“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.
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.
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.
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.
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.”
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.