Right now, I work full-time for a company that builds healthcare software. Specifically, we create software that hospitals and clinics can use to screen and refer high-risk patients for a variety of different chronic and acute diseases. As I mentioned in my last post, I’m also going to graduate school full-time to become a Clinical Mental Health Counselor.
One of the most persistent themes that I encounter in both my work and my education is that we can never, ever assume anything about anyone, despite the existence of anything at all that we think is a big red warning sign above their head pointing at a problem or issue. Similarly, just because someone seems perfectly normal on the outside, there’s no way we can assume there’s nothing going on.
If we refuse to simply believe the prescriptive views about human behavior and chronic condition stereotypes (such as obesity, diabetes, heart disease, etc.), it becomes instantly clear that there is no way we can account for the thousands and thousands of things that make every single person unique. Little things that might not seem to be an issue on the outside may cause incredible distress to the person experiencing them. Conversely, something society might typically stereotype as damaging to overall wellness might not cause everyone the same level of harm. We can’t ever fully know where someone falls on the spectrum unless we get the information from them directly. Even then, there are still more things we don’t know, than those that we do.
So why, then, do we still seem to glob everyone who has any kind of problem with alcohol into the same, singularly-labeled group of people (alcoholics) to describe a HUGE continuum of experiences? And another question: why do we still assume that to reach a point where you need to stop drinking, you first must hit some kind of bottom, you have to BE an alcoholic – else you don’t really have any good reason to stop?
I never hit mine. My bottom was still a ways off, though I could clearly see where I was going. I know I could’ve kept drinking for several more years while remaining functional – that is, able to keep a job and pay whatever bills I have, while scraping-by in my school work, walking around with a constant dull headache, numbed emotions and anxious, mildly depressed for no discernible reason, blah, blah, blah. Yeah, I totally could’ve done it. But, I’ve chosen not to.
Some friends – friends I love dearly – made comments in the past when I tried to quit drinking that indicated I didn’t fit their idea of someone who had a problem. To them, I was no kind of alcoholic. They were certain that I hadn’t reached a bottom, and so they were confused and surprised when I announced that I was trying to stop drinking.
To them, I was just Em, a regular beer-lover, who seemed alright at moderating when she went out. Nobody ever questioned me. What they didn’t account for, though, was that my experience of alcohol was different from theirs. Just because they didn’t see the drunk, sad, lonely Em I kept behind the curtains, didn’t mean she wasn’t there. They just didn’t know to look for her, and so they were surprised when I did something that “an alcoholic” would do once they hit bottom – quit drinking. At least, I tried.
I tried because I felt like shit. I knew I was only hurting myself, but the wounds weren’t visible on the outside (yet) so it was hard to try to explain what I was feeling. All I knew was that there had to be something better. Unfortunately, it would still take me a little while to realize that I had no reason to try and vindicate myself to my friends.
I can’t blame them for not seeing the other side, though. Many people who struggle with alcohol consumption do it in silence, as a secret to be kept from anyone who might have an opinion about it. I did. I was so good at keeping it secret, not even my boyfriend knew how much it troubled me.
So, when my bottom started becoming more and more clear to me, I decided enough was enough. I stepped off that ever-descending elevator with my job, friendships, relationship, and (a somewhat bruised, but recognizable) sense of self intact.
I did not hit bottom. Many people, however, do.
I do not recognize myself as an alcoholic. Many people, however, find that term incredibly useful – comforting, even.
Perhaps many others stepped off the elevator before they hit bottom – or maybe they experienced the crash, and are working on getting themselves out of the wreckage.
The thing is, it’s not my journey to decide.
And my journey is not for anyone else to decide.
And yours is yours, so wherever you fall on that continuum – alcohol hater, alcohol indifferent, alcohol lover, wino, craft beer snob, alcohol abuser, alcohol misuser, alcohol dependent, alcohol addicted, alcoholic, sober, in recovery, alcohol-free, non-drinker – don’t ever let anyone try to tell you where you should be, or how you should define normal, not normal, or even your own personal bottom.
Because why wait to hit that bottom, anyway? If you’re already there, it’s your journey to get yourself up again and decide how and why you’re going to get yourself where you need to be.
If you’re not quite there, but close enough, you don’t have to wait.
Even if you’re not that close at all, but you’re not interested in risking it, you don’t have to wait. You can get off too.
You don’t have to justify getting off, even when most people you know are staying on.
In fact, you can avoid stepping into the elevator at all, if you want to.
Just let the others know you’ll catch up with them later.