This paper describes my experiences with coming to understand my own relationship with alcohol dependency and addiction. Disability studies has offered me a lens and guide through which I have critically interrogated discourses about addiction, while examining the ways dominant and counter-narratives have impacted my own recovery process. In this paper, I review historical information about the emergence of culturally accepted recovery ideologies in the United States that have led to a dominant disease model perspective. Then, I explain the disability studies-informed theoretical underpinnings of this paper, which include discourse theory and disability studies as applied to alcohol addiction. Using disability studies and autoethnography as a guide, the body of the paper uses examples from my own journals to elucidate salient themes that emerged about my experiences in early recovery. The paper uncovers the ways I came to understand my own identity related to addiction, how I navigated feelings of stigma and shame, the ways I found recovery spaces that embraced empowering frameworks aligned to a disability studies ethos, and how I discovered community and pride through this experience.

I became motivated to write this paper after seeing the call for the Society of Disability Studies 2021 conference, in which the resonant theme was: "DEEP SIGH: (Re)Centering Activism, Healing, Radical Love, Emotional Connection and Breathing Spaces in Intersectional Communities" (ADA Coordinator’s Office, 2024). This theme ignited in me a desire to analyze and share the journals I had been writing that focused on coming to understand my experiences with alcohol addiction. As I applied autoethnographic methodologies through the lens of disability studies (DS), I began to untangle my experiences and forge a pathway towards recovery that aligned to my scholarly and personal values.

In September of 2020 I started to see a therapist. I began to feel as though my mental and physical health were deteriorating. I was on overdrive between working, coping with the pandemic, and continually increasing the amount of alcohol I was consuming. Serendipitously, my first week of therapy happened to coincide with submitting my tenure binder. Soon, I began to realize that for about 15 years, I had been on autopilot, working my way through life, graduate school, and my early career in academia, all while drinking heavily. After only about two weeks of therapy, it hit me, like a ton of bricks, that many of my problems— such as anxiety, insomnia, and feelings of depression—were exacerbated by my dependence on and overuse of alcohol. The realization of this was (and is still many days) overwhelming. So, I decided to figure out what it meant to get sober.

In order for me to process this new reality I was confronting, I needed desperately to learn more about alcohol addiction. Thus, my first step was to consume "quit-lit" and media content about addiction, which included: self-help books, memoirs, edited books, research articles from various disciplines, podcasts, TV and movies depictions, and more. I continue to be in awe that this whole world of information has been suddenly put before me, where previously I had not acknowledged its existence. Before this realization, all I had really known about alcohol addiction came from what I had learned in popular culture about Alcoholics Anonymous (AA) and some underdiscussed family stories that seemed shrouded in secrecy and shame. I had received the message that one must hit a metaphoric "rock bottom" — which allowed me to ignore what was happening to my own mind and body because I saw myself as a functioning, productive member of society who could not possibly have an addiction problem. Yet, once I started to learn about addiction, I became increasingly aware of the physical and chemical dependence that I was experiencing. I soon found myself overwhelmed by the vast amount of information and perspectives that existed, many of which felt contradictory to me. As I wrestled with my identity, I started to view myself differently, while also learning how profoundly my body/mind had been impacted by the substance itself.

As I searched for perspectives that aligned to my way of seeing the world, I knew that my choices for how I would pursue recovery were in large part dependent on what discursive frameworks I adopted about myself. I quickly realized that very little conversation existed about addiction in the field of DS and that DS as a field had done little to inform addiction studies. This paper, then, documents how DS theory has served as a philosophical guide for me because prevalent addiction programs such as AA immediately felt shame-evoking, essentialist, and deficit-oriented. Yet, as I interrogated other possibilities beyond AA, I found recovery pathways and frameworks that were empowering, interdependent, and holistic.

In this paper, I will first review historical information about the emergence of dominant recovery ideologies in the United States (US) that in many ways are both parallel and integral to larger disability history. Then, I will explain the theoretical underpinnings of this paper which include discourse and DS theory. Finally, using autoethnography as a guide, the body of the paper draws on examples from my journals to explore themes that came up as I analyzed my experiences toward coming to understand my addiction experience through a DS lens.

