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"Recovering Alcoholic," Words that Stigmatize or Empower?

Personal identity and recovery

If you heard someone say that they were a “recovering alcoholic” or “recovering addict,” how would you react? Can you imagine yourself saying such words, and if so how would you expect others to react?

There is no doubt that the concept of alcoholism has long been associated with a social stigma. Being an “alcoholic” was long (and for some still is) thought to be a moral failing—a character flaw or lack of willpower. That is one reason why AA, in its Fact Sheet, emphasizes its commitment to anonymity. The intent, of course, is to shield members of AA from the stigma and thereby protect their reputations and even their careers.

But the commitment to anonymity also serves a second purpose. It acts as a barrier to the pursuit of personal recognition, power, or prestige. It also makes AA a bottom-up as opposed to a top-down organization. On the one hand the fact that no one individual speaks for AA renders it unable to respond to criticism from skeptics; on the other hand it has made it an incredibly adaptable fellowship.

Yet the question remains: Is the stigma once associated with alcoholism still as potent today as it once was? And what are the actual implications of identifying yourself as a “recovering alcoholic”?

Research on Identity

Social psychologists have long studied the way individuals choose to define themselves, and how that identity in turn affects them. In doing so they have followed in the footsteps of Erik Erikson, whose seminal work, Identity: Youth and Crisis, first set forth the notion that the identity we embrace as we pass through adolescence represents a kind of psychological template or road map that strongly influences the direction our lives will take.

Social psychological research has worked more on how a person’s decision to identify with a particular group can relate to their physical and/or mental health. In one study, for example, researchers found that survivors of stroke who chose to identify themselves that way and attend ongoing support groups reported enhanced feelings of well-being as compared to stroke survivors who opted not to become active in such groups. (Haslam, Home, et. al., 2008, Maintaining group memberships: Social identity continuity predicts well-being after stroke. Neuropsychological Rehabilitation, 18, 671-691).

Using studies like the above as a springboard, other researchers sought to investigate how identifying oneself as a “recovering alcoholic” (or “recovering addict”) affected that person’s well-being, as opposed to not embracing that identity (Buckingham, Frings, & Albery, 2013, Group membership and social identity in addiction recovery. Psychology of Addictive Behaviors, 27:4, 1132-1140).

“Recovering Alcoholic" versus “Alcoholic”

These researchers studied a group of men and women, all of whom were attending Alcoholics Anonymous (AA) and/or Narcotics Anonymous (NA) groups. They then divided this group further based on how much each individual identified themselves with the phrase recovering alcoholic (or addict) versus simply an alcoholic (or addict). These two identities were measured by how strongly (on a scale of one to seven) each participant endorsed statements such as “Being an AA (NA) member is a central part of who I am,” and “I would describe myself as an AA (NA) member.” The higher the score, the more the individual’s identity was as a recovering alcoholic or addict.

The researchers then assessed each participant for their self-efficacy, which is measured by having them respond (again on a scale of one to seven) to statements such as: “I can remain abstinent,” and “I can manage my addiction.” Again, the higher the score, the more the individual experiences self-efficacy.

The Results:

  • The more the individual identified him/herself as a recovering alcoholic (addict) the higher was his/her level of self-efficacy.
  • Higher self-efficacy was associated with more months clean and/or sober.
  • The more the individual leaned toward the recovering identity the less likely she/he was to report having relapsed into drinking or drug use during the pervious two years.

So, is it really stigmatizing these days to identify yourself as a recovering alcoholic or addict? The evidence suggests that, to the contrary, coming to the point where an individual is able to embrace that identity can help to solidify his or her recovery. It most likely makes it easier for those individuals to “get active” in one fellowship or another, as opposed to having a more tepid identity with those who they see at meetings.

Allowing for the above important insight, many recovering individuals may still choose to embrace their identity primarily when communicating with others at AA or NA meetings, with their sponsors, or with trusted friends. Alcoholism and addiction themselves may still carry a stigma, but what we know now is that what an individual feels in his or her heart can make a big difference between continued recovery versus relapse.

In memory of Philip Seymour Hoffman and Truman Capote.