Identifying as an “addict”

Stanton Peele By: Dr. Stanton Peele

Posted on January 12th, 2015 - Last updated: September 28th, 2023
This content was written in accordance with our Editorial Guidelines.

Identifying as an “addict” hurts you and limits your life, evidence shows. But through identity work and mindfulness, you can enrich your possibilities in astonishing ways.

Meghan Ralston, of the Drug Policy Alliance, memorably wrote—in a piece titled, “I’m Breaking Up With the Word ‘Addict’…”—about her former, heavy substance-using self and her new, sober self. Only, she pointed out, that’s the same self and she’s the same person, for better or worse:

“I am never merely ‘an addict.’ Please do not destroy the totality of who I am by reducing me to that one word. We retain our full humanity despite our challenges, particularly when our challenges are much deeper than our attention-grabbing drug use might suggest.

“My days of chaotic substance abuse are long behind me. I am not ‘an addict’ now, and I wasn’t ‘an addict’ then. I’m just a person, who had a period of difficulty, pain and challenge. I battled, I failed, I tried again—just like most people.”

Not just like most people, Meghan—like us all.

Meghan Ralston

 But the great news is, it means the wind is at your back—that you are not fighting yourself and nature as you work to recover. In particular, knowing that being addicted isn’t a life sentence or a badge of identity is a liberating experience, one that everyone can—and should—strive for.

One of Hollywood’s most notorious drinkers and drug users was Richard Harris. Harris ruined his career for a time, and almost died, due to his addictions.

At the height of his stardom in the 1960s and early 1970s Harris was almost as well known for his hellraiser lifestyle and heavy drinking as he was for his acting career. He was a longtime alcoholic until he became a teetotaler in 1981, although he did resume drinking Guinness a decade later. He gave up drugs after almost dying from a cocaine overdose in 1978. [My emphasis.]

What happened here? Harris described in interviews how his dead Irish relations would be turning over in their graves if they knew he was above ground and not consuming Ireland’s national beverage. So after age 60, hellraiser no more, he started turning up at the local pub for a pint or two with the lads.

richard harris

That people become destructively addicted—and they can die from it—doesn’t “prove” that addiction is biologically determined. It proves that addiction is real, just the way that cultural and individual expectations and beliefs are real. But an important route towards ending an addiction is to change how you think about your addiction.

At the same time as you do this, you change how you think about yourself—just as Harris dropped his alcoholic/addict identity.

Identity Work

I wrote about the arbitrariness—and dysfunction—of the addict identity in my last column. Only in the addiction field has it been considered a great advance to define yourself, permanently, by your most damaging trait, by the lowest point in your life, by your trauma. As Meghan Ralston wrote, this is not the real you.

So how do you realize your genuine self? This is what happened to Richard Harris:

* He had a resurgence in his career after it plummeted in the late 1970s.

* He became less of a macho star and more of a character actor.

* His family role changed as his children had their own children.

* Seeing peaceful drinkers at a local pub changed his notion of drinking from the time when he associated with other macho young actors.

It took Harris a long time to stop thinking of himself as an alcoholic—it happened well after he quit drinking and drug use altogether. But he at some point lost his “addict” identity as his self-image changed, his career anxiety became manageable, and he assumed a nurturing role toward others.

In short, Harris grew to see himself and the world differently.

But waiting for your children to have children and your acting career to resurface is a long road. We can do much to help that process along, as some therapists in Europe do. Scotsman Neil McKeganey wrote: “the process of recovery from dependent drug use” is built on “the individual constructing a non-addict identity.” Anja Koski-Jännes, in Finland, has investigated how addicted people proceed from “addiction to self governance” by finding a new identity that provides them with both a positive social role and personal acceptance.

The Impermanence of Addiction and the Permanence of Self

Although we have known for some time that most (though not all) people with addiction overcome it without treatment, the recognition of natural recovery has recently become a growth industry in publications around the Internet, including here on

But what does this phenomenon tell us about addiction? Addiction is a compulsive involvement with a substance or other experience or activity that harms the individual but that he or she cannot desist, either for the time being or for some extended period—but rarely for a lifetime.

This does not square with America’s culturally dominant disease theory, the 12 Steps, and the driving idea in both of powerlessness.

Mindfulness in Addiction Recovery

In Recover!, Ilse Thompson and I liken your addiction to the noise of the surf that you dive under in the ocean. You then come up fresh on the other side of the wave. That image is an example of a mindfulness exercise or meditation through which you translate your thinking into a concrete image that you can identify with your addiction and manipulate mindfully.

Mindfulness means slightly different things in psychology (à la Ellen Langer) and Buddhism (à la Tara Brach). In Langer’s formulation, mindfulness is the awareness of what impels you to behave as you do, emotionally and situationally. In Buddhism, mindfulness is the acute awareness of your presence in the world, the here-and-now. Langer’s mindfulness allows you to control your environment and yourself; Buddhism’s to experience the world directly and instantly.

