Identity Loss and Gain From Addiction to Recovery

Losing it all and coming back stronger than ever

Human beings are unique and complex because of the totality of their singular personality, experiences, memories, relationships, and values. Gender, culture, class, and nationality, as well as communal, societal, religious, professional, and peer-groups further shape identities to make people fundamentally and essentially themselves. The limitless general permutations and unique defining factors that make up an identity make each of us original. The idiom, “They broke the mold when they made you” is true of all of us. Our identities are also fluid, changeable, and shifting in different settings, for example, professional and personal, familial and public.

It speaks to the power of addiction that by the time a person is felled by an alcohol or substance abuse disorder, their core identity is lost, subsumed, or consumed, and replaced by another identity—that of an addict. The addicted individual reconstructs an identity that serves and meets all the demands and needs of addiction.

Identity Formation

All of us are susceptible to the stories we tell ourselves, though there are many variables and factors that influence or moderate the story. Research shows that self-identifying with addiction may increase addiction activity, while claiming identities incompatible with addiction makes people less inclined to participate in addiction behaviors. If we accept our “addict” identity, it is possible that we will be resigned to our fate, accepting that our addiction is out of our control and that change is impossible. It may give us permission to maintain or escalate our addiction. Over time, the addicted individual may internalize the label of “addict” to the point he/she cannot envision or imagine any alternate identity. The loss of the historical self and the new self identification can be confusing, destabilizing, and painful, which can further fuel and perpetuate the addiction.

Remarkably, while the nuances of personal identity in the general population are various, diverse, and limitless, the core identity of the addicted individual is a near universal one, recognizable to all those afflicted by alcohol or substance abuse disorders. Those grappling with addiction progressively bond with other inhabitants in the addiction realm, fellow alcohol and substance users, providers, enablers, and dealers. Collectively, they gain a social identity embedded in addiction.

Birds of a Feather

“I remember working on Stripes, and there was a lot of coke on that show. And the thing is, once you get invited into someone’s room and there’s a lot of people there doing coke and they offer you some and you don’t do it, you don’t get invited back, because drug addicts want you to be an addict along with them. They don’t want you watching them being an addict. And I would make people self-conscious because I wasn’t interested.”

- Actress, Sean Young

Individuals grappling with addiction gradually lose, surrender, or discard aspects of themselves to assume their new social identity, influenced by their peers in addiction. They replace all that was familiar to descend into the rabbit hole of addiction. The values they once held are discarded in favor of a new set of motives, beliefs, values, and conduct. In general, addicted individuals embrace a belief in entitlement, that they are fully deserving of a drug of choice for various and multiple reasons.

Getting drunk, high, or buzzed assumes priority and is viewed as essential and worthy. Addicted individuals rationalize their use of alcohol or substances by declaring it as a source of comfort, healing, or creativity, and therefore a valid and even responsible lifestyle choice. As part of a tribe, those suffering from addiction adopt a set of beliefs to live by, specific tastes in music and fashion, risky lifestyle choices such as sexual promiscuity, and other boundary-breaking norms.

Addicted individuals hold tribal world views and are frequently judgmental about those who are not, viewing them as conformists. This worldview eases the constant acts of disappointing, hurting, or discarding people around them. The grip of addiction is so powerful that selfishness, dishonesty, recklessness, and criminality are either ignored or justified. The binding narrative of addiction creates a communal, tribal clique of individuals identifying as addicts who live by their own ethos, impervious to the norms of other social groups.

Over the course of the addiction cycle, the preliminary overtures to adapt become reflexive and natural. In addition to the loss of historical identity, an addicted person’s new social group renders him a role in a like-minded community and gives them a sense of belonging, self-worth, and consolation, as well as the feeling of being understood and accepted unconditionally.

Vortex of Addiction

In the vortex of addiction, when the brain and the body are under assault by the ravages of alcohol and drugs, it is impossible for the addicted individual to reflect or contemplate on their identity or belonging in a group. He or she is unable to ponder the nature of their identity, past or present. Cognitive decline in addiction prevents those suffering from addiction to meditate on complex, deliberate thinking.

First Step to Sobriety

Making a decision to give up an addiction is a death followed by a resurrection. It forces the addicted individual to surrender his/her identity and try to retrieve their historical identity, or forge a new one in recovery that will carry them into the future.

The First Step of AA

“We admitted we were powerless over alcohol—that our lives had become unmanageable. Who cares to admit complete defeat? Practically no one, of course. Every natural instinct cries out against the idea of personal powerlessness. … We perceive that only through utter defeat are we able to take our first steps toward liberation and strength. Our admissions of personal powerless-ness finally turn out to be firm bedrock upon which happy and purposeful lives may be built.”

The first step to recovery like the proverbial journey of a thousand miles begins with a single step—recognition of our addiction and a desire to give up the addiction.

Few people suffering from alcohol and substance abuse disorders can recover without support. Depending on the severity of the addiction, individuals may find the help they need from group and individual therapy, outpatient programs and AA, or in severe cases, detox with medication assisted treatment (MAT) followed by residential treatment.

New Leaf Detox and Treatment offers customized treatment plans to individuals seeking recovery from alcohol and substance abuse disorders.

Road to Recovery

Identity Loss and Gain From Addiction To Recovery

Making a commitment to recovery is the most important life-changing decision a person can make. From the moment a person decides to take control of the addiction, he/she is choosing to do the hard work of replacing their addict’s identity with either their previous self identity or a new one. Rebuilding a meaningful, addiction-free life day by day requires commitment and a vision of a self-actualized future self.

The person in recovery will experience an identity crisis as he/she tries to discard their addict’s identity. Surrendering this identity can be excruciating, and will include feelings of profound grief. Rejecting the addict’s identity means the loss of the self as we know it, of drugs, of friends, of parties, of hedonism, of fellowship, of community, of our tribe, and the loss of a way of life. The vacuum left by the loss is immense if there is nothing to replace the vacant space.

