The Evolution of Identity

Identity Evolution

By David B. Bohl

I used to identify in a very specific way. In the beginning of my recovery journey and my adoptee journey I was given two words to describe myself and my story, and I used those words to signal to the world who I was – “My name is David and I’m an alcoholic” in 12-step meetings, and in the context of my adoption, “I’m an adoptee”.

I was okay with using both terms for a while because they served as shortcuts – for example, I didn’t have to go into long explanations over why I was at an AA meeting or not drinking at a wedding. And I would tell people I was adopted for similar reasons – so that they would understand something about me or would be able to identify with me (if I was, for example, at an adoptee conference).

But eventually I realized that I’m doing myself a disservice by boxing my identity into labels.

I cannot limit myself to these descriptions of who I am because they actually don’t describe at all who I am – they describe the problem I have. I am not an alcoholic – I have a problem with alcohol. I’m not an adoptee – I was given up for adoption. So in that context, I now say, “I’m David, and I was relinquished and adopted”.

I’m not trying to be contrarian, especially when it comes to 12-step programs where admitting to being an alcoholic is simply part of the deal: From The Big Book of Alcoholics Anonymous, Chapter 5, How it Works: “[That] we were alcoholic and could not manage our own lives.” No, I’m just saying this: calling myself an alcoholic doesn’t work for me anymore. It is reductionist and limiting. I’m so much more than that. I can concede that being an alcoholic was my singular identity the day I went to hospital detox, but my existence has not ended there, and I have grown in many different ways. The Big Book language suggests that as an alcoholic I am selfish and self-centered, but I beg to differ – I am not the problem. The problem is alcoholism / substance use disorder. I am not the problem.

The problem is the problem. (alcoholism / substance use disorder)

I’m happy that I’ve grown beyond the labels that I used to give myself – it is so liberating. Every time I think I’ve reached some new level of self-discovery, I find myself in front of another door. This time, opening the door revealed that I have much more freedom than I thought I did. Labels are limiting. They are actually deceptive as shortcuts. They’re a bit more like dead-ends.

When I tell a stranger – who is not in the world of recovery – that I’m an alcoholic, he probably forms all kinds of ideas about me that might be false. He might not see me as a father, a husband, an accomplished professional, or a successful author. He might possibly just see me as the proverbial drunk behind a dumpster with a brown paper bag or whatever the stereotype dictates. And if this stranger is indeed bringing some horrible stereotype into learning something about me, another human being, it’s not my pride that’s being hurt – it’s just that that’s not an honest picture and, in the end, I have not become known to him. So what is really the point?

I have developed beyond the labels. And because I am able to accept the fact that I am always evolving, my world becomes bigger and more enriched and I feel closer to reality and I feel freer than ever before.


Parallel UniversesDavid B. Bohl, author of the memoir Parallel Universes: The Story of Rebirth, is an independent addiction consultant who fully understands the challenges faced by so many who seek to escape from, or drown their pain through, external means. His story offers hope to those struggling with the reality of everyday life in today’s increasingly stressful world.

You can visit his website here: David B. Bohl.

Through his private practice substance use disorder consulting business, Beacon Confidential LLC, David provides independent professional consultation, strategic planning, motivation and engagement, care coordination, recovery management and monitoring, and advocacy services to individuals, families, and organizations struggling with substance use issues and disorders.


35 Responses

  1. Bob B. says:

    When I announce “I’m Bob, I’m an alcoholic”, I’m not making a declaration to the group that I belong there, I’m acknowledging to myself what still exists within. Even though it has been decades since I drank and I’m not the person I was when I picked up that last drink, that alcholic within me hasn’t changed and is just waiting to take over my life again. Living a program of recovery in all my affairs gives me many options on how to deal with life and helps keep the option to drink on the bottom of the list.

  2. Glenn L. says:

    Page 21 in As Bill Sees It talks about rejoining society, the goal of recovery from alcoholism. In my 31 years of sobriety I have been able to do that. I established myself in a profession that was unrelated to alcohol. I have relationships with non alcoholics. I became a contributing member of society. Not so with people who ride their AA association into employment in the treatment “industry”. Their lives are still as dominated by alcohol as when they were active alcoholics. In Bill Wilson’s biography there is a description of him being offered a lucrative job in treatment. His home group advised him not to accept, a difficult decision which may have saved AA as we know it today, the AA which saved us.

  3. Al says:

    I’m Al. I don’t drink. I don’t ski.