Dominant Recovery Frameworks: Historical Contexts

I want to make a disclaimer at the outset of this paper, which in part relies on critiques of AA and 12 step models of recovery (e.g. Beresford, 2015; Kaye, 2012) as being highly contributive to dominant and problematic discourses. Yet, despite these critiques, I want to acknowledge the beneficial role AA and other 12-step programs have historically played in the lives of many people who struggle with addiction to alcohol and other substances. Undoubtedly, AA has provided a lifeline for many people. Additionally, there are wisdoms promoted through AA, such as free mutual peer support, that are undeniably beneficial to someone seeking recovery. Thus, I am not arguing that AA should not be an option for people to pursue. What I hope to show, though, is that by analyzing dominant discourses of alcohol recovery it becomes clear that many people feel both excluded and made deficient by AA's approach — yet concomitantly, they may see AA as the only option available. The history of AA sheds some light on how it rose to become the most dominant recovery framework in the western world while being reliant upon what DS scholars would describe as a primarily deficit-oriented and medical model approach (Goodley, 2017).

Dodes and Dodes (2014) chronicle addiction history, which parallels the treatment of disabled people in American history (Shakespeare, 2018). During the 1800's the US saw a rise of what were called inebriate hospitals, which, similar to today's treatment facilities, helped patients to detox. Yet, they were also cohabitated by all of society's "castaways" including those labeled as disabled or as mentally ill, people with physical illnesses, orphans, and prisoners. Subsequently, many people struggling with alcohol addiction found themselves in public hospitals and insane asylums. Alongside the rise of eugenic thought and policies during the early 20th century, those struggling with alcohol addiction became subjected to sterilization laws (Allen, 1997). However, before such practices became widespread, in 1919 the 18th Amendment was passed prohibiting the sale of alcohol. When Prohibition was lifted in 1931, the societal problem of alcohol use had not been eliminated. This is where Bill Wilson, the founder of AA, came onto the scene (Dodes & Dodes, 2014).

Bill Wilson's story is described in the "Blue Book" (AA, 2001). After years of struggling with alcohol, Wilson started to see his marriage and career unravel. As things deteriorated, he was visited by a friend who had himself quit drinking by finding God. Soon, Wilson found his own spiritual awakening, stating:

…[I] humbly offered myself to God, as I understood Him, to do with me as he would… I ruthlessly faced my sins and became willing to have my new-found friend take them away, root and branch. I have not had a drink since. (AA, 2001, p. 13)

Eventually, Bill met Dr. Bob Smith, who is considered to be the first individual that Wilson helped get sober. Soon the two joined forces to share their sobriety stories with others, which they believed also helped their own recovery. Wilson then wrote the Big Book, which laid out the 12 steps for recovery. Soon, though, they realized that to promote AA to a larger audience, they would need to be seen as "legitimate" and gain creditability with the medical and scientific community. At first, this was not easy because many experts dismissed their approach as religious fodder. However, through the eventual support of wealthy backers and of an academic at Yale named M. Jellinek, AA gained credibility as a legitimate extension of the medical establishment.

Jellinek promoted a medical model/disease theory of alcoholism. In 1966 AA won a landmark court decision that upheld a disease concept of alcoholism and allowed for court-mandated participation in the program. However, due to AA's Christian origins and religious principles, this ruling has since been ruled as unconstitutional due to the separation of church and state (Meissner, 2006). The supreme court has never taken up this issue, and for many lower courts the legal considerations and options for where individuals can go for recovery remain defaulted to 12-step models (Meissner, 2006).

