Rebuilding Identity

“Identity is a series of reliable vectors that is you.” This is something the leader of the recovery group I attend said during a discussion about how our sense of identity shifts when we stop drinking. It immediately resonated with me. Identity includes a range of personality traits and behavioral trends that define the person we – and others – perceive ourselves to be. And while many of these are fairly stable, others can change over time. Identity is not some single thing we “are” that remains constant. We are continually perceiving, learning, changing, growing, stumbling, recovering, and healing. We are on a series of paths all at once. 

Social science has tested many theories on identity, which involves self-concept – “the sum of a being’s knowledge and understanding of their self… includ[ing] physical, psychological, and social attributes, which can be influenced by the individual’s attitudes, habits, beliefs and ideas.” Our self-concept intersects with social identity, cultural identity, professional identity, gender identity, religious identity, and many other dimensions. There’s also a difference – and a dynamic balancing act – between individual identity and the collective identities (as well as social roles) we form in groups.

mural of people dancing and having fun
Photo by Tim Mossholder on Unsplash

Identity is “an ever-evolving core within where our genetics (biology), culture, loved ones, those we cared for, people who have harmed us and people we have harmed, the deeds done (good and ill) to self and others, experiences lived, and choices made come together to form who we are at this moment.” Identity is a feeling. Identity is a sense of singularity, and a sense of belonging. Identity is how we define ourselves – what we can do, what we have, what we like, what we remember, who we are. Identity is a complex beast, and it’s different for everyone.

When people quit drinking, their identity is often dealt a blow, at least initially. Many people (certainly not all) who have an alcohol problem get wrapped up in a self-protective feeling of being likable and funny, their perspective restricted to the seemingly good qualities that emerge when alcohol relieves them of anxiety and inhibition. Their self-concept is one of a person who parties and is easygoing and fun to be around. That’s certainly how I thought of myself. This may become a role they play in their social circle, a form of identity that they, and often their peers, admire and value. Over time, it can come to dominate their sense of identity, diminishing their recognition of other factors that make them who they are.

woman standing in front of colorful joker paintings
Photo by Court Cook on Unsplash

I absolutely had a phase of identity confusion when I quit drinking. And it’s related to why I started in the first place. From mid-adolescence onward, part of me was trying to be someone different, someone cooler than the dorky middle schooler at my core who was passionate, perhaps even obsessive about things like art, music, writing, and Lord of the Rings. I had anxiety and difficulty socializing with people who I thought were cooler than me – the athletic and popular kids who I thought were “normal” and had everything together. 

I drank in part to suppress that feeling, to be able to socialize with anyone and everyone, and to open up without inhibition and still feel accepted. In college, I somehow managed to balance being very into art and poetry with hard partying. I suffered from powerful feelings of loneliness, and used alcohol to join the ranks of what I thought was normal social interaction (binge drinking) to escape from that feeling. Alcohol made me feel connected to people, as well as highly energetic and attention-worthy. It validated me. After college, I lost my creative and intellectual outlets, along with the everyday proximity of my drinking buddies. I used alcohol to reward myself and relieve anxiety related to my everyday work and loneliness.

woman looking at crystal ball with upside down reflection
Photo by Garidy Sanders on Unsplash

When I stopped drinking, change became inevitable. I found that I didn’t want to spend as much time at bars or drinking parties. I couldn’t be that same, easy-going, funny person – at least at first – and my identity took a hit. For many people, this can feel like a tremendous loss at first. Some of my friendships were forced to evolve, and I broke away from a couple of them. I maintained those in which the bond revolved around more than drinking. I found ways to connect with my friends through other aspects of my identity and theirs, such as shared interests. I got better at asking questions about other things in their lives, at making conversation. And for the friends that stuck with and supported me – which was, luckily, most of them – I think our friendships have grown deeper.

