Identity, mental illness and recovery

“Once I became my diagnosis, there was no one left to recover.”

Holy cow! This really captures something very important! It articulates what concerns me most about the rush to diagnosis for people in early recovery. It’s much less any intellectual concern, concern that a medication might be unhelpful or some concern about purity of addiction—it’s the black hole that this identity issue can easily become.

Remembering who we are isn’t as easy as it might sound. Once we receive a diagnosis, it often becomes the primary focus of our identity. It can become the lens that we see ourselves through. Our new label can overshadow the depth and breadth of who we are as people. To make matters worse, most of those around us started relating to us as though we’d turned into a diagnosis. They ask us about our medication and if we’re taking it; how we’re taking it; how we feel about taking it; how long we’ve taken it. They ask us what other medications we’ve taken; how long we’ve been ill; how many times we’ve been hospitalized, homeless, in jail, on drugs, and so on. In other words, those around us start seeing only the parts of us that aren’t working too well. Guess what? This often causes us to only see that part of ourselves too, and pretty soon we have trouble remembering who we are as a person. We join the club and start to see ourselves as a diagnosis too. One of our colleagues put it this way: “Once I became my diagnosis, there was no one left to recover.” She really captured the essence of the problem in that statement. The more we settle into the identity, the more we forget who we really are. Now the good news is that that person, the one that’s really us, is still inside us all along, buried under layers of diagnoses, medications, victim stories, hopelessness and helplessness.

This identity also seems to have a special pull for many addicts. Why is this narrative of their difficulties preferable to an addiction narrative? I’m sure there is no one reason, but this strikes me as important:

“I heard them say, “It’s your job to recover.” I thought, “No! It’s not my job. It’s your job. You’re supposed to fix me.” I was in total shock. I’d been led to believe that I had no role in getting better and I was waiting to be fixed by someone else. Learning that it was my job was very scary…

When one feels utterly powerless, hopeless and terrified, maybe an identity that offers a more passive path is more attractive?

Identity plays a huge role in addiction recovery and I know that troubles some people (professionals and lay people), but much of the recovery movement seems to have avoided this trap. Why? Is it because 12 step recovery demands the active participation of the addict? I say 12 step recovery because this also seems to capture much of what is wrong with methadone treatment in the US.

5 thoughts on “Identity, mental illness and recovery

  1. I like this article as it relates to mental illness but I also think that it correlates nicely with addiction too.I find it problematic sometimes to always identify as an alcoholic.Why do I always have to identify with the problem. Alcoholism is a part of me it’s not who I am. Or how sometimes I like to cop out and say that my disease is acting up but I’m really just being a jerk.

    I like this quote from William Silkworth

    “In both professional and lay circles, there is a tendency to label everything that an alcoholic may do as “alcoholic behavior.” The truth is, it is simple human nature.

    It is very wrong to consider any of the personality traits observed in liquor addicts as peculiar to the alcoholic. Emotional and mental quirks are classified as symptoms of alcoholism merely because alcoholics have them, yet those same quirks can be found among non-alcoholics too. Actually they are symptoms of mankind!

    Of course, the alcoholic himself tends to think of himself as different, somebody special, with unique tendencies and reactions. Many psychiatrists, doctors, and therapists carry the same idea to extremes in their analyses and treatment of alcoholics”
    I’m just a guy with a disease doing the best I can to treat it.

  2. There’s no doubt that some people use it as a cop-out to explain away their behavior. And, our identity should never be one dimensional.

    I don’t mean to be pedantic with this reply, just thinking it through.

    I still think that integrating being an alcoholic/addict into one’s identity is an important foundational step for establishing long term recovery. I think most of us have to answer questions like, who was I before I began using alcohol and drugs? Who and what did I become as a result of my use? Why me? How do I explain what happened? What happened to break this pattern? How do I explain why and how I stopped? Who and what am I now? Where am I going and what do I need to do to get there? (White, 1996)

    For most people on the inside of the recovering community, it’s not limiting in any way. Rather, it opens doors and creates opportunities.

    I think that this has a lot to do with an aspect I may have neglected to mention. Part of the process of integrating being an alcoholic/addict into one’s identity is to also integrate being in recovery. This is what establishes a long term path toward maintaining recovery and accountability for ending the kind of excuse-making you describe.

    I’ve been thinking about this a lot because I’ve been trying to stick with exercise and eating well and I’ve been wondering why some people are able to stick with it and others (including myself) go back and forth. One thing that is different for me this time is that I’ve been thinking about it as part of who I am, not just something I do.

    It also strikes me that there is a developmental aspect to all of this. Some born-again Christians I know have commented that they sometimes wish they could hide away some of the newly saved, because their excitement and zeal is a turn off. They didn’t say it, but I think I could safely say that part of their concern is that, in the early stages, being born-again is their identity rather than an important and defining aspect of their identity.

  3. I think that identifying myself as an alcoholic or addict is a helpful thing. It’s not the only thing I am, but as you say, it provides a grounding for my recovery.

    I have to say to my shame that I was stunned when I realised that recovery was ultimately my responsibility. I felt like a victim initially and I was waiting for treatment to deliver me, with me as a passive recipient. Ended up being bloody hard work!

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