Overall, AA has been incredibly successful at influencing public opinion and policy in its favor, despite a lack of research or current medical knowledge supporting its efficacy. As Dodes and Dodes (2014) stated: "Most of AA's claims were simply grandfathered in, collecting legitimacy in a sort of echo chamber of reciprocal mentions that often featured the same handful of names" (p. 28). AA and its offshoots have become a monolithic discursive framework that is only just beginning to be challenged by counter-narratives and alternative recovery frameworks. I, therefore, argue that DS scholarship can be applied to both critique dominant discourses, while also identifying empowering and holistic alternatives for alcohol recovery.

Critical Theoretical Frameworks

Discourse theory

Discourse theory has helped me to understand the ways that narratives about alcohol use have impacted my thinking and experiences. Bakhtin's (1981) seminal work explains how common understandings of ideas can both impact one's reality as well as create potentiality for shifts in understanding through non-dominant discourses. Bakhtin describes language construction and discursive knowledge-making as a constant struggle through centripetal and centrifugal forces. Centripetal forces are authoritative knowledges, or texts that are "so to speak, the word of the fathers" (Bakhtin, 1981, p. 78), which promote essentialized and unified ways of seeing and understanding societal concepts. On the other hand, centrifugal forces are non-dominant ways of understanding that emanate from genres that allow for alternative ways of seeing and understanding the world. When applying Bakhtinian discourse theory to my own understanding of addiction, I have been influenced by dominant knowledges that are reiterated and upheld by both AA and the alcohol industry. These messages have been engrained in me due to my exposure to marketing campaigns, media portrayals, various types of literature, and interpersonal conversations. Yet, on the other hand, I have also used my critical perspectives, stemming in large part from my knowledge of the field of DS, to help guide me towards alternate and counter-narratives about addiction and recovery.

Some academics have interrogated addiction through a lens of discourse theory. Bailey (2005) describes the relationship between popular discourses of alcohol use and an individual's conceptions of self-identity, which are largely impacted by AA. Frank and Nagel (2017) explain that dominant discourses about addiction impacts the recovery experience— they lament "that a consequence of the disease model is that calling it a disease stigmatizes addicted persons, prevents them from developing self-control, and damages self-esteem" (p. 132). Similarly, by sharing my own journal excerpts, I will show how these dominant discourses have influenced my own understanding of myself. I will also share how I have been able to seek out counter-narratives that have allowed me to forge my own path towards recovery, even though this path has been non-linear and outside of normative recovery tropes.

Disability Studies and theoretical models of addiction

I have searched extensively for academic work that has applied DS theory to addiction and have found that a mere three others have made this connection, producing only one peer reviewed article (Kaye, 2012), one book chapter (Beresford, 2015), and one piece in an undergraduate publication outlet (Geoff, 2015). There is some academic literature that explores whether or not alcohol addiction is or should be considered a disability (e.g. Wasserman, 2004), but that discussion is beyond the scope of this paper. Instead, I am advocating the use of DS theory to promote a deepened understanding of the societal construction and personal experiences of alcohol addiction.

Some existing critical scholarship (from outside, yet informative to, the field of DS) on alcohol use and addiction has interrogated both medical and moral framings. Frank and Nagel (2017) point out that both medical and moral models are disempowering for the person experiencing addiction. The moral model views the person who is addicted as someone who has a moral failing, who makes poor choices, and who is a drain on society. The disease model was largely proliferated in response to the moral/choice model, and it seeks to reframe addiction as something that is biological, and thus out of the person's control. The person in the disease model is therefore seen as in need of medical intervention and rehabilitation. Heather (1993) describes how almost all elements of the disease model promoted within AA's framework are actually refuted by scientific research. In fact, the most current clinical definition in the diagnostic statistical manual has shifted away from offering a binary definition of a disease model and defines "alcohol use disorder" (not alcoholism) as a continuum—which places most, even moderate, users of alcohol somewhere on the "continuum" (American Psychological Association, 2013).

