On Being an Alcohol ‘Abuser’


I would like to offer perhaps a different perspective on the commonly used description for those of us suffering from alcoholism – that of “alcohol abuser.”  I would think that for most of you, your immediate reaction is something along the lines of, “What’s the point?” or,  “What’s the big deal here?”  Well, speaking very candidly for myself, this phrase in and of itself, kept me from seeking help for the better part of my 31+ years of drinking experience.

I began drinking at age 17, and entered recovery at 48, in 1994.  I have now been in recovery for over 14 years.  I drank ‘alcoholically” for my whole Air Force career.  If I was ever “social” during those years, it was purely coincidental, for I am an alcoholic.   And, for the better part for that experience, I knew I was an alcoholic!  I just wasn’t ready to admit it; I was afraid to admit it; and, I didn’t want to be labeled as an “alcohol abuser.”  Who in our society and/or culture wants to be labeled as any kind of an “abuser?”  And so it was that I continually looked upon Social Actions – specifically the Drug and Alcohol Abuse component of Social Actions – with nothing but total contempt.  To the point I laughed at them!  My career was going fine, thank you very much, and I was drunk throughout most of it.  “Abuse” alcohol, you ask?  Well, I showed up for work every day on time, I made all my promotions on time and I was well respected in my career field – as reflected by being appointed an a flying squadron commander at my 17-year point. 

For those of you who have worked with alcoholics, you must certainly know we do not think like “normal people.”  Our brains are “wired” differently.  And, herein lies one of the pitfalls when a parent, a spouse, a commander or whoever, tries to “reach” an alcoholic through “conventional” reasoning.  It just doesn’t work.  Let me give you a couple personal examples here.

First, when my Wing Commander at Randolph Field announced in 1986 at a luncheon for his senior staff that I was going to be the new squadron commander for the 12th Student Squadron, I immediately thought to myself, “Would a wing commander make an alcoholic a squadron commander?  Probably not; therefore I must not be an alcoholic.”  And that night I went over to the O’Club and got very drunk – to celebrate my good fortune for my new job, and the fact I was not an alcoholic!

My “alcoholic thinking” doesn’t necessarily go away with sobriety.  Just after I got sober I began looking at the “blocks” to my recovery.  Why had I been so hesitant to ask for help before I did?  I discovered STIGMA had a great deal to do with it, with me.  And here I focused in on that popular term “alcohol abuser.”  I hated that more than I hated being an alcoholic!  Then I began looking at that specific issue in greater depth.  Why did I hate it so much?  Here is where it gets interesting.

“Beneath” the alcoholism I carried a deep resentment of authority; contempt if you will, especially if I thought I was either more capable or smarter than my bosses.  (On the other hand, if I admired my bosses, I was unconditionally loyal and totally committed to them.)  Here in sobriety, I can easily trace this behavior back to childhood relationships with my father.  And, unresolved issues with him.  So, with this “mindset,” does anyone here think, even for a moment, I was going to step forward and ask for help, when I knew I would be labeled by Social Actions as an “alcohol abuser?”  Then only to be entered into a “program” where I would have to play “Stump the Dummy” with a Social Actions Staff Sergeant carrying a Master’s degree?  Get real!  I often wondered what they were smoking?  With my 2.05 accum from college, and “the System” behind the Staff Sergeant – the one with the Master’s degree, I knew I couldn’t “win,” so what was the point?  And besides, in my sick little mind, I didn’t “abuse” alcohol anyway; I used it for what it was designed for – to get me drunk – and make you go away!  And it worked very well on me, over and over again!

From my perspective (alcoholic thinking here) the folks who “abused” alcohol were the ones who got up from a bar and walked off, leaving a half bottle of beer behind!  They abandoned it.  You don’t realize how many times I had to follow up and clean up behind these inconsiderate folks.  Other “abusers” included people like my wife, who would order a glass of wine with dinner, and not drink all of it –within 10 minutes.  I just don’t get it?  A third type of “alcohol abuser” are the guys who order a beer, then let it set for 10-15 minutes before taking the first swig.  What’s with that?  Alcohol abuser?  No I didn’t “abuse” alcohol – I used it!

In early sobriety I had to see my company’s chief medical officer once a month, as part of my back to work agreement.  Initially I was scared as hell of him.  He held my career in his hands, and I did not like that.  (I always felt that a flight surgeon could “ruin” my career by something he/she found on an exam.  A North Vietnamese gunner on the other hand, was just going to kill me.  There is a certain degree of “honor” associated with being killed in combat.  Being grounded by a flight surgeon – especially as an “alcohol abuser” would have been devastating to me!)  At any rate, I would go see this guy once a month, scared as hell.  Then after 8 or 9 months, I had an experience with him that essentially “released” all the fear I carried.  It came during my monthly visit.

Just after he walked into the room that morning and began the exam, he asked me, “So Bob, have you thought about drinking lately?”  And with this question, he made a drinking gesture, while smiling at me.  I thought to myself, “What an idiot,” and I told him no, I hadn’t.  As a “realist,” I knew by then that Bud Light could kick my butt.  He then went on to say, “I suppose that is because you want to continue flying for the airline.”  “No,” I replied, “if flying were the only reason for my not drinking, what do you think I would do when I turn 60?”  (At the time 60 was the FAA mandatory age for retirement.)  He was somewhat astounded by my reply and for a brief moment I saw something in his eyes:  recognition that I perhaps knew a little bit more about alcoholism than he did!  And from that moment on, I no longer feared him. 

Now, I don’t have a degree in chemical dependency, but I certainly have done the lab work, and field studies.  And in recovery I have learned a great deal about this disease I have.  I have also gained a greater respect for those of you who work in the discipline.  However I offer that unless you have experienced alcoholism yourself, and everything that comes with it, you can just not know how tormenting the term “alcohol abuser” can be.  From personal experience, I reckon it is every bit as disturbing to an alcoholic as certain other terms and words are to other segments of our society.  Although perhaps not the only “block,” it was powerful enough to keep me from seeking help earlier than I did.

So what am I advocating here?  Why not refer to folks like me as “chemically dependent.”  I have absolutely no problem with this phrase, and I think it is more descriptive and accurate of what I dealt with in the first place.   

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