not who I am. As a person in long-term recovery, I find myself still grappling with shame. Learning to accept  ourselves and others “as we are, where we are, who we are” just might be the antidote. It has been for me.

James Simac is the Director  of Community Consultants  in Sheboygan “Strengthening Individuals  Through Integrated