AA Language – Does it Help or Hinder Recovery?

“My name is Damien, and I’m an alcoholic.” This is the conventional way to introduce oneself at a meeting of the fellowship.

It bugs me.

If-Im-an-alcoholicThe very first time I said these words they were incredibly powerful and liberating — when I finally said them, my surrender was complete. But as my sober time increases, I’m growing more uncomfortable with saying these words.

They’re not inaccurate. These words defined my drinking in the end.

The Merriam-Webster dictionary defines alcoholic as “affected with alcoholism” and alcoholism as “continued excessive or compulsive use of alcoholic drinks.”

But these words do not define me.

These words focus on the problem rather than the solution. Every time I introduce myself at a meeting, I struggle with how to label myself. I wrestle with a few phrases in my head, more often than not, I default to using these words even though they irritate me.

I smoked cigarettes for about 8 years in my late teens and early 20’s. I was good for about a pack to a pack and a half a day (depending on whether I was drinking that day or not). When I was smoking, I knew that I was “a smoker.” But when I quit, I no longer identified myself as “a smoker.” Sometimes, I call myself an “ex-smoker,” but more often than not, I say that I quit smoking. I don’t identify myself as a smoker today because I don’t smoke. It’s not part of my identity.


That’s what this is about. This is my struggle. See, I’m no longer drinking alcohol — why would I identify myself as someone who does so compulsively? Identity is complicated and those of us who are in the fellowship tend to complicate things.

So, we call ourselves alcoholics all the time.

Sure some of us are still drinking, but most aren’t — the program works better when you’re not drinking. Still we refer to ourselves with a term that implies “continued excessive or compulsive use of alcoholic drinks” even if we’ve been sober for years. I’m not sure that makes sense.

I know this line of thinking represents a challenge to the doctrine “Once an alcoholic, always an alcoholic,” (Alcoholics Anonymous 4th Edition, page 33). I know this may make some people uncomfortable. But I believe that old lines of thinking should be challenged every now and then.

Before anyone calls the GSO to report me as a heretic, let me reiterate that I’ve surrendered, that I understand fully that I suffered from an addiction to alcohol, that it was ruining my life, and that I don’t plan to drink today (or tomorrow, or the day after that — you get the point).

With that said, I’ve been thinking about how to introduce myself at meetings. I’ve heard a number of different introductions in the rooms:

“I’m a grateful alcoholic”

“I have a desire to stay sober today”

“I’m a sober alcoholic”

None of these really work for me. I am grateful, but I’m not grateful to be an alcoholic. I’m grateful to be in recovery.

I really don’t have a desire to stay sober, in fact, frequently I have a desire to enjoy a glass of bourbon — and I would, if only I could do so without following it up with another, and another, and another. I’d be really grateful if that were a possibility, but it’s not.

And “sober alcoholic?” I don’t even know where to start. The phrase brings to mind Song of Myself by Walt Whitman:

Do I contradict myself?

Very well then I contradict myself,

(I am large, I contain multitudes.)

Lately, I’ve been choosing to say, “My name is Damien, and I’m an alcoholic in recovery.” I like this because it refocuses the attention on my recovery. But it’s not working.

There is a certain cadence to a meeting that often drowns out the words “in recovery.” Many of us have a hard time listening, and very often, as soon as the word “alcoholic” leaves my lips there is a thunderous “Hi Damien” that tramples the words “in recovery.” I’m not even sure anyone has heard those words come out of my mouth at a meeting.

I’m considering starting to introduce myself as being in recovery. I like the words that are used in the videos on theroomsproject.org, “I’m a person in long term recovery. For me that means I don’t drink alcohol and have been sober since September 23rd, 2015.”

I like these words because they acknowledge the most important thing about me first — I am a person. Next they focus on my recovery and finally they acknowledge my drinking past.

Still, I’m not quite ready to start using these words in meetings. Firstly, I don’t consider three months “long term” recovery. I’m not sure what qualifies as “long term” but three months isn’t it. Secondly, this is a mouthful — I’m not sure I want to say it every time I introduce myself at a meeting. Thirdly, fear. I’m afraid that people will find it arrogant or pretentious; that somehow I am afraid to say the words, “I’m an alcoholic.”

Maybe the best thing to say would simply be, “I’m Damien. I’m in recovery.” And leave it at that, because really, that’s what matters to me most. My recovery is more important than any label or identifier because it’s through my recovery that I’ve been able to reclaim my life and rebuild my relationships with my wife and son.

And, for me, that’s what this is all about. Living a happy, healthy, and fulfilling life with the people who love me despite my faults.



About Damien

Damien lives near Annapolis, MD, USA. He graduated from the Pennsylvania State University with a B.A. in English. In the late nineties he began working at an ISP and taught himself how the internet worked. He has spent the past 18 years working IP networking. He loves to cook and eat. He also enjoys photography, art, and music. Damien has a loving wife and son. He blogs at soberboots.org and goes by the handle @soberboots on Twitter. Damien got sober on 9/23/2015.
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