    The name is the identity TYVM.

    My preference/habit is just one of many features. The further details are less than interesting to 99.9% of people.

    It’s also in the present tense, not the past. (Both activities landed me in ER once. Who cares?)

    Wedding
    Guest 1. Hello – have some champagne and toast the Bride!
    Guest 2. No thanks
    Guest 1. What? Why not???
    Guest 2. I’m not drinking today
    Guest 1. Why not?
    Guest 2. (No scowl) Oh, I’m taking something*.
    Guest 1. Ah! Beautiful Bride! I knew her from university of bla bla bla bla

    * taking “This Day”, Rx: one day at a time

    Any further questions are either just rude or pertaining to someone else with alcohol issues. If they seemed sincere, that’s when it would be appropriate to ask if there was someone they knew who was having alcohol questions. (Again still trying mind my own business) It’s no secret that I used to drink. But there are many reasons why I stopped, maybe I could do a kindness in a further discussion.

  4. Lola says:

    I am bothered by your practice of saying you were “relinquished” and then adopted. Seems like a cry for attention to me. Why not just say you were adopted?

    That aside, I dislike it at meetings where introductions are made going around the room, and EVERYBODY says they are an alcoholic…”Pam, alcoholic…” “ I’m an alcoholic named Jim…” “alcoholic, Fred…” etc. I like to change things up a bit and am known to say “I’m Lola and I used to drink every day” or “I’m Lola and I’m a recovering alcoholic…” or “I’m Lola and I can’t drink safely…” I know a woman who always introduces herself by saying “I’m Karen, and I’m a person in long term recovery.” To have everyone repeat the same thing is almost cult-like. I for one hope we continue shaking things up a bit! 🙂

    • Bobby Beach says:

      My mother used to drink every day, and she wasn’t even close to being an alcoholic.

    • Lola, being relinquished was one event, and being adopted was a separate event. I’ve needed to learn how each informed my perceptions and apply separate and distinct reflection to each.

      I, too, appreciate it when people share their authentic and unique identities when they introduce themselves.

    • Jimmy Alcoholic says:

      Obviously Lola you have never been adopted. I have, therefore I agree. I see he’s talking about distinguishing the disease from my personality known as “Jim.”

  5. MARTIN T. says:

    Recovering counselor here. I still identify as an alcoholic, in and out of meetings, mainly to myself, ‘even tho’ I’ve been sober 30+ years, to remind me that the disease has not gone away. Just because I haven’t drank (nor desired) alcohol in a long time doesn’t mean the depression, low self-esteem (at times) and obsessive-compulsiveness of the disease has been “cured”. If I was truly “recovered” I should be able to drink like a civilian, right? That ain’t happenin’.

    • Understood Martin. Likewise I continue to admit and accept that I am powerless over alcohol.

      • Amanda says:

        If you’ve stopped drinking then you’re obviously not powerless over alcohol. 😉

      • Roger says:

        Yeah, right, Amanda. If I have a couple of drinks now, after finally stopping in 2010, I will very quickly discover that I indeed continue to be powerless over alcohol.

        We shall soon be posting an article about Audrey Kishline, the founder of Moderation Management in 1994, and how in 2006 she killed a 12 year old girl and her father while “driving a hundred miles an hour in a total blackout”. She was driving drunk of course after deciding she was “obviously not powerless over alcohol.” 😉

    • life-j says:

      Martin, this is in response to your comment to David below, about sharing experience, strength and hope vs blabbering philosophy: I mostly do the latter these days. When the Daily Reflection is being read, and it is a bunch of nonsense, I think it is the best thing I can do for the newcomer to call it what it is, though well, either I simply call it nonsense, or I instead try to provide a civilized argument against it, hence blabbering philosophy.

      These days when much of AA has been traveling down a fundamentalist path, I think it is important for the newcomers to hear that they don’t have to buy the BB stuff hook, line and sinker. So I take that to be my job. There will of course be plenty of ESH from other members, and perhaps even from me a bit later.
      But I think it real important that those of us who have been around for a long time do discuss program philosophy. There is no forum for it, because the program is perfect, and hence there is no need, so we need to just fill in with it a bit here and there when it seems to make sense. Part of why there supposedly is no need for it is the pervasive anti-intellectualism in AA. That sort of thing goes hand in hand with religiosity. The newcomer needs to know that they are not, or should not, be required to check their brains at the door. We discuss the future of AA here, and that is a great thing, but really have no fellowship-wide forum for it. A little bit beginning, very cautiously in the Grapevine, but the whole of the service structure is not made for any discussion, all it is about is whether we should change a word on page 114, second paragraph or not, and how best to insure that we do more of the same and expect different results. Not entirely, of course, even there there is a bit of fresh air, but barely. So it seems that there is no other way than to take the discussion in bits and pieces, to regular meetings. Call it what you want – that’s what I’m doing.

