Escaping addiction involves more than just giving up alcohol and drugs. The addict will also need to give up a large part of their own identity. For years, their life will have revolved around substance abuse. This will have impacted not only how they view the world but also how they see themselves. When they give all this up, it will leave a whole in their life. Those who carry their addict identity with them into recovery struggle to find success away from addiction. One of the hardest challenges for people in early sobriety is to build a new identity for themselves.
In psychology the word identity refers to the self image of the individual. This is not something that remains static but constantly adapts to the environment. There are many different types of identity including:
* Cultural identity
* National identity
* Class identity
* Gender identity
* Professional identity
* Social identity
* Religious identity
* Peer group identity
Most individuals manage to incorporate a number of identities into their daily life. This way they are able to behave one way at work and another way when relaxing with friends. Identity is never fixed, and an individual may have a self image in later life that is vastly different than their self image in their teens.
Those individuals who fall into addiction will adopt a certain type of identity. This new self image is often influenced by other substance abusers. The addict identity can involve different ideas, beliefs, motivations, and behaviors such as:
* The idea that sober people are dull
* The priority in life is getting high or drunk
* Certain styles of clothing are associated with the addict identity
* A high tolerance for sexual promiscuity
* The belief that substance abuse makes people more creative
* The idea that certain types of music can be associated with substance use
* Willingness to use dishonesty to achieve a goal
* Distrust of addiction professionals
* The belief that achievements should be celebrated by getting drunk or high
* The belief that substance abuse provides comfort when life gets bumpy
* An us against them bond among groups of addicts
* An addict-specific sense of humor (sometimes referred to as gallows humor)
* The belief that nonconformity and criminality respectable
A common reason relapse after a period in recovery is that the individual has failed to let go of their addict identity. Those who hold on to this identity but do not relapse develop dry drunk syndrome. Such an individual will no longer be drinking or using drugs, but their life will remain the same in many other ways. Theirs is a type of white knuckle sobriety in which they treat life away from addiction as being similar to a prison sentence. These individuals will be unable to find true happiness away from addiction until they establish a new identity for themselves.
12 Step programs have been criticized in the past for reinforcing the addict identity. Members are encouraged to think of themselves as recovering addicts. Sobriety is treated in the same way as remission from any incurable disease. The understanding is that the individual could relapse at any time. The problem is that the individual’s sober self image is still tied up with alcohol or drug abuse. Some people who break away from programs like AA claim they want to give up the addict identity as well as the substance abuse. Members of 12 Step groups would claim that such criticisms are unfair and that the program helps many people achieve lifelong abstinence.
The fact that identity is not static means that it is possible to get beyond this self image. The addict identity can be so ingrained that the individual will need to actively seek to escape it. This following make this more likely to happen:
* People in recovery need to avoid their old drinking and drugging affiliates, who will only draw the individual back to the addict identity.
* The individual needs to decide type of person they would like to become. They can then take measures that will help that identity develop.
* Joining a recovery fellowship can allow the individual to build a new network of sober friends. These friends can help the individual establish a new self image that does not involve substance abuse.
* Making use of resources such as recovery literature and sobriety websites can help people change their views on life.
* Learning new more effective coping mechanisms help the individual interact with the world more effectively.
* Avoiding certain types of music that the individual associates with drug use may help in early stages of recovery.
* Honesty is important for people who are hoping to build a new life away from addiction. The most important person that people have to be honest with is themselves.
* Helping others in recovery can have an impact on self image. It is also a great way to strengthen sobriety.
* Understand that life in recovery is all about experimenting and trying new things. These experiences will become part of the individual’s new self image.
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