Despite current definitions of alcohol use being understood as a continuum, the medical field still relies heavily on the binaric disease paradigm promoted by AA/12 step models, which offer a much less nuanced definitional framework. AA relies on the term "alcoholic" and defines the person as having an allergy to alcohol, whereas for the rest of their lives they must understand that even one drop will threaten to ruin their life (AA, 2001). Beresford (2015) critiques AA, noting that there are "few social or medical issues in the West in the 21st century that are still framed in such individualized, quasi theological, or metaphysical terms" (p. 17). Beresford, using DS scholarship, promotes a social model approach as a more empowering framework for understanding and responding to alcohol addiction, particularly for women. Ultimately, Beresford recommends a reconceptualization of addiction and recovery within the broader context of "structural, cultural, material, relational, equality, and diversity issues" (p. 26). Another useful reformulation of the social and disease models is described by critical geographers Wilton and Moreno (2012) who recommend thinking about addiction through assemblages, or "conglomerations of biological, psychological, spatial, and sociological exchanges that have addictive capacities…. [which allows addiction to be seen as a] relationally complex, contextually mediated, and always embodied phenomenon" (p. 103). These definitional reframings reveal that drawing on a range of disciplinary knowledges and human experiences can add depth and nuance to the understandings and experiences of addiction. Ultimately, a shifting of perspective away from the disease model seeks to lessen the stigma associated with deficit-oriented understandings of alcohol use.

Several DS scholars have also usefully critiqued models connected to ideals of normalcy which also serve to uphold expected ways of using alcohol in our society. For instance, Geoff (2015) cites McCruer's (2001) concept of compulsory able-bodiedness in application to addiction. Geoff explains that there are constructions, which are reiterated through media and interpersonal interactions, that promote the concept of normal alcohol use — whereas, either non-use or overuse are viewed as non-normative and pathological. Similarly, Kaye (2012) describes how addiction is viewed through "norms established by society… [which] are only then seen "in the body" [and] in terms of a failure to accomplish those (now taken-for-granted) ideals" (p. 36). In other words, Kaye claims that in terms of alcohol use, the "pathological" body is defined by the needs of the "normal." 12-step models have been tied to the dominant discourse to shape societal understandings of "abnormal" alcohol use; thus, they are the guiding force behind how we collectively understand addiction. Ultimately, Kaye proposes a biocultural model, which adds nuance to our understandings of addiction, and allows for an open-ended recovery framework that aligns to the individual's context and life, rather than envisioning the addicted person as a two-dimensional character whose motivations and life trajectories are presumed to be already known.

DS theory as applied to conceptions of neoliberalism has also been helpful to me as I analyze my experiences in recovery. DS scholars Mitchell and Snyder (2015) explain that within a neoliberal society, identities become linked with consumerism and it becomes difficult to see our own selves outside of the needs of the market. Thus, when applied to understanding alcohol addiction, the alcohol industry intensely advertises a myth that alcohol is healthy for everyone to consume, and that all should be able successfully drink moderately. A binary medical model conception of normal/ abnormal alcohol use is, then, reiterated throughout media and social narratives and it becomes largely understood that moderate use is necessary to becoming a good citizen. Additionally, the neoliberal myth promoting individualism concretizes the idea that it is the responsibility of the individual, not society or collectivity, to keep oneself from overuse. Thus, one's body and identity become viewed through the neoliberal lens and recovery becomes a responsibility of the market.

Therefore, when the goals of profitability are intertwined with individualized recovery programs—the goal of rehabilitation becomes the creation of a profitable industry that seeks to return the body to normalcy, or to remove bodies from society (via the largely for-profit carceral state) deemed unable to become rehabilitated. It is reported that about two-thirds of rehabilitation centers in the US use 12-step models and tell clients that 12-step is the only way to recover (Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration, 2020). One criticism of these rehabilitation frameworks is that they often do not approach an individual holistically—and many telling their stories feel a need to fit into a prescribed and linear narrative structure about recovery (Kougiali, et. al. 2017). Such normalized frameworks rarely take into consideration histories and realities of marginalization and oppression that many individuals in recovery have experienced (Moon & Staddon, 2015; Sanders, 2011). In a related vein, Lacobucci and Frieh (2018) found that expensive private rehabilitation facilities for drugs and alcohol promote a discourse of holistic transformation and self-governance, whereas publicly funded programs use 12-step models and frame patients as unruly bodies that must become docile before returning to everyday life. Thus, the question remains—who has access to which treatment programs, how do larger social inequities dictate who is framed as deviant, and who is framed as in need of support to find ones' true self through recovery? This question remains salient for me as I consider the ways that capitalism, oppression, and the complexity that exists somewhere between my biology and social experiences play a role in both my alcohol use and options for recovery. In other words, I consider ways that my privileges and marginalized identities have shaped both my use of alcohol and also my options for recovery.