      • John M. says:

        Hi Roger and Amanda,

        I included a remark about Ernie’s Kurtz’s response to Audrey Kishline’s death in an essay remembering Ernie after his death: Ernie Kurtz: The Historian as Storyteller and Healer.

        And many of us may not be aware that when the founder of Moderation Management, Audrey Fishline, was involved in a head-on crash while intoxicated that killed a father and his young daughter, Kurtz gathered 34 prominent individuals from the diverse (and often opposing) fields of the addiction/recovery communities to publish a public statement seeking to quell the frenzy of blame (directed at either AA or MM) which subsequently proliferated on the internet and in published editorials. As White tells it:

        This straightforward statement, signed by people no one would expect to appear together, quieted the frenzy and stands today as a historically important footnote in the American debate about moderation versus abstinence in the resolution of alcohol problems. Ernie Kurtz was the common relational link to those 34 people.

        For two current articles about the tragic events, life, and recent suicide of Audrey Fishline see The Fix: Remembering Audrey Kishline: The Founder of Moderation Management and New Details Emerge About Audrey Kishline’s Death.

  6. Peter G. says:

    Thirty plus years ago I had a similar conversation with a close AA friend. Far as I know he’s only been to one meeting since about fifteen years ago and only because I was speaking. Even though he stopped attending AA and identifying as an alcoholic – his journey in recovery continued over the passing decades. He’s been very successful in life.

    Over the years I have had many similar talks with others who thought the same way. Some stayed, some left and returned later in life, some never came back , some died drunk or sober and lots I haven’t seen in years. Some had coped well and others did not. It only reinforced that I can only share my own experiences with others and it’s up to them to do with it as they will.

    As per the Third Tradition: The only requirement for membership is a desire to stop drinking. Personally I couldn’t care less what you call yourself . Show me in the AA literature where it’s a requirement for AA membership to identified one’s self as an “Alcoholic”? Customary maybe but not a requirement.

    I don’t feel identifying myself at an AA meeting as an “Alcoholic” is a negative thing. I see it as a means of identifying with others that I am on life journey of sobriety , wellness and maturity. It’s like the old joke: What’s the difference between a drunk and an alcoholic? Drunks don’t have to go to all those meetings. Outside of AA when asked I just tell people I am a member of AA.

    • Peter, I agree that identifying as an alcoholic may be generally-accepted convention, yet, as you’ve illustrated, it’s focus on the problem rather that the solution can be troublesome. I appreciate the emphasis in meetings on strength and hope, as opposed to experience.

      • MARTIN T. says:

        It’s the vital Experience of recovery, in sobriety, Strength and Hope from the perspective of a fellow alcoholic that is relatable. If someone just starts blabbing their philosophy at an AA Meeting I damn sure want to know if he/she is an alcoholic, or if they’re “recovered”, co-dependent, bi-polar or kicking a heroin habit. It’s about perspective.

      • Peter G. says:

        I am not sure I follow your reasoning to my reply: “…yet, as you’ve illustrated, it’s focus on the problem rather that the solution can be troublesome.” You got that from “I don’t feel identifying myself at an AA meeting as an “Alcoholic” is a negative thing. I see it as a means of identifying with others that I am on life journey of sobriety, wellness and maturity.” One of the key phrases is – “…at an AA meeting…”. Unless there is a good reason for it I don’t owe anyone else an explanation as to why I don’t drink.

        For awhile in my area a someone attended a closed AA meeting and introduced themselves as: “I am… and I have an obsession.” Turns out she was member of Overeaters Anonymous. She had lots of interesting experiences on recovery to share. In the US someone started a group AAA (All Addictions Anonymous) now defunct.

        How does the old AA saying goes? “We share our experience, strength and hope”. From my first post “…I can only share my own experiences with others and it’s up to them to do with it as they will.”

  7. John M. says:

    Dear David,

    I don’t really care what I call myself but I think your essay’s theme is very important especially for those new to recovery. The last thing we need is labeling to frighten away those who are giving abstinence and self-betterment a try, and it’s important that those new to recovery hear from folks with solid recovery like you so that a range of good options vis-a-vis self-identification are available to them.