If one refuses to reconcile to the loss of an addict’s identity, they may experience post-acute withdrawal syndrome, sometimes referred to in the AA lexicon as Dry Drunk Syndrome. Despite being sober, they may exhibit symptoms of addiction as well as the behaviors of users. The failure to progress and assume a new identity keeps them chained and unable to progress or thrive in recovery. If one is truly committed to gaining freedom from addiction and invested in sobriety and recovery, the vacuum will be filled, through hard work, with a new identity. A tribute to survival, the recovery identity rises from the ashes of addiction. It is formed gradually, during the course of recovery, by retrieving and salvaging the best parts of our long forgotten personal identities, and adding them to the wisdom and knowledge gained from the deep work of recovery during treatment for addiction.

Work of Recovery

Individuals who make the commitment to a life free from addiction begin a heroic journey to find their best self. In treatment, they work on detoxing from their drug of choice through the best clinical modality including slow taper Medication Assisted Treatment. After this phase, they begin the arduous work of recovery that includes clinician-recommended evidence-based treatments such as Cognitive Behavioral Therapy, Dual Diagnosis and Trauma Informed Care, and Psychotherapy. Holistic treatments such as physical therapy and exercise regimens are incorporated into individualized programs. Individual and Group therapy as well as AA and NA are the cornerstone of recovery care.

Point of No Return

The most essential component of recovery is to completely erase any link to the previous life of addiction including the people and places that trigger and support addiction. Holding on to relationships with those who are actively addicted, frequenting places where drugs and alcohol are available, participating in activities and experiences that promote drug and alcohol use, will only increase the likelihood of relapse.

Social Identity in Recovery

Recovery is not a solo quest but a communal one. In recovery, you will find others on the same journey to freedom from addiction, some beginning the journey, others midway, and others sober for years. The single binding narrative of intentionality to remain sober and mindful to recovery gives those in recovery a sense of belonging, support, comfort, consolation, and community.

Each person in recovery is working to survive, thrive, and flourish. For most, recovery is an exciting period of growth, experiment, and evolution. They pursue new ways of living, paying attention to lifestyle choices, developing hobbies and interests, paying attention to exercise and nutrition, pursuing further education, cultivating friendships, joining spiritual fellowships, participating in AA, NA, and other sobriety-focused groups.

The recovery community is a co-creation of everyone in recovery with each person a valuable member of the tribe. Through recovery, each individual retrieves their personal identity after being broken open by addiction, and discovers a strong social identity within the recovery community.

The Art and Science of Addiction Treatment

At New Leaf Detox and Treatment, we offer a client-focused philosophy that acknowledges and embraces the unique strengths, experiences, and needs that each person brings to the treatment process.
We equip our clients with the knowledge, life skills, spiritual tool kit and emotional support to produce a meaningful character transformation necessary for sustained long-term recovery. Together we work diligently with our clients to uncover, discover, and discard; to unearth the authentic self in each client, healing the underlying causes of addiction.
We provide the life-changing care that will empower men and women to overcome their chemical dependence and mental health issues and make the other changes that will support their successful pursuit of happier and healthier futures, free from the constraints of addiction.
For more information, please visit nldetox.com

Resources

Foundation for a Drug-Free World. (n.d.). REAL LIFE DRUG STORY VIDEOS – Drug Addiction Experiences – Teenage Drugs Stories. Retrieved March 26, 2021, from https://www.drugfreeworld.org/real-life-stories.html

The British Psychological Society. (2018, May). Addiction and the importance of belonging. Retrieved from https://thepsychologist.bps.org.uk/volume-31/may-2018/addiction-and-importance-belonging

Vazquez. (2019, December 27). Identity and addiction: A psychosocial Clinical Consideration (Garcia, Ed.). Retrieved from https://www.heraldopenaccess.us/openaccess/identity-and-addiction-a-psychosocial-clinical-consideration

(2002) Social and Personal Identity Projects in the Recovery from Addictive Behaviours, Addiction Research & Theory, 10:2, 183-202, DOI: 10.1080/16066350290017266

David Best, Melinda Beckwith, Catherine Haslam, S. Alexander Haslam, Jolanda Jetten, Emily Mawson & Dan I. Lubman (2016) Overcoming alcohol and other drug addiction as a process of social identity transition: the social identity model of recovery (SIMOR), Addiction Research & Theory, 24:2, 111-123, DOI: 10.3109/16066359.2015.1075980

Dingle, Genevieve & Cruwys, Tegan & Frings, Daniel. (2015). Social Identities as Pathways into and out of Addiction. Frontiers in Psychology. 6. 10.3389/fpsyg.2015.01795.

Mager, D., MSW. (2016, November 23). Addiction, Recovery, and Loss. Retrieved from https://www.psychologytoday.com/us/blog/some-assembly-required/201611/addiction-recovery-and-loss

Dingle, G. A., Cruwys, T., & Frings, D. (2015). Social Identities as Pathways into and out of AddictionFrontiers in Psychology, 6, 1795. doi:10.3389/fpsyg.2015.01795

Walters, G. D. (1996). Addiction and identity: Exploring the possibility of a relationship. Psychology of Addictive Behaviors, 10(1), 9–17. https://doi.org/10.1037/0893-164X.10.1.9

Volkow, N. D., Chang, L., Wang, G., Fowler, J. S., Franceschi, D., Sedler, M., . . . Logan, J. (2001, December 01). Loss of Dopamine Transporters in Methamphetamine Abusers Recovers with Protracted Abstinence. Retrieved from https://www.jneurosci.org/content/21/23/9414.full