Labels

“What’s up with the water?”

“What do you mean?”

“Why aren’t you drinking.”

“I don’t drink.”

“Never?”

“Never, not anymore.”

This was going nowhere quickly. I was already frustrated with my new business partner and his behavior, but I took a few deep breaths.

“I haven’t had a drink in over 18 months. If you’d like to have another SE like you last one, I can have a beer. If you like me to show up to meetings the way I have been, it’s best for me to have water.”

His last systems engineer had a problem with the bottle and I knew it. He had been let go because of his habit of showing up to customer meetings intoxicated. I hoped that he’d get the message.

“Why do you count?”

I looked at our customer who sat across form me and could see that he sensed the tension. I could see that he was a bit uncomfortable.

“What do you mean?”

“Why do you count?”

I had wondered whether or not my new business partner was clued in to my sobriety. I’d taken the job about three weeks prior and I was keenly aware of the fact that he’d talked to a lot of people that we both knew. I was also keenly aware that I’ve been public about my sobriety and that a simple google search would reveal a twitter account with links to this page. I was fairly confident that this line of questioning was coming from a place of knowledge of my status.

While I’ve always been quite comfortable with my sobriety and I’ve been open and honest about it, I didn’t advertise it in the interview process — that didn’t seem prudent. I kept it under wraps and planned to share it at the appropriate time. This was not the appropriate time and I was getting irritated with it.

“What do you want me to say?”

“Nothing, I just want to know why you count?”

I looked at him. I looked at my customer, who was trying to become small at the table. My partner was very intoxicated and I knew this wasn’t going to just go away.

“I count because I am an alcoholic.”

The tension faded. I was irritated but I had learned that I could handle situations like this over the past 18 months. I’d learned that most people don’t give a shit about whether I am drinking or not. Most importantly, I’d learned that I am quite comfortable with my status as a non-drinker and that I am also comfortable talking about my sobriety.

It helped that I already knew this customer well and so I wasn’t worried about tarnishing a new relationship.


I didn’t sleep well that night. As I played the events out in my head, I got more and more angry with this guy. Why had he pushed me so hard? Was it really necessary to have that conversation in front of my customer?

I knew the answers but that didn’t make it better.

The following morning I got up at 4:30 to make a long drive from Pittsburgh to Annapolis for a morning meeting. As I drove across the Pennsylvania mountains, I was still fuming. I left a message for my sponsor who I knew was on a business trip as well. I tweeted about my frustration. And thankfully, a friend tweeted back for me to call him.

I relayed the story and in doing so came to the understanding that I needed to get this out on the table with my new partner. I needed to address it head on and honestly. And even if I wasn’t happy about doing that, I knew it had to be done.

Upon arrival in Annapolis I went to the meeting. I felt sick. I felt like I needed to get to bed. To be honest, I felt hungover. 

Emotional hangover.

After the meeting I went home and took a nap. It was delightful.

When I woke, I forgave my partner for his actions and resolved to call him and have a talk.

Later that afternoon, I called him and I laid it out — yes, I am sober. And yes, I am happy to talk about it, with anyone — but on my own terms.  I explained that I’d prefer if it wasn’t a conversation topic in front of a customer for a variety of reasons. I also explained that I understood that he may have been caught off guard when he learned that his new systems engineering partner had the same problem as his old one, but that I was sober. I assured him that I was not the same guy that he had worked with previously and I told him that I am strong in my sobriety — not in a boastful way, but in an honest way.

And I am.

Happily, our professional relationship came out of that conversation stronger and this hasn’t been an issue again.  I don’t expect that it will be.


Since that time, I’ve thought a lot about whether I handled things the right way or not at dinner. Did I have to fess up? What does the label even mean?

I’ve thought a lot about the label over the past 19 months. It’s always bugged me that we refer to ourselves as alcoholics. I laid it out early in an essay I wrote for the site I Love Recovery Cafe.

I still think a lot about the label. And you know what? I still don’t like it. Not because it isn’t or wasn’t once true. Not because I am ashamed of it.

I don’t like it because I am so much more than a label. 

And so are you.

We let labels define ourselves so often in this world, and more often than not they are inadequate. More often then not, they don’t paint the complete picture. More often than not, they are only a part of who we are.

