In my line of work, I’m often asked if I drink alcohol. The expectation is generally that I should be abstinent, either because I’m in recovery from problematic drinking, or I’m anti-alcohol. I’m neither.
It’s true that often people are drawn to working with people with substance misuse issues as a result of their own personal experience, helping others as part of their recovery and coming from a unique position of empathy. Others who choose to work with drug and alcohol users have a professional background in disciplines such as counselling, social work or nursing, or because of personal values around the inclusion of socially excluded and stigmatised groups and wanting to make a difference. It’s a rewarding, if challenging, field with a diverse workforce as well as client group.
When inevitably asked if I drink, my heart generally sinks a bit – here we go again, however I respond I’m damned if I do and damned if I don’t give an honest answer. My counselling training tells me to reflect the question back to the asker, to find out why they feel the need to know – if they’re seeing me for support, it’s about them and not me, so does it really matter? People unconsciously project all kinds of roles on to you – you’re a saintly tee-total “good girl”, you’re an alcoholic, you’re a judging, moralistic, lecturing authority figure, you’re an expert, you’re a hypocrite, you’re unable to understand what it’s like or help unless you’ve had a problem yourself… I merely see my role as another human being, who’s willing to listen and offer support.
The belief that only someone who’s “been through it” can understand is a particularly powerful one. Personally I would dispute that opinion, as while people may have had similar experiences (and the value of peer support groups such as http://www.alcoholics-anonymous.org.uk/ and http://www.smartrecovery.org.uk/ based on that principle cannot be underestimated), none of us ever knows what it feels like for another person, to have their experiences, their personality, their life. We’re all unique and in fact there can be a danger of over-identifying with someone and assuming we know how they feel, because we know how we we feel. We’ve all had issues and difficulties in our lives, and may have used alcohol to a lesser or greater degree, and I think we’re all somewhere on a continuum regarding alcohol, with abstinence at one end and dependence at the other, and a whole range in between.
Depending on the situation, I tend to use some variation of these ideas, in response to the question but I’m often aware I don’t get the instant respect that someone who’s actually battled addiction would gain by giving an honest answer and I sometimes feel I’m viewed as a bit of a fraud if I’m seen out in a pub having a drink by a client.
In common with around 90% of the UK population, I drink alcohol. I’ve never been physically dependent on it, but have used it recreationally all my adult life. I enjoy the taste and the relaxing effects. I don’t drink every day but I do usually drink some alcohol several days a week, so the Dry January challenge for me is an interesting experiment. I’ve had no difficulties so far, but am aware that I haven’t yet had to face any situations where I might be tempted – such as a party, a night out with friends, a meal in a restaurant, or a bad day or other “triggers”.
My alcohol use is generally within the “usually safe” limits, but yes there’ve been times when I’ve drunk above them, and I naturally question my relationship with alcohol in a job where I work with people around their drinking, and see how easily drinking can escalate to harmful levels. On Day 3 of Dry January, I’m mindful of all the people I have known whose alcohol use has caused significant harm to their health, relationships, jobs, and homes, and think “There, but for the grace of god, go I”. A sobering thought indeed.
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