There is a light at the end of this tunnel. If you make the most of your sobriety, you start to renounce the building-blocks of identity that aren’t serving you – destructive activities, negative people, and self-talk (internal dialogue) that are toxic. By keeping your mind clear and letting it rewire, you’ve made the space for critical self-awareness – recognizing and challenging distorted thoughts and moving past ingrained mental obstacles. You start to distill the good from the harmful aspects of your personality and begin to develop new dimensions of identity and social roles. Rebuilding your identity can move from an undesirable, gargantuan effort to a long-term practice that brings you deep joy.

hand painted in rainbow paint colors
Photo by Sharon McCutcheon on Unsplash

If you quit drinking, or even cut back, pieces of you that have been subdued but are truly consistent with your essence can return. I dove back into my suppressed passions – art, music, writing, and trying to help people who are hurting. I shifted from an identity of “drinker” and “partier” into one of “poet,” “supporter,” and, of late, “blogger.” These aren’t just new ways to label yourself – they are the things you do and care about, put your heart into, and spend your time thinking about. They become important, just like alcohol once was. I finally started to learn what true confidence was, and how different it felt from the very opposite, negative feelings I had let fester inside me for so long.

Though this isn’t the case for everyone, you may recognize yourself getting more introspective and open when you moderate or quit drinking. But one of the burdens of being open is that you realize many other people are not. Some people just aren’t accustomed (or driven) to being introspective, or can’t articulate it. And if you talk too much about yourself or what you’re going through, you’ll become tiresome to the disinterested. Your own openness might make you feel alone, until you find other individuals or groups where introspection and sharing are the “norm.”

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Journaling and talking with others going through the same thing may help you to make sense of your emotions and new realizations. For many people, openness and sharing are critical to healing – which is why joining a recovery group can be so helpful during the transition to sobriety. Additionally, participating in activities and social groups based around common interests can reinforce other facets of the self, and even introduce new, long-lasting pursuits and values.

Rebuilding your identity is not easy. It’s not a straightforward process of continual upward growth. Just as it often is before we quit drinking, identity can be ever shifting after we stop. Life presents challenges at the most unexpected times, and our attitudes and emotions will shift accordingly. But for me, sobriety has given me a level of confidence and resilience I’d never thought possible. On an average day, I feel more complete and happier than ever. And when life gets tough, I feel certain I can make it through. Reflecting on what alcohol did to exacerbate my anxiety and negative self-image, I don’t think I could have gotten to this place without giving it up.

–Dana G

sunny grasses
Photo by Kent Pilcher on Unsplash

4 thoughts on “Rebuilding Identity

  1. That’s pretty cool . thanks.

    I’m a little more of a philosopher and so identity to me always falls into political identity. What is political in the philosophical sense, is usually understood as the world, the world that we live in. But you can check out all those discussions somewhere else if you want 🙂

    And wwhat Imean by that is you experience identity; you are not your identity.

    I’ve pondered this, and I put it in terms of : addiction is the attempt to stay in place. Ritual is similar in this regard. if you’ve ever heard of Jane’s Addiction, ritual de lo habitual— Ritual is a revisiting. And most addicts most alcoholics get involved in a ritual. And I think it’s not difficult to reflect upon that to see that really it is a nervousness, it’s an attempt to not change or to somehow prevent change from occurring to a person that is to one self.

    And there’s a lot of newer theory that say that addictions are founded in some sort of trauma. And if we think through that we can come across PTSD, which is really a problem of reliving the past moment over and over again upon certain triggers or instances in our lives.
    .
    So it appears to me there are many reasons to understand addiction as an attempt of a person to, basically, find themselves, by attempting to make or create a situation of not changing. Which is to say, so I can find myself: That thing that does not change: myself.

    There are many philosophies that suggest that I am that which has experiences, and that I am not my experiences nor the ssum of my experiences, but indeed I am having experiences. I am the being that is come upon by experiences.

    So Innoway we have a choice to make, and especially it is pertinent so far as sobriety goes.

    Because, yeah, on one side of things it’s very easy to see that sure my identity changes and so whereas before my identity was “drinker” or “ addict” so now I want to stop drinking or using and so then my identity changes, that I will have to find a way to become comfortable in this new identity which is “sober me“.

    Yes and there are many types of cognitive behavioral therapy is in approaches that can help us transition between those two kinds of identities. And I think this is what you are indicating in your post.