Alongside the support of my therapist, I have undertaken a holistic journey to understand myself more deeply, including the underlying and contextual reasons I have overused alcohol throughout my life. As we have explored my lifelong experiences and mental health struggles, journaling has served as a useful tool to document and unpack these experiences. Between October 2020- July 2021, I journaled every other day (on average — there are about 15 entries per month) using Evernote as an electronic journal space. These journals range from 1-2 paragraphs to 3-4 single spaced pages. My journaling centers my discoveries about alcohol, yet it reveals processes that are far more complex than just becoming aware of my alcohol use. In order to analyze my experiences that have been documented through journaling, I uploaded all journals into ATLAS.ti8 qualitative data analysis software. I then thematically coded the journals in order to deepen my understandings of my own experience in connection to larger research interests and theoretical conceptions. This methodological and analytical process was inspired by traditions of autoethnography, which can be a productive way explore identity development (Ngunjiri, et al, 2010).

As described by Wall (2006), autoethnography allows the researcher to expose inextricable links between personal experiences and cultural meanings, which can extend understandings of societal phenomena. Ettore (2017) describes the value in feminist autoethnographic approaches, which she offers as a way to present "embodied events and emotions and show how these events are emblematic of wider cultural meanings and social trends" (p. 359). She furthers this point to describe not just how feminist approaches to ethnography reveal larger social meanings, but how this work also creates opportunity to transform personal truths into political and social action. In other words, Ettore claims that feminist autoethnography can bring to life the idea that "the personal is political" (p. 359).

Although various types of data can be documented, ultimately autoethnography includes a telling of one's own story. Wall (2006) describes that likely data sources include journals, transcripts, poems, artwork, and more. Data analysis then is completed by introspection and thoughtful examination until themes and meanings arise. By applying feminist traditions in autoethnography and DS theory, I have been able to both document and analyze my own experiences in order to open up dialogue about a larger political issue related to both the constructions of meanings about alcohol addiction and pathways for recovery. Ultimately, this process has brought to life the ways that embodied experiences can indeed deepen the knowledges and collective understandings of a topic, even on one as complex and personal as addiction and recovery.

An Unearthing of Addiction Identity and Recovery Approaches

In this section, I will describe four key themes that emerged from my journaling and analytical process. As I share narratives from my journals, I will apply the DS-informed theoretical frameworks in order to analyze the deeper meanings revealed by my journal narratives.

Narratives on Pathology and Constructing Identity

As I described earlier, my entire perspective changed once I began to learn about the "science" behind alcohol addiction and the physiological and psychological consequences of over-use. Overnight, I began to realize that even though I felt I never hit some kind of illusive "rock bottom"—I still had a job, a wife, and what you could call a generally functional life— I was still losing control and sight of my "true self." During this time, my scholarly philosophy thrust me into a mental space where I began to question what the boundaries were of my own identity in relation to concepts and labels such as being an "addict" or a "person with an addiction problem." Early in the process this conscientization began to take root, and I wrote:

I am literally the same exact person I was 4 weeks ago. But 4 weeks ago, I did not think of myself as someone who had a drinking problem and needed to stop. Is it absolutely necessary you think that its' [sic] a problem before you stop? Also, even though there are variations on the approaches, the narrative seems to be the same — recognize your problem, find a path to recovery, quit forever, count the days, and try not to "relapse." I'm not sure if I will fit into that path or narrative, it sounds so reductive. (9/22/20)

