Sometimes when we’re in active addiction for many years, drinking or using drugs become part of our identity. It might be hard to disentangle the person we become when we use substances from who we really are.
Mourning Your Old Identity
In early recovery, some people grieve the loss of that self-image. As the author Sarah Hepola (who I interviewed here) said about drinking, “It gave me the brazen quality I wanted so much. When I quit, it was painful for me to lose that identity.”
First, it’s okay to feel this way; it doesn’t mean you’re glorifying active addiction or you’re not committed enough to recovery. It just means you’re confronting messy feelings, which is important to get comfortable doing.
Building a New Identity
In recovery, we can start forming a new self-image. It typically takes time, but I’ve found that there’s joy in building it. Sometimes, where we land is a version of ourselves pre-addiction. Since being in recovery, my interests and values feel more aligned with who I was when I was a kid than as a teenager and in my 20’s. That doesn’t mean I’ve gone backwards; it feels like I’ve gotten back to—but also grown into—my core self.
It’s okay not to know what your interests or values are; they can get muddled when your top priority has been alcohol or drugs. It’s also okay, in fact great, to try out different hobbies. You can’t always know what you enjoy until you try it. If you need help clarifying your values, SMART Recovery—a support group for people with either substance or behavioral addictions—has a great worksheet that can help you identify them.
I’ve heard people worry that if they get sober, their whole identity will be about recovery. Sometimes people (myself included) with histories of addiction are prone to fixating, so it can seem that way. I’m very open about my sobriety, and I think, write, and read about addiction and recovery a lot.
However, being sober has allowed my identity to become way more expansive, because I have the capacity to do so many more things. I started playing drums; I read a lot more; I pay more attention to what’s going on in the world; I have fully formed opinions; I engage in more hobbies and more varied social activities than just drinking.
People may also realize things about themselves that weren’t clear in active addiction. For instance, the writer Tawny Lara (who was on our SHARE podcast!) embraced her bisexuality after three years sober. Things about a person’s personality too, like whether they’re more introverted or extroverted or how their emotions show up, become clearer in recovery.
While you might mourn your previous identity—and that’s very human—recovery is a great opportunity to build a new identity. This will be more intentional and fit who you are when you’re fully present.
If you are struggling with a substance use or mental health disorder, there is help and hope. TruHealing Centers offers high-quality treatment for mental health disorders and addiction in facilities across the country. Our staff—many of whom are in recovery themselves—will help you figure out who you are without substances and build a life in recovery. To learn more, call an admissions specialist at 410-593-0005.