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Why I Don’t Identify as an Addict or Alcoholic

Olivia Pennelle of Liv's Recovery Kitchen explains why she doesn't identify with the terms alcoholic or addict.

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Olivia Pennelle of Liv’s Recovery Kitchen explains why she doesn’t identify with the terms alcoholic or addict.

When I first got sober, I used to identify by the terms “addict” or “alcoholic”. Over time however, I became increasingly uncomfortable with these descriptions. Initially, I could see the value in identifying this way as a means of accepting, or surrendering, to the condition that brought me into a 12-step fellowship. But, once I’d admitted I had a problem and have actively worked toward living a sober life, I didn’t see much point in referring to myself by a behavior I no longer engage in.

Lara Frazier articulated this beautifully in her popular post: “Don’t Call Me An Addict, I Don’t Live There Anymore.” She explained, “Addiction was an experience; it was part of my life. But do I have to wear it on my sleeve for the rest of my life?” I couldn’t agree more.

Seeing others like Lara gain freedom and reclaim who they are as a human in spite of their horrific illness gave me the freedom to start exploring what worked for me.

“I wasn’t recognizable as the woman who used to drink four bottles of wine a day. I had moved on.”

I pretty much dropped the label once I stopped attending 12-step fellowships. I wasn’t growing in the rooms; I felt like I was stagnating. I’d sit there and hear others read a book that I couldn’t relate to and listen sad stories about how terrible their life was. My life had improved immeasurably in getting sober—I wasn’t recognizable as the woman who used to drink four bottles of wine a day. I had moved on.

I started to call myself just by my name, because that is who I am. I am not Liv the person who has complex PTSD or Liv the person who used to use drugs. We don’t hear people with any other serious illness walk around and say, “Hey, I’m Larry, the cancer patient.” So why should I label myself by the conditions I have?

While I have no doubt that it is empowering for some to use that language, or that it serves as a stark reminder of where they can go if they don’t stay on top of their recovery, that isn’t my belief.

For a different perspective on identifying in recovery, read Anna David’s “Why I Embrace the ‘Addict’ Label”

I am absolutely clear that I can never successfully use drugs, but I don’t believe that attaching an illness to my name will keep me away from returning to use. I believe that my actions are responsible for preventing further use. You see, I have built a life that is more fulfilling than using drugs, so I don’t need them. I have coping strategies that enable me to deal with the painful trauma work and everyday difficult feelings, instead of choosing to numb out. I love my now colorful, vibrant, and whole life today and drugs do not feature in it.

“I have built a life that is more fulfilling than using drugs. I love my now colorful, vibrant, and whole life today and drugs do not feature in it.”

It’s also worth noting that the labels we use can adversely impact others. Research tells us we should cease using these phrases outside of meetings because they have been associated with negative perceptions, which contribute toward stigma. In a country where less than 10 percent of the 21 million Americans with substance use disorder get quality treatment — with stigma being cited as a major barrier to treatment — we should be doing everything we can to fight those negative perceptions by using appropriate language.

By identifying as Liv, you get to see all of my qualities and you don’t define me by the obstacles I’ve overcome.

Olivia Pennelle (Liv) has a masters in clinical social work from Portland State University. She is a mental health therapist, writer, and human activist. Her writing has appeared in STAT News, Insider, Filter Magazine, Ravishly, The Temper, and Shondaland. She is the founder of Liv’s Recovery Kitchen, Life After 12-Step Recovery, and Tera Collaborations. She lives near Portland, Oregon. Follow her on Instagram @Livwritesrecovery and @teracollaborations

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