In fact, one aspect of this self-discovery that was so shocking to me early on was the science behind addiction. What was so surprising about this, was how easy it had been to ignore for most of my life. On this subject, I wrote:

I am shocked with how much I had closed myself off to allowing myself to realize that I had really become quite mentally and physically dependent on alcohol. Now that I've been reading and listening to podcasts about the science actually is both shocking, and in some ways empowering. It's not so much that I'm a horrible person with no self-control and will-power, which is how I've been feeling about myself for years, it's literally that I slowly, yet progressively, became addicted to an addictive substance and my body and mind reacted how it should. But it also didn't mean I need to be defined as an addict or alcoholic. (9/30/20).

As I continued to explore my feelings on my identity, my DS scholarly training made me immediately critically aware of the power of medicalized frameworks, and I could feel the weight of the disease and moral models barreling down on me. Yet, this DS perspective allowed me to simultaneously reject fixed and pathologized framings of my identity. In fact, during my review of my journals, I was shocked with how many times I wrote that I felt "broken" (thirty-plus). One entry revealed the conflicted thinking I went through as I confronted those feelings:

Today I feel "broken," yet, I want badly to flip my script of thinking away from that feeling. I would never want someone else who experienced what I have to feel "broken"… Ultimately these are societal constructs that I internalize and put meaning on with regard to how I see myself. It reminds me of when I was younger and my fears of coming out as gay, these fears I have of being exposed to the wrong people about my addiction feel so parallel. The idea that the world will think there is something wrong with me is terrifying to me at some deep level—and it feels similar to the internalized homophobia I used to feel. Whereas now I believe that I must be perfectly "healthy" and admitting to addiction is NOT a sign of being the person I think everyone thinks I should be (10/15/20).

Thus, as much as I have wanted to accept and honor my struggles with addiction, the larger societal stigmas made me feel personally pathologized.

A few months later, after continuing to struggle with the weight of the dominant medicalized and deficit discourses upon my own identity, I also started to question whether or not my commitment to critiquing the pathological was allowing me to continue to drink. I wrote the following:

At this point in the process, I'm realizing there is a very fine line between allowing myself acceptance for continuing to drink because I refuse to adopt a binary or absolutist approach and giving myself a mental excuse to keep drinking every so often. There is such an absolutist perspective out there that requires me to feel diseased and that the only two options seem to be either abstinence or self-ruin. That essentialist perspective will never help me. Yet, I also need to really find that deeper WHY and a deeper motivation so that I can get myself to stop drinking for my own self and for my own happiness (3/20/21).

Overall, these quotes show the complicated ways I untangled my own identity related to addiction as I wrestled with powerful narratives about healthy bodies and normal alcohol usage which, as DS scholarship helps us to understand (e.g. Kaye, 2012) have made me feel abnormal and deficient. Yet, overtime and through finding community and exploring alternative perspectives, I have encountered different perspectives for seeing and understanding myself.

Stigma and Shame

Due to the fact that dominant narratives about addiction frame it as a moral and medical failing, it has been difficult for me to navigate how and when to "come out" to friends and family about my struggles. Part of my fear is that once I describe myself as someone who is struggling with alcohol addiction, I will become viewed as an "alcoholic" by those around me, and thus they will treat me differently. Yet, this was an incredibly difficult and emotional time for me and I had a deep need to share and ask for support from friends. Thus, I found myself journaling quite often about my fears and struggles with others' reactions towards me. For instance:

I told [FriendA] today about my goals to quit drinking. I told her that I was just telling a few people now that I think can provide the support for me that I need. She did agree that she would be there for me, at the same time though, she stated how she probably wouldn't tell most people until she had quit for a while, if it were her. That really got me thinking—not that [FriendA's] reaction is necessarily wrong or problematic, but why is that we have to assume one has to be "through" this before we start telling people? What about the support we might need while we are going through it, or what if we never get through it and we just live as someone who struggles with drinking, but who still drinks sometimes? Will everyone forever see me as relapsing if I drink again after I've told them I want to quit? (11/5/20)

DS theory helps me critically confront the normative assumptions and binary thinking about drinking, relapsing, and addiction, which prompted a response in my friend that I should become "cured" from the disease before I can ask for or receive support. I have actively decided to explore different approaches to my own recovery, some of which have not adopted full abstinence (defined as a complete refraining from any alcohol use). Yet, I knew and worried that others would simply view me as forever diseased and therefore in a relapsed spiral. A similar circumstance arose with my partner.

