Those who have been sober and in recovery for some time are often drawn upon as resources by those relatively new to recovery – think 12 Steps sponsors and any experienced, dependable people in your recovery network.
Some of the less talked-about phenomena in recovery circles are the stigmas commonly associated with alcohol. Two of these are:
1) There’s a social stigma against people who don’t drink (e.g., “Why won’t you have a beer with me? What’s wrong with you?”); and on the other end of the stick,
2) There’s a social stigma against people who are alcoholics (alcoholics are typically devalued, rejected and excluded, as well as generally considered lazy, lacking in willpower, untrustworthy and unpredictably violent).
A recent study (Nov. 2021) conducted at North Carolina State University looked at how people with long-term sobriety have addressed these stigmas, identifying six distinct strategies the participants have used successfully.
According to Lynsey Romo, one of the study’s authors and an associate professor of communication at North Carolina State University, “There is a stigma in the United States associated with not drinking socially (and) also a stigma associated with problem drinking. We did this study because we wanted to understand how people negotiate this double-stigma socially in order to stay sober.”
For their study, researchers used in-depth interviews with 22 U.S. adults who have been sober for at least 10 years. After analyzing the data, they found six strategies were being used by members of this group to address and manage alcohol-related stigma.
The analysis showed the particular strategy a participant used depended on: a) whether they believed there was a societal stigma against alcoholism, and b) whether they felt such a stigma applied to them.
Romo pointed out, “There really is no clear guidance for people in recovery on how to deal with stigmas associated with drinking and alcohol abuse, and a lot of people in recovery grapple with shame and other issues associated with these stigmas. We’re optimistic that outlining these strategies can serve as something of a tool kit for helping people in recovery navigate these issues.”
The six strategies used by the study’s participants included the following:
- 1) Accepting the stigma: In this approach, the person acknowledges there is a societal stigma and that it applies to them, essentially integrating the stigma into their identity. Self-deprecating humor around this awareness can be used as a coping behavior.
- 2) Evading responsibility for the stigma: In this strategy, a person accepts that the stigma applies to them, but minimizes their personal responsibility. For example, one may blame it on hereditary factors or other factors beyond their control.
- 3) Reducing the offensiveness of the stigma: Again, the person accepts that a stigma applies to them, but here focuses on the value and importance of recovery, as well as how they have changed for the better since entering recovery.
- 4) Avoiding the stigma: Here, one accepts that there is a stigma against alcoholism, but chooses not to believe the stigma applies to them. That is, they don’t identify with the label of alcoholism (or “active alcoholic”).
- 5) Denying the stigma: According to Romo, “This strategy challenges both the public understanding of stigma and whether it applies to them. Essentially, participants utilizing this strategy believe that nobody is perfect and other people don’t have the right to judge them. They also focus on the fact that they’re in recovery, which is an accomplishment in itself.”
- 6) Ignoring/displaying the stigma: Those who use this strategy are open about their experiences and actively participate in advocacy to inform others—both those in recovery and the public—and dismantle stereotypes about alcoholism and recovery.
Romo concluded on a positive note, saying, “We think our study is important because understanding and outlining these strategies for managing stigmas can help recovering alcoholics identify techniques for maintaining their sobriety and moving forward with their recovery.”
If you or someone you know is struggling with alcohol abuse or dependency, help is available at a local addiction treatment center. Freedom from the obsession and compulsion to drink is possible – asking for help is the first step.
 Lynsey K. Romo, Mary E. Obiol. “How People in Recovery Manage the Stigma of Being an Alcoholic.” Health Communication, 2021; 1 DOI: