A few years ago, I was at a 12-step meeting when one of the members called for a “group conscious.” These are periodically called for in order for the group to talk about the vision, structure, and policies of the group. The “group conscious” must be agreed upon because it allows the group to function for a short time outside the normal “no cross talk” structure. This particular “group conscious” was called for because a few of the men attending the group had a problem with expecting everyone to call themselves an “addict.”
Some people argued that you should be free to call yourself whatever you want—that some people might not feel comfortable being labeled an “addict.” Even more, it could be intimidating to someone who is attending the group for the first time. The problem with this approach, though, is that members could then give themselves alternate titles that were 20 words long! Other people thought we should stick to the traditions of the SAA meeting and announce ourselves with our first name only, followed by calling ourselves “sex addicts.”
This issue of identity is a critical one. One of the things I have noticed and that has deterred me from attending certain groups is this idea of “once an addict, always an addict.” Some people in 12-step groups cling to this idea that their main identity is that of an “addict”—as if their life depended on it. The reasons for this are many.
For some, 12-step groups give them a sense of belonging, and they find camaraderie in calling themselves an “addict” along with others. Others have entered recovery, lost focus, and slipped back into their addiction, and so calling themselves an “addict” is a way of reminding them that they are vulnerable to relapse. And then there is maybe the worst reason for doing so: others have had their lives nearly ruined because of the consequences of their actions and the “addict” label is assumed not so much by them but by their families or society (sometimes both).
For these individuals, calling themselves an “addict” almost seems like a punishment for their past actions. All of this begs the question: how does a Catholic Christian in recovery think about identity?
My Transformation in Viewing Identity
The further I have entered into recovery, the less attractive this idea has become to me. Certainly, as I attend any 12-step meeting, I call myself an “addict” because that’s the culture of those meetings. However, I have found that sticking to this concept clouds my perception of myself and influences my actions. Taking the “addict” identity to the extreme is about as toxic as the acting out behavior itself. It’s important to separate your behaviors from your identity as a person created in the “image and likeness” of God. We have all made bad decisions—maybe even more bad decisions than good ones—but our true spiritual center exists over and against our sins and faults. It can’t be shaken; it is only more deeply revealed to us through an insurgence of grace.
My attitude toward my identity shifted because of continuous prayer, Catholic friendships outside of 12-step meetings, spiritual reading, and retreats. The tipping point came when one of my close Catholic friends told me that I was a drag to be around because I was always using addiction language and acting as if I were hopeless.
After this encounter, I slowly realized that he was right and that I needed to take a different attitude in my recovery. In whatever situation we are in, I tend to believe that we should always have trusted people to give us an “outsider’s” perspective.
An Identity Rooted in Christ
Beyond anything I have or haven’t done, my identity doesn’t rest upon what others think of me or what a 12-step group asks me to label myself. This is clear in any number of the Gospel stories. Take the story about the woman at the well in the Gospel of John (John 4). We know that the woman was probably at the well during the hottest part of the day because she was avoiding public shaming from the rest of the community.
Jesus breaks social barriers in order to speak with her, slowly earns her trust, and then speaks to her about the greatest truths of her life (she’s on her fifth husband). Jesus reveals who she really is—that she has been created to “worship the Father in Spirit and truth” (John 4:23). Instead of being buried in shame, the woman leaves Jesus’ presence and returns to the very people who have shamed her, proclaiming in confidence, “Come see a man who told me everything I have done. Could he possibly be the Messiah?” (John 4:29). This is a great model of how we should embrace our true identities in Jesus!
Jesus wants to restore us to our true identity. My questions are these: has “addiction” language become toxic to your identity? How is it that you need to work on separating “addiction” language from your identity in Christ Jesus? And who are the people in your life who can help you do this?
Quarter Joe is a lifelong Catholic and has been in recovery for pornography addiction for nearly three years. He is passionate about the spiritual path of the 12-step model and the power of Jesus in the Eucharist in bringing healing and transformation.