    I can’t remember where I heard this a little while ago but someone said we must not define ourselves by the things we have done in the past but by what we (have) overcome. (Now that I wrote this, I’m thinking it may have been you in one of your blogs.)

    • John, I agree wholeheartedly your concern for newcomers. I think we often say that they’re the most important person in the room, whether that be a face-to-face meeting, or online meeting or discussion, yet our behaviors do not always match our words. To me, this is the most dangerous thing we can do in our fellowship, or in human interactions in general: It causes endless confusion when we say something then do another.

  8. Joe K says:

    Hi,

    Thank you for the article. I was just having this conversation the other day. I identify as in alcoholic in a meeting but the more I think about it, that’s really not who I am. I get that it will alert a newcomer that they are in the right place but I feel I’ve grown over time and not necessarily an “alcoholic”. I think of myself as someone who has a substance use disorder that I need to work on to maintain my sobriety.

    The one an alcoholic statement reminds me of the leapord can’t change its spots statement in a way: is the leopard aware it has what are called spots/would it change them if it had awareness/ would it recognize it couldn’t change them or is it capable of that rationalization?

    I think as a human I can identify the problem and continually work to overcome it and be something else. If that makes any sense?

    I just started a freethinkers meeting in NJ and we’re starting our 3rd month. It’s slow going but at least we started!

  9. Thomas B. says:

    Wonderful essay, David, thanks so much and thanks Roger for publishing it.

    My way of identifying myself is in a constant state of evolution that I hope never stops. Like many in AA, if I can become addicted to many substances and behaviors. When I qualify, I often say I am not so much addicted to particular substances or behaviors but to dopamine, which produces a feeling of being high and enables me to escape whatever hum-drum experience I may be feeling.

    • Thomas, what a great way to look at identity. I agree with you, and take that a step further by saying that, if I do not continue to evolve, I’ve stagnated at best and am at risk at worst.

      And your observation about dopamine illustrates the increased knowledge that we have about substance use disorders and behavioral disorders that we did not have and could not quantity when much of 12 Step literature was written.

  10. life-j says:

    David, thank you. And it was really good to attend your workshop in Toronto. I learned a bunch from it. Yes, labels can be limiting, and I think it is a problem that to some people in AA it becomes their whole identity, which is especially problematic in an AA culture where this sort of thinking is encouraged in order so that you can turn yourself over to god in utter helplessness. I guess there is a difference between labels which we either hide behind or submit to because of an enticing or coercive system, and those which are merely descriptive. I wouldn’t hesitate to call myself a translator at a translator’s conference, or a contractor at a trade show, because I am both. Or to call myself a contractor at a translator’s conference if we’re talking about translating heavy equipment. Shows my qualification. And they neither carry a stigma, nor do they constitute something to hide behind. They are simple facts. So what is it with those labels that don’t simply remain facts? There really shouldn’t be a problem with calling oneself an alcoholic, or bipolar. Maybe we just need to give it time. AA encourages us to remain stuck with the label alcoholic, and maybe that is where the problem lies. The medical establishment does to a certain degree encourage being stuck with the label bipolar. And there are times when it is really impotant to not forget about being either. But I think we can look for a good example from the LGBTQ movement. There have been, and are times when some people are or have been stuck with first and foremost labeling themselves as such, and there were times when the situation seemed to warrant it, but in tune with increasing acceptance LGBTQ people increasingly see themselves as, and are seen by other people as – first and foremost just people. Maybe we somehow just need to “out” ourselves more, like the movement Anonymous People also suggests. Softens the stigma.

    • Life, Always great to hear your perspectives. Great points. What I see in my work is younger people being introduced to 12 Step fellowships and being shown the extremes – those who identify exclusively as alcoholic. These new folks tell me repeatedly that they cannot and will not be branded and typecast. They’re looking for other approaches and solutions to their substance use disorders. Sounds to me like they’re saying they don’t want what some of us have.

      • life-j says:

        David,
        I guess the young people don’t want what most of AA has to offer, because it is outdated religious nonsense for the most part. What I think they do want is the two million strong fellowship which says it wants to help, though in good alcoholic fashion it is our way or the highway. As per your comment to John, above, our help is quite conditional, and limited. Shouldn’t be, of course, and I think/hope that is part of what we’re working on here.