[My spouse] and I got into a fight about me telling some of my friends about my struggles. She admitted that her thinking on this is black and white. She grew up with family members who were in AA, so her understanding is that you shouldn't "air your dirty laundry" to anyone until you're through it. She thinks that I'll struggle more if I tell people because then everyone will forever see me differently. For me, though, it's so clear that it's nonlinear, grey, and messy. (11/10/20)

However, I have had different experiences with some friends that have offered support and helped me to reject these dominant stigmas. Certainly, some people I have found in recovery groups have provided me with this support, but so too have others who have not personally experienced addiction. This support is described in the following excerpt:

I have a few friends that are really being helpful to me. [FriendB] reaches out regularly to see how I am. She is literally the only person I don't have to go back to awkwardly if I want to talk about it, because she just asks. But with most people, it just feels like there is so much awkwardness and they are afraid to ask me how I am doing. I can't expect people to read my mind when I talk to them and hope they ask how I am doing through this process. But, at the same time, what is it about this process that keeps people from asking if I'm OK, even after I've disclosed once to them that this is a struggle I'm experiencing? I feel like if it were something less stigmatic that I was going through, people would be constantly asking how I am and offering support (11/30/20).

Thus, despite desperately needing support from friends, I strongly felt that for many the stigma of this particular struggle kept many people from asking me how I was.

I also came to find that friends of mine who were also struggling with substance abuse were rejecting pursuing help because of negative dominant narratives. However, by simply sharing my own story I was opening new possibilities for friends. As I wrote:

I was visiting with [FriendC] today and I shared with her what was going on in my life. She shared that she is also in therapy and struggling with drug and alcohol use. I told her about some of the other recovery programs I tried and she seemed really surprised. She said she'd like me to share with her these ideas because she thought AA was the only option and she could never go that route, it was not for her and did not fit what she believes about the world. She said she hated the stigma that AA brings. I spent a lot of time thinking about how many people like me—members of marginalized communities, younger generations of people, etc. really want support with addiction but think the only option is AA (5/15/21).

Overall, after reviewing my coding, it became clear that my struggles navigating my relationships was the most robust code. This has been one of those journeys that has been so emotionally difficult that I have felt I needed people so much. Yet, at the same time, the stigma — fueled by deficit and medicalized perspectives of this particular struggle — has made asking for help difficult. I also grapple with what others will think, and sometimes I find myself interpreting my own self and self-worth through the eyes of others. To return to Beresford's (2015) recommendations, if addiction could be embraced through a social model perspective, or through a critical DS perspective, one might see an avenue for responding to addiction that is primarily grounded in removing barriers, rather than fixing bodies. For instance, if a social model lens was promoted where stigma and attitudinal barriers were taken as (or more) seriously as moral or medical frameworks, then societal responses might emphasize awareness and stigma reduction campaigns, and an influx of recovery options that are no-cost, community-oriented, multi-faceted, pride-sustaining, anti-labeling, and responsive to intersecting and marginalized identity groups. Often, the idea is promoted that one who is in recovery must primarily find community with those who are also in recovery. This is of course important, but so too is sustaining connections and opening up awareness within existing relationships so that overall discursive frameworks can shift towards deeper understanding and maintained human and relational connections. Through my exploration of recovery platforms, I attempted to find spaces that aligned to my ideals.