I can be labeled a lot of things:

  • Liberal
  • Male
  • Delta Phi
  • Techie
  • White
  • Bald
  • Overweight
  • Four-Eyed
  • Alcoholic
  • Father
  • Son
  • Brother
  • Husband
  • Cyclist
  • Hiker
  • Coffee Achiever

Not one of these defines me as a whole. Some of them are useful, and some are not so useful. Some were very useful at a particular point in time and are less useful today (such as my status as a member of the Delta Phi fraternity).

When I first got sober, the label “alcoholic” made a lot of sense. It helped me to identify in with the group rather than to compare out. But I have always struggled with the label because, in my mind, an alcoholic is someone who is actively drinking — And I’m not.

I’m not sure that this label is useful to me any longer. As I’ve learned about myself, learned to deal with life on life’s terms, and I dare claim grown a bit, my recovery has become more about freedom than about abstinence from alcohol.

Maybe there will be another point in my life when labeling myself an alcoholic may make sense, maybe not. For now, I think I’m ready to shed myself of the burden that this label brings to me and start referring to myself as I am today.

I am a person in long term recovery, and that means I haven’t had a drink since September 22, 2015.

16 thoughts on “Labels

  1. I was getting pissed off reading this…lol. I thought that it was very unprofessional of your partner, but you handled it better than I would of! So kudos to you to doing it properly.

    As for the label thing – I have heard many people talk about this. Some never liked it period (and oddly enough, they have all been women – so not sure if they still identify with the image of an alkie being the dirty guy under a bridge). I don’t toss the term alcoholic around for me at all in my “real life”, not that I am ashamed, but not sure if that describes me all, ya know? But I also don’t shy away from it, so I am sort of in the middle right now with it. But this is going to get me thinking a LOT now. Maybe a podcast on this!

    Thanks for this – love this post.

    Paul

    Liked by 2 people

  2. Love this post, I wrote about the labels that got stuck on me in my first book: crazy, codependent, daughter, sister, wife, mother, nurse, ex-wife, bitch, Christian, Alabama fan, author…. And as I progress through life I will acquire more labels, till I get to the last one and labels won’t matter anymore, because they never did. xxoo!

    Liked by 2 people

  3. So many thoughts! First of all, I am glad you got around to writing about this, and did so very thoughtfully. Sometimes I think I spend too much time scrolling the twitter feed, but every now and then something like that morning happens and I don’t question it any longer. Your frustration was audible, with good reason. I don’t think we are in exactly the same place with this issue, which of course is absolutely fine. At any rate, I know without question that I am an alcoholic. My 5 year long relapse proved that beyond a shadow of a doubt. “Alcoholic” is one of my labels, but I am wearing it. Now that the obsession to drink has been lifted, I think I primarily wear it for the newcomer, because “acceptance” is so crucial. I do believe in the “disease” model of addiction studies, and for that reason “alcoholic” is something I will be forever. I really like this post and appreciate the thought process it caused for me.

    Liked by 2 people

  4. excellent post, I don’t like the label thing either. I am much more than just that. One of the labels we have at RC (local recovery agency) is ‘recovery champion’, your clean and your spreading the word in your community. That is one I wouldn’t mind wearing!

    Liked by 1 person

  5. This post is brilliant, thank you. I have struggled with this for a long time. It makes me always think of that scene in “Elephant Man” where he stands up and says “I’m a human being”. I’ve always wanted to stand up for my share and begin “My name is Anne Marie, I’m a human being who suffers from Alcohol Addiction” …….. maybe one day I shall 🙂

    Liked by 1 person

  6. Thanks for sharing this post, Damien. I admire your willingness to hit the issue head on with your co-worker. That takes a lot of courage, and courage is the way we make progress. Labels can helpful at times, but ultimately, they work to diminish the complexity of our experience as human beings. I am alright labeling myself an alcoholic, but only in the company of people who understand the depth of what that means. In the rest of my life, I am a guy who doesn’t drink, and I owe nobody an explanation. If someone presses, I usually make light of it…Me: “I’d like to make it home for Christmas this year”…Them: “It’s July?”….Me: “exactly.” If I want to end it quickly, I just say I am allergic. If someone has a problem with my sobriety, it’s not my problem. Great post!

    Liked by 1 person

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