Philosophy Stirred, Not Shaken

Insights on Addiction and Philosophy

Why Identify as Alcoholic After All These Years?

Maintaining a healthy relationship toward future possible use is rational.

Over the years, I have heard several versions of the same question: Why, after more than a quarter century of not drinking, do I still call myself an alcoholic? At times the question is put in the form of a nice logical argument that goes like this: Alcoholics are people who drink. You do not drink. Therefore, you are not an alcoholic.

Other times, people wonder why I flip between saying, “I am an alcoholic,” and “I am a recovering alcoholic.” There is a world of difference between the two, isn’t there?

For me, and I say this only for myself, “alcoholic” is an identity conferring term that I live every day of my life. It is just as much a part of my identity as being a lesbian. (I am outing myself all over the place today.) Do I stop being a lesbian if I am not in a relationship with someone? I don’t think so, and I don’t think that most heterosexuals would say they cease to be heterosexual when they are not in a relationship. The notion of relationship holds the key for why I identify as an alcoholic.

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My identity as an alcoholic is not just based on my past experience with or relationship to alcohol but with my present and possible future ones as well. Not consuming alcohol is a relation to alcohol. Imagining what might my relationship to alcohol might be were I to start drinking again is a relationship to alcohol.

Our imagination is very powerful, and we often make decisions based more on it than actual knowledge and evidence. My decision not to drink because I understand myself as “still alcoholic” is based on weighing the potential costs and benefits of drinking to living a good happy life.

This cost benefit approach reminds me of what we in philosophy call “Pascal’s Wager.” Blaise Pascal was a French philosopher, mathematician, and inventor who lived form 1623-1662. While he grappled with all sorts of issues, one of the most pressing of his time was the possibility of proofs for God’s existence. Were such proofs possible? In the context of this question, he offered several considerations that have the form of a wager or bet. The wager looks something like this:

Assume there is no satisfactory evidence for God’s existence. Is it still rational to believe in God? The expected value of believing in God is far greater than not believing in God. If one believes in God and acts in ways in accordance with that belief and it turns out to be true, then one wins incalculably good things (Heaven, salvation, eternal life, e.g.). If one believes in God and the belief is false, then one hasn’t really lost anything and the cost of believing was really pretty low. Therefore, it is rational to believe in God and live one’s life in accordance with that belief.

So I imagine what it would be like to start drinking again. There may well be some pleasure. It would be fun to go out after work and have a few beers. I might even feel “normal” (whatever that means). In my imagination, I can go down that path. I cannot say with absolute certainty that I would go back to drinking in the ways I did when I quit the last time. Before that, I had tried quitting many times but failed miserably.

I don’t know what would be true here. I have a list of failed attempts at not drinking against one long stint of not drinking. Which way does the scale tip?

Still imagining my future possible drinking, I consider what I know about my own and other people’s experiences. Many who do “go back out” report their drinking or drug use quickly returned to where they had left off. Furthermore, their use quickly accelerates downhill like a heavy truck without brakes and steering. But though this has been true for others, would it be true for me? Might some including myself be able to engage in “controlled drinking?” I do not know. So how does the scale tip?

The expected value in believing that “I am still alcoholic” and then acting from that belief by not drinking is far greater than any alternative. Consider these options:

  1. If I believe that I am still alcoholic and do not drink, and I am wrong about that belief, it has cost me very little. I perhaps missed a little fun by not drinking but that is a minor cost.
  2. If I believe that I am no longer alcoholic and start to drink again, and I am wrong in my belief, the costs are devastatingly high. I could lose everything.
  3. If I believe that I am still alcoholic and do not drink, and that belief is right, the expected value or gain is the highest. I have “incalculably good things” since sobering up such as wonderful relationships with my family and friends and work that is rewarding. 

My conclusion: It is rational for me to believe that my alcoholism is alive and kicking and live my life in accordance to that belief.

Peg O'Connor, Ph.D., is Professor of Philosophy and Gender, Women, and Sexuality Studies at Gustavus Adolphus College in St. Peter, Minnesota.

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