  11. Jim says:

    Good article. Some years back, I had a revelation that I had, like many others in AA, assumed the identity of alcoholic. At other times I had taken the identity of sponsor, self-appointed guru, and recovered alcoholic. All of these are rooted in the “I’m Jim and I am an alcoholic” identity. The day I had that epiphany, I was in an AA meeting. When it came time to introduce myself, I said “My name is Jim and I am an alcoholic. I have alcoholism but that isn’t who I am.” They looked at me like I had horns.

    I work as a peer counselor at a community mental health center. A certain amount of self-disclosure is necessary, so I do describe myself as both a recovered alcoholic and a person who has major depression. But, because I see so many clients assume the label of their diagnosis, I explain that I let neither alcoholism or depression define me as a human being.

  12. Harry C. says:

    I really liked your short article David. I often say at AA meetings, for the sake of ‘identification’ that: “My name is Harry and I’m an alcoholic but I don’t suffer from alcoholism today, I live with a solution, I choose not to drink and I support this through AA.” I too provided counselling services, mainly for chemical dependency issues, through EAP referrals. My aim back then was to help clients formulate the questions that they required to help them find their answers to accepting and dealing with their problem. We’re all much more than the labels we limit ourselves by. Again, liked it a lot. 👍 🤝

  13. bob k says:

    I am always free to make my own choice about how I identify myself in public, or if I choose to use any labels at all – that’s kind of the “Anonymous” in our name. I’m not capable of describing myself in a meaningful and comprehensive way with a single word. Further, as a not-so-much fan of labels, I can understand outgrowing specific ones. Over the years, I’ve seen a variety of people forswear the term “alcoholic” when introducing themselves at an AA meeting, with no good consequence to themselves or others, generally.

    As a newcomer, had I heard some mishmash of introductions, I may have struggled even more than I did with accepting the idea that the fantasy of successful moderated drinking was just that, a fantasy. Prospects arrive in AA in some degree of confusion and delusion, and at that point in my own life, presented with a bunch of choices, I was likely to opt for the wrong one. I like the unity that stems from consistency in identifying at AA meetings.

    I’m pleased to report that our Whitby Freethinkers meeting is now past five years old. We had a young guy coming about four years ago who was far from being in the “agnostic” camp, but he was in big trouble, and living in a nearby shelter. Our meeting was easily accessible for him. About his third week coming to our meeting, he announced that he was reading a book by Joel Osteen (truth is stranger than fiction), and he would no longer be identifying as an “alcoholic” because, according to Joel, that would be staying stuck in the problem, perpetuating the negative, so to speak.

    I suggested that attending an AA meeting was sort of being stuck in the problem and perpetuating the negative in and of itself, no? He may have agreed, because we haven’t seen him since either at our meetings or others in the area. I’m not sure if that’s my fault or Mr. Osteen’s. Probably both. 😉

    • I agree! We’re much too complex as human beings to be classified by a single word or term. I have been asking my mother to call me “David” for 40 years, yet she continues to call me “Dave.” I told her once I’m much too complex to be monosyllabic, but I think the point missed its mark.

  14. Pat N. says:

    Interesting mini-essay. I relate to the idea that we have no idea what our hearers conception is of the word “alcoholic”. Not much of an issue for people involved in recovery, but others might think of the gutter bum, or of an object of pity, etc. I wasn’t a bum, and I don’t want pity.

    That’s why I introduce myself before speaking in meetings as: “I’m Pat, and I used to be addicted to alcohol.” It’s true – I was addicted until I found help in AA, but I’m not addicted any more. Also, it’s a way of identifying with people whose problem was some other chemical(s) that we’re in the same boat.

    I don’t understand the myopia of AA groups that say they only talk about recovery from booze-we “pure alcoholics” are a vanishing breed. Most of my AA brothers & sisters had to give up a lot more than alcohol. The stodgy term “substance abuse disorder” is correct.

    • Dictionary.com offers a definition and several synonyms for the word “alcoholic.” Seems many of them are emotionally-charged. This is one reason why I avoid defining myself as an “alcoholic.”

      noun
      1. a person suffering from alcoholism.
      synonyms: dipsomaniac, drunk, drunkard, heavy/hard/serious drinker, problem drinker, binge drinker, alcohol abuser, person with a drinking problem; tippler, sot, inebriate; informal boozer, lush, alky, boozehound, dipso, juicer, wino, barfly
      “he is an alcoholic”.

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