    But another way of looking at it is kind of what I was mentioning in the beginning of this comment: in my addiction I was attempting to stabilize or to make something not change, which is my associating myself with my identity. identity was understood or is usually understood as something fixed, something stable, and so I’m trying to get comfortable in whatever identity I have. Yet with addiction This attempt fails because I can’t get enough alcohol and drugs in me in order to have that cognition of that stable identity which is my self. That state of being fucked up, although it has a certain sense of being stable, probably because I’m really disassociated from cognition or any coordination of knowledge.

    What we can noticed though is that it is the inherent difference of myself and identity that I am having a problem with, which manifests in my addiction, through attempting to alter my feelings and my cognitions.

    And so on another level really what we’re trying to come to terms with is that identity is always changing, and because of some sort of trauma that I may have had in my past— whether it be big or small doesn’t really matter because we can’t compare traumas between human beings in that way— And this trauma has brought about a situation in me that I find feelings, emotions, difficult to handle because of those various types of emotion that have the potential to remind me of that Trumatic event. I want to avoid it, and so I’m trying to avoid it I tend to relive it.

    This is not to say that we necessarily have to encounter that moment of trauma; many current theories on trauma is more that we just have to come to terms with change and how emotions reflect change, and attempt to be more flexible in my estimation of what I am and what life is supposed to be.

    Sorry so long. Thank you so much for your post. 👨🏽‍🚀

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Thank you so much for your insightful and philosophical post. This really rang true: “you experience identity; you are not your identity.” As you mention, we develop habits and rituals to suppress anxieties, discomfort, and the pain of past traumas. For many of us, those rituals include misusing substances. Rituals – what we “do” and “experience” – start to feel like our identity, who we “are” – but what we do is always subject to change.

      For a time, the calming nature of rituals and the ability to return to a more stress-free state through alcohol gives us the stability we’re seeking. But that all goes to waste when we lose control and engage in behaviors that are harmful to us and others, shaking the sense of identity we’ve come to form.

      Thank you for stating “we can’t compare traumas between human beings in that way” – you are the second person to tell me these exact words lately and I think they are so wise. Different experiences impact people differently, and we need to be respectful of how others feel when they tell us. When giving up alcohol, I think it’s really important to get help from a mental health practitioner – especially when serious traumas and PTSD come into the picture, or the comorbid conditions that are so often present with addiction (depression, anxiety, etc.).

      To me (but an armchair psychologist), addiction and OCD seem so closely related, especially when under the lens of the cognitive-behavioral model. In both cases, a person has intrusive thoughts, anxieties, or memories of trauma – which they suppress by engaging in compulsive behavior – that only serves to increase the salience of the intrusive thoughts. A vicious cycle ensues when they repeat and intensify the behaviors, attempting to suppress the thoughts.

      Once we give up alcohol, separating ourselves from the rituals and the cycle they reinforce, we initially lose that sense of a stabilizing agent and must find other forms of comfort. We are forced to develop new rituals. Some are adopted because they give us comfort and relief from anxieties. Others can be developed simply because they make us feel good! It’s easier to develop healthy coping behaviors once alcohol is out of the picture, but we have to be wary that unhealthy coping behaviors can develop, as well. Especially if we’re still working on ourselves, prone to negativity towards the self and engaging in other compulsive behaviors that aren’t so good for us.

      Thanks again for your comment, which made me think about this from a new angle!

      Liked by 1 person

  2. I really related to your reasons for drinking throughout school and young adulthood. I too pushed aside my passions when alcohol took over my life. I’m close to a year sober now and am really enjoying finding them again, and figuring out who I am without alcohol. Great post!

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Thank you! I’ve found returning to my passions to be the most fulfilling aspect of my sobriety. Besides feeling and sleeping better, which you quickly come to take for granted. They just become the “norm.” Early on, I was trying out a bunch of new (and old) creative activities, and it took me a while to find what was most gratifying and felt like my real purpose. I’m still narrowing in on what’s most important to me. But I’m miles closer than when I was drinking! Approaching an understanding of who you really are (your identity outside of alcohol) is so empowering. Congrats on nearly a year sober… that’s so awesome, and I’m thrilled to hear you’ve been rediscovering your passions as well!

      Liked by 1 person

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