The first formulation allows you to feel your agency—that you are directing your life in place of being driven habitually and emotionally. The second allows you to be at peace with yourself—the notion of radical acceptance.

And both types of mindfulness are tools with which to attack addiction. Each of them shows you the path toward recognizing that you are not defined by your worst habit, that your addict identity is false.

Becoming aware of what drives your behavior means that you are no longer powerless. If being in a place, having a feeling, reacting to a condition, failing at a task, or having a dispute causes you to take a drug, or drink, or smoke, or eat, you can find tools to master those addictive forces. (Indeed, even AA now makes people aware of their addiction “triggers.”)

For Brach, being present in your world and accepting that you are an integral part of the universe means you have no need to tar yourself with the addict label. Is the universe addicted? You are valuable and belong on earth as you are—this is radical acceptance.

Of course, self-acceptance doesn’t mean that you absolve yourself of responsibility for your actions, deny consequences, or, most especially, avoid the need for change. But we know that people are best able to change when they accept and value themselves.Baumeister and Tierney’s Willpower builds on the finding that successful self-control requires self-acceptance. And my fellow columnist Maia Szalavitz has brilliantly reviewed how shame about drinking makes people more likely to relapse.

Mindfulness Research and Treatment

At the epidemiological (or causative) level, research at the National Institutes of Health found that people seeking treatment for both drug and alcohol problems displayed “mindfulness deficits” compared with a random population of respondents.

Those requiring treatment were found to be less accepting (negative on “I approach each experience by trying to accept it, no matter whether it is pleasant or unpleasant”);  less curious about what they experienced; and less able to separate themselves from their urges (not agreeing with “I experience myself as separate from my changing thoughts and feelings”).

New research supports the importance and usefulness of mindfulness in addiction treatment. Mindfulness training has been shown to reduce stress, to improve the ability to handle negative thoughts, and to enable people to react less to alcohol cues. This research, by Eric Garland and his colleagues, was particularly encouraging since most of the subjects were African-American and earned under $20,000—groups often ignored in clinical research.

Meanwhile, the late Alan Marlatt’s group at the University of Washington has developed a mindfulness-based relapse prevention program. Compared with conventional treatment, the Marlatt group found, mindfulness-trained subjects had fewer cravings, displayed greater acceptance (think Buddhism), and showed more awareness of themselves in their environments (think Langer).

The elements impacted by mindfulness training by the Marlatt group are almost the exact traits the NIH study found lacking in those requiring treatment. Yet American treatment is not typically directed towards encouraging mindfulness. Indeed, it seems almost to discourage mindfulness-based traits.

Here are the eight elements of mindful thinking that you can encourage by self-imaging, meditation, here-and-now awareness and radical acceptance:

  1. Rejection of an addict identity: “I am not an addict.”
  2. Separation from the addiction: “I am not my addiction.”
  3. Radical acceptance: “I am a valuable human being as I am.”
  4. Mindfulness practice, meaning that you fundamentally accept yourself so as not to be overcome by your current problems.
  5. Detachment: “I can visualize and detach myself from my urge to use” (e.g., see craving as a wave that you dive under or surf over as it surges and recedes).
  6. Awareness: “I am sensitive to the world around me, both in terms of its beauty and in terms of the pressures to use.”
  7. Mindfulness practice, meaning being aware of the triggers and blind spots that can foul you up.
  8. Mindfulness is the opposite of trauma psychology, through which you see and define yourself in terms of your problems, hurt, or baggage. It instead means defining yourself in terms of your strengths and positive possibilities.

Losing your addict identity is a liberating experience—a blessing, a mitzvah.

Transcending the Battle Over Addiction and Identity

Here are two caveats: one from my end, the other stemming from the dominant addiction treatment modality. The first requires patience and forgiveness, the second vigilance and resistance.

As to the first caveat, realization of your non-addict self may not be instantaneous (although, sometimes, these shifts are sudden). But that doesn’t matter. At whatever point you are in the process, the practice of mindfulness is itself a mitzvah.

The other caveat, sadly, is a downer. American treatment programs tend to rely on shame, and focus on deficiencies and transgressions. Think, in this regard, of the messages standard 12-step treatment gives people: that you can’t think about your drinking for yourself (“Your own best thinking got you here”); that you can’t handle for yourself the pressures or impulses to drink—you are powerless. For these reasons, it may be necessary to avoid altogether or to discontinue your 12-step involvement to liberate yourself from the crippling idea that you were born and will always be an addict.

But let’s not end on that negative note. Here is a positive message we can share for the new year, one that can bring you both pleasure and empowerment: The world is a beautiful place and you are always a part of it.

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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