Who am I? Identity in addiction and recovery
Don’t get stuck in the negative self-image and stigma of substance use. Build a new identity that works for you.
Many of us struggle with stigmatising labels like ‘drunk’ or ‘junkie’ during recovery. They can come to take over our self-image and feel like the single defining characteristic of our identity. Like we will always be an alcoholic and nothing else. This is a distorted way of thinking and is probably causing us harm.
Our identities are constantly evolving and changing. Every choice we make influences how we perceive ourselves and how we want others to see us. Choices like making new friends, hobbies or interests can help us see a different side of ourselves. For most people, our identities will grow and shift throughout our entire lives.
Our identities are also layered and complex. We usually see ourselves as having lots of different identities at once. Sometimes we might define ourselves by our relationships to others — as a friend, sister, brother, parent, partner or grandparent. Sometimes we define ourselves by our jobs, hobbies or interests, such as a tradie, musician, artist or footy tragic. No single label can or should describe a person in their entirety.
So when it comes to recovery, why is it hard to escape the labels associated with substance use? And how do we go about redefining our identity in a way that feels comfortable as a person in recovery?
Shame, stigma, and self-identity in addiction recovery
The public perception of people who struggle with addiction can feel overwhelmingly negative. Much of that perception is deeply unfair. The words we use to describe substance use and substance users are heavily stigmatised in a way that few other health issues are. It can be really hard not to internalise that stigma and shamefully apply the labels to yourself.
Let’s be honest: Addiction does have a massive impact on your identity, both in the way you see yourself and the way the world sees you. So does recovery. It’s okay to be honest with yourself about that.
The problem is that you can then get stuck in that shame, and stuck in that label. Getting stuck in an identity centred on shame doesn’t give yourself the space to adapt, change, and grow. It’s important not to draw your entire self-image from your worst moments in time. You can rebuild a new identity that you feel truly reflects you, and not just your substance use. Maybe you self-identify as an alcoholic or drug addict, but that’s not all that you are, and it’s not all that you can be.
Changing how you see yourself is one of the most important steps in recovery. Once you have created an identity you feel comfortable with, others will begin to recognise that as your true identity as well.
So how do we begin to rebuild our identity as we move through recovery?
Reflect on substances in relation to your identity
Give yourself time to reflect on your substance use and how you perceive it. Ask yourself questions:
- How did I see myself?
- How do I see myself?
- How do I want to be seen?
- And, how do I want other to see me?
These questions encourage you to reevaluate how you view yourself in relation to substance use, and think seriously about how to move forward to create a sense of self that you are proud of. In this way you are actively rewriting your identity, not only for how others view you, but for how you view yourself. You are leaving behind a lived history and now writing a future biography.
Externalise: You are not your substance use
Psychologists David & Kathryn Geldard and Rebecca Yin Foo encourage you to externalise your substance use. Recognise that your substance use is not an intrinsic (built-in or essential) element of who you are as a person. Substance use is an external element which is acting upon you, but it isn’t you. Substance use is something you do, it is not who you are. It's important to shift your language to reflect this.
So instead of saying ‘I can’t do this because I’m an alcoholic’, say ‘Drinking stops me from doing the things I would like to do’.
This subtle shift in language differentiates you from your substance use. When you externalise the substance use by treating it as something separate to your own identity you can more easily regain control.
Revisit your reflections
Once you feel comfortable having externalised the substance use, it’s important to go back to one of the original questions: How do I want to be seen?
Recent research from Yale University, has found that there are two prominent identity types that develop when we enter recovery.
- The first is people who want to find a new, stronger version of themselves. For those who fall into this category, substance use was something that helped them create an identity which they felt they didn’t have before, and gave them a space to explore who they are. Substances helped for a while, but now they’re ready to move on to the next thing. Essentially, substance use became their identity but now they’re motivated for something better!
- The second is people who want to return to what they see as their best version of themselves, which was lost due to substance use.
The common trend with both of these groups is that the identity that people want following recovery always tends to be what people perceive to be ‘good’. Someone who is respectful, caring, strong and present. However, those are all terms that mean different things to different people. Think hard about what ‘good’ means to you. Are the actions you are taking in your life helping you to be the kind of ‘good’ you want to be?
There is no one hard and fast rule about what the right identity is, just like there’s no hard and fast rule about what recovery looks like. It’s different for everyone. Identities change all the time, and are in constant flux. Maybe today you don’t like the version of yourself you see, but tomorrow can be better. Nobody is their best self every day of their life and you don’t have to be either. Be kind to yourself while you’re working out who you are and who you want to be. Accept that the bumps along the way are a part of life for everybody.
Talk to someone about it
A peer worker recently wrote on the Counselling Online forums:
I remember reading something once and it goes along these lines… there are many different versions of you. Everyone you meet has a different version of who you are in their minds. Some people are in your life forever, some for a minute. Your mum, dad, brother, sister, teacher, cousin, coach, whoever… they’ll all have different understandings and ideas about who you are based on the interactions they’ve had with you. The only one that actually matters at the end of the day is the version you have of yourself… that’s the version I’ve come to love and accept over time.
These days I look back at my past and the lessons I’ve learned from it. I have done some crappy things in my time. I have treated people badly. I have done things I wish I hadn’t… but all these things have taught me something. They’ve taught me who I don’t want to be and helped me to be the person I am today…and I’m proud of that person.
Sometimes it’s hard to get outside of your head and forgive yourself for the moments you regret. Consider reaching out to your peers on the forums to talk about it. The critical voice in your head might try to stop you from building a new identity for yourself. Get some support to drown it out.
Remember: My past will remind me, but it will not define me.