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  • Writer's pictureAndrew Bevan - Voluntary Mentor

Alcohol and the Inner Self

Personal identity is very hard to define. It’s complicated. That’s because it’s made up of many things. If part of our identity is that we suffer from “alcohol use disorder”, then we need to examine how these different pieces fit into the overall picture. We need to discover what has contributed to this outcome and what changes are needed to get well.

For most of the alcoholics I have met, treatment is their first introduction to psychotherapy. They are usually not sure what to expect. I often detect some suspicion and wariness. Some of this is perhaps because they have formed a preconception about so-called “psychobabble”. There also is often defensiveness about the likelihood of being asked perhaps to share intimate details of their lives.

Looking back, I was probably a bit the same when I was first referred to an alcohol treatment unit. At that time, I had an amateur interest in philosophy and psychology, so I knew at least some of what to expect. Most importantly, I’d also reached the stage of being prepared to do whatever it took to get well, so I was ready to try anything. It turned out to be a springboard for a lifetime of study that culminated in a doctorate focused on the topic of personal identity.

I asked a mentee how he was progressing with his therapy. He said to me that he was asked about his “inner self”. He didn't know what it meant or how to respond. Perhaps he had never really stopped to consider more deeply what might have contributed at a deeper level to what was going on in his day-to-day life.

Who are you? First, there is the physical aspect of you. Imagine you are meeting somebody at Waterloo station in London for the first time. You would describe yourself. It would be no good saying “I'll be the person stood by the entrance with an economics degree”. Instead, you’ll probably say something like, “I’m medium-build, dark hair, greying at the sides, I’ll be wearing jeans with a blue shirt and carrying a small briefcase”.

Are you the same in physical appearance as you were? Possibly so. If you are meeting an old friend who hasn’t seen you for twenty years then you will likely be recognised. We do have physical continuity, but our bodies undergo many changes over time. Some lose sight or limbs, for example. Perhaps you were an athlete when younger but now you will say, “I’ll be at the station entrance in a wheelchair”.

Further to this, you are not just a body. You have a mind. You've built up beliefs over time and they may have undergone radical change. These may or may not be observable in how you behave or dress, for example. You could say, “I used to be a right-wing liberal at university, but I'll be stood at the station entrance thinking about climate change”. But that’s clearly not sufficient. You will need some other descriptors.

We also undergo multiple experiences through our lives, some good, some bad and these will contribute to how we respond to events and other people around us. We might say, for example, “I’m the person who was part of the team that won the FA cup in 1980”, or “I’m the person who suffered child abuse when younger”, or “I’m the person who is a veteran of the Gulf War”.

Who you are or, more accurately, who you have become is made up of many complex factors. Fundamentally, you can only be a self in relation to external factors including other people. We can build up a bigger picture - where you were born and went to school, your working history, and so on. Many of these factors will have contributed to your social relationships, beliefs, and behaviour.

We also play many different parts in our lives. Interestingly, the original meaning of the Latin word persona is “mask”, conveying the idea of how we, in some sense, cover our true selves in the different roles we play. We also use the phrase of “wearing many hats” to express the same idea. For example, I wear an economist’s hat when I go to work. Then I swap that hat when I'm involved with the clinic. There's another me in a fellowship meeting or at the football match. These are all part of my personal identity.

Why does any of this matter? It’s because if we want to understand properly why somebody thinks and behaves in the way they do, then we need to examine the “sedimentation” of that person – the layering of experiences that have contributed to personal identity.

Somebody might ask me – “how did you end up working in finance”? It's easy to give an answer – I was introduced to economics at school and enjoyed it, so I went to university to further my higher education and then looked for a job in which I could use what I’d learned. But if somebody asks me, instead, “how did you end up being an alcoholic”? then it’s a lot more complicated. There is a sense in which I am a mystery to myself.

When we start devising a recovery programme, we want to know why you identify as an alcoholic (I do, whether people like using the term or not). Probably, you don't even know yourself. So, we try to encourage self-exploration through asking a series of questions. When did you start drinking? Were you a teenager or an adult? What did you like or not like about it? Were you aware of losing control? What were the circumstances?

We will ask further questions to encourage self-discovery about the person you have become. Do you recall childhood experiences that were of great significance to you? When were you happy? What do you enjoy doing? What motivates you?

This is what we mean when we start talking about the inner you. Perhaps by examining the person you have become, you will come to understand and discover the authentic self. Rather than look into a mirror and see just the physical image, you will look deeper within and gain greater understanding of your “alcohol use disorder”.

This will help to devise treatment to give you a much better chance of sustaining your recovery.


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