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  • Writer's pictureAndrew Bevan - Voluntary Mentor

It Takes One to Know One

Updated: Jun 16, 2023

One of the ancient Greek sayings much beloved by philosophers is “know thyself”.

With this in mind, I recall being asked at an addiction conference, “who told you that you're an alcoholic”? The question partly betrayed the fact that many addiction specialists don't like the term “alcoholic”. Instead, the terminology has been switched to “alcohol use disorder”. There are some good reasons for doing this. But the implication, at least to me, was that the person asking had doubt about my story.

Why should an alcoholic have to conform to somebody else’s definition or caricature? I wasn’t permanently drunk. I wasn’t unemployed. I wasn’t dishevelled, sleeping on park benches or in shop doorways. But I did sleep on the floor of hotel bathrooms and a work colleague once had to sleep with me to stop me from choking in the night. I also knew that I had lost control of my drinking and it was having serious consequences for my health.

Resistance to use of the term alcoholic partly marks an attempt to move away from the very old debate over whether alcoholism is an illness or disease for which the drinker is in some sense not responsible. Instead, diagnosis of a “disorder” focuses on key behavioural criteria. These include loss of control, craving, blackouts and withdrawal symptoms. I ticked all of those boxes.

This is all well and good if it helps alcohol treatment practitioners. But isn’t there a risk of undermining the person who is trying to be understood if the identity of “alcoholic” is denied? Might it not imply lack of belief or superior knowledge on behalf of the hearer?

Addiction is a complex subject. There is no knock-down proof that somebody is what we commonly call an alcoholic. How can I demonstrate that I know I’m an alcoholic?

Epistemology is the branch of philosophy that deals with what it means to know, and how we can know what we know. Michael Polanyi talked about “intuitive knowing”. What he had in mind was given by an example. When we learn how to ride a bicycle, we are encountering the laws of physics in the form of Newtonian mechanics and the law of gravity. I know how to ride a bike. I don’t have to show that I have an advanced degree in physics.

This points to an important distinction between “knowing how” and “knowing that”. I can know that I’m an alcoholic without being able to demonstrate knowledge of the chemical properties of the substance or its impact on neural pathways in the brain (although I can certainly learn more about the latter from experts at the clinic).

Another way to think about this is that all knowing is personal and involves belief. Philosophers talk about “justified belief”. We can ground our belief about who we are partly in the witness and testimony of others. The words of the speaker or confessor convey truth as they resonate and are appropriated by the hearer. The sharing of common stories and the rituals we surround them with is part of the way we build our identity as human beings.

When we say who we are, we can't just make it up. I can’t just say that I’m an airline pilot or a professional football player. We only find our identity as a subject in relation to objective facts and criteria. If I say that I’m an airline pilot then I should be able to produce the relevant certificates of expertise and logbooks of flying hours.

We find out who we are in relation to others and to the world around us when we examine the lives of others and listen to their stories. When I attend fellowship meetings, and listen to personal testimony, I find myself over and over again saying – “that's how I got started”, “I did that”, “that’s the recovery process I went through”, and so on.

Actually, it's an emotional experience. That's because you discover who you are at your deepest, you find acceptance, and you can rebuild and move forward in a community of shared lives. It’s a bit like coming home. There are sometimes tears and there are sometimes laughs. Yes, you eventually learn to laugh at yourself and with others as you emerge from recovery treatment.

We all have a story to tell and stories of others to listen to. What is your story? Peg O’Connor, the American philosopher, writes about "epistemic authority". She says we need to listen to the testimony of those in recovery with humility. We need to hear their story because this coming out, as it were, is part of the healing process.

I once told a friendly GP that being an alcoholic defines me. He said "well don't let it define you". But he misunderstood. He was saying, “don’t carry it around like a ball and chain” and “move forward with your life”. I meant, instead, that it's part of who I am as a person. It’s part of the experience that I’ve lived through, and I try to use the insights from my recovery to apply to my sober life in a positive way.

So who did tell me that I was an alcoholic? Well, there was a psychiatrist, a psychotherapist and at least a couple of GPs. It didn’t really matter because I already knew. I found my identity in alcohol treatment and in encountering other alcoholics. It takes one to know one.

You get to know yourself in others, as already said. Why not take this a step further in recovery? Go and watch a Shakespeare play, for example, learn to play the piano or join a running club. You might discover other aspects of the true self within. Returning to the Greeks, Socrates said, according to Plato, “the unexamined life is not worth living”.

I don’t just identify narrowly as an alcoholic in recovery. I’m also part of a much broader community. I’m a human being.


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