My alcoholic counselors says I’m an addict — am I?

Readers Question Readers Question: (Name changed for privacy)
Stanton Peele Response by: Dr. Stanton Peele
Posted on September 10th, 2008 - Last updated: September 28th, 2023
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Dear Stanton,

I’ve been sober for a year and I am not sure if I really am an addict and/or alcoholic.

My background is that I am twenty two years old, I got sober one week before my twenty first birthday, and I am a full time student. When I started college I would smoke pot with my friends and occasionally drink. Then I moved in with my boyfriend, we would have our friends over nearly every night, so we would always have pot around. It got to the point where we started smoking nightly. Occasionally we would do harder things, but never regularly. Then one night I decided to take ecstasy. I had a horrible experience and haven’t done anything since.

The problem is that I was seeing a therapist at the time (I still am) who told me that I was an addict. So at her advice I started going to AA.

The problem is that I have not had a problem getting sober — I look at my experience as a college thing.

But she keeps telling me that I am, and I didn’t find out until later that she is an alcoholic as well. I have had no other assessments other than her telling me that I am, so I am really confused.

How do I really find out if I am an alcoholic or not?

If I knew undeniably that I was I would definitely stay in the program and work on my recovery, but right now I feel like I am living a lie according to someone else’s opinion. Any help would be greatly appreciated.



Dear Alice:

Your story is a common one.

Let me point out, first, that under ordinary circumstances, a therapist who herself is an alcoholic who does not initially tell you this (given that this greatly influences her views of addiction) is acting unprofessionally. On the grounds of her omitting telling you this, you should cease seeing her. Moreover, as is typical in situations like this, she seems intent on convincing you that you suffer from what she herself has. I believe you should say to her, “Given that you failed to tell me you are an alcoholic, while you were trying to convince me that I am one, I am terminating my therapy with you. I have been informed that this is extremely unprofessional on your part, and it causes me to discount our entire therapeutic relationship.”

Getting on objective assessment in this area turns out itself to be a tricky business. I have recently been engaged in seeking such an assessment for a client in New York City. It is typical for certified counselors or programs to do assessments that always turn out positive — that is, they see their task as figuring out which treatment is best for you rather than whether you are an alcoholic/addict or not!

The idea that alcoholism is a disease to be treated medically is disproved by the people who actually claim this is the case — since they are so incapable of doing an objective assessment.

When you go to the hospital because you have a pain in your chest and a cough, they tell you whether or not you have pneumonia. When you go to an alcohol/drug program/counselor and say you once drank too much or took too many drugs, they say, “See, you are an alcoholic/addict and need to enter our program/go to AA like me.”

I would recommend going to a non-addict psychologist — someone you respect or get a good recommendation about.

If you want an objective substance abuse assessment, I would try to work through SMART Recovery, or a psychologist or psychiatrist who is experienced with drugs/alcohol but who is not “in recovery.” But if you are currently abstinent and quit on your own, I don’t see how someone can find you to be alcohol or drug dependent. What you would be doing is seeking an assessment of your behavior a year earlier. But the psychiatric diagnostic manual (DSM-IV) looks at last-year behavior (one of the criteria for dependence is persistent unsuccessful efforts to quit or cut down).

Beyond this, your behavior — smoking marijuana regularly and trying some other drugs (and occasionally drinking!), then quitting before the age of 21, is not only not unusual, but in some regards is better than average. For example, the percentage of college students your age who binge drink is about 40 percent.

But you yourself seem to be pulled towards the recovery philosophy — you refer to yourself as sober, for example. I assume you are saying you don’t drink at all. You are uncertain about yourself and your substance use. Of course, you have shown courage and determination in questioning the AA philosophy with which you are being inundated.

To some extent, you are going through an existential conflict — one within yourself. If you are not comfortable with your substance use — whether to abstain permanently or to believe that you can drink or smoke marijuana occasionally — you will never rest easy no matter what assessments you receive, or certainly no matter what I tell you. In other words, maybe this whole experience is a necessary one for you to go through.

The goal is to come out firmly in one camp or the other — that you are an addict or not. This is worth thinking through until you are confident about yourself.


Stanton Peele

Dr. Stanton Peele, recognized as one of the world's leading addiction experts, developed the Life Process Program after decades of research, writing, and treatment about and for people with addictions. Dr. Peele is the author of 14 books. His work has been published in leading professional journals and popular publications around the globe.

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