Exploring Recovery Spaces that Adopt Counter-Narratives

I have attempted to receive support from several recovery avenues that embrace discourse and practices that I have found well aligned to an empowering DS framework. My first foray into recovery was to find online Facebook communities. I joined various groups, and like social media spaces in general, I have found a mix of both highly supportive and empowering connections, and what has felt like to me intense shaming and policing around the ideals of AA. For instance, in an LGTBQ+ recovery group that centered on the 12-steps, I found that some members were berating one another when someone had a relapse or asked a question, for instance whether drinking Non-alcoholic (NA) drinks or taking psychiatric medications were acceptable (which within a strict interpretation of AA, I quickly learned, is not acceptable because it is assumed that the addict will abuse anything or that NA beers will serve as a gateway back to drinking). Eventually, I had to leave that particular group. I have remained in other social media spaces though, particularly ones where I naturally encounter a mix of discourses—some of which I find empowering and others which I find harmful, as those inculcated into AA ideology tend to police the boundaries of others' recovery experiences.

Additionally, there are two established programs that I have tried. The first program I've consistently maintained a connection to is Self-Management and Recovery Training (SMART recovery). I have benefitted from SMART meetings and found it to be both a supportive and educational space. SMART is a non-profit organization that helps people experiencing all types of addiction and offers meetings and other services free of charge. Like AA, it uses a peer-support model that is largely run by volunteers. Trained volunteer facilitators run both local and national meetings. SMART describes itself as an abstinence-based program that "uses science and self-empowerment" (SMART, 2024, p. 1) through a mutual support framework. Smart "uses principles, practices, and tools from disciplines with proven effectiveness in treating problematic addictive behavior, such as Cognitive Behavior Therapy and Motivational Interviewing" (SMART, 2019, p. 2). Additionally, SMART "discourages the use of labels such as "addict" and "alcoholic" because they can undermine motivation for many people…[and are not] conditions that define a person's identity" (SMART, 2019, p. 2). Because I could not help but apply DS theory to my exploration of recovery pathways, the anti-labeling platform is what drew me towards SMART in the first place. In fact, they advertise using the slogan "label jars, not people," which was the same slogan used on DS promotional materials at my former doctoral institution. Overall, my experience with SMART has been positive. I occasionally struggle with the black and white nature of being in only an abstinence-based program, yet sometimes, I also appreciate my peers pushing me towards thinking about the benefits full abstinence might offer me. After initially attending a SMART meeting, I wrote the following:

A new thing that I did yesterday, which was pretty interesting, was that I attended a SMART recovery meeting. I kind of liked the style of it. It was a very interactive meeting. I felt actually quite supported in the space, the back and forth and the kind of teaching of the content was kind of cool. It's also sort of interesting to be in a space with people who are recovering from all kinds of addictions. Yet, I am learning that some of the experiences and tools for handling all addictions are similar and they really adopt a no-shame approach in the space. I'll stick with it, I think. (March 10, 2021).

Another organization that I used frequently for about 8 months was Tempest, now Monument (Swain, 2023). Originally, I found Tempest by searching for feminist approaches to recovery. During this search, the name Holly Whitaker kept appearing. Holly had co-started a podcast and subsequently wrote a New York Times bestseller called Quit Like a Woman (Whitaker, 2019). Her quick rise to fame within the recovery world bolstered her resolve that there was a great need for her message, which originated as an inclusive space that had a feminist orientation. Tempest was described as a program with a holistic and integrated approach to recovery which combines personal stories with scientific findings about addiction recovery. Tempest promoted the idea that one should not have to hit "rock bottom" before they get help, but instead one can be proactive, can find community, and can help its members get to the root causes of recovery within a shame-free environment. Tempest was built on a paid membership model, with the cost running about $700 annually. With a subscription, you receive access to content and workshops, multiple daily processing calls, and a community forum. When I was a member, Tempest offered targeted support to sub-communities including the LGBTQ+ community, the Black, Indigenous, People of Color (BIPOC) community, parents, and over-fifty members.

For many months, Tempest was an ideal space for me to explore ideologies and information around recovery, while receiving shame-free support from the coaches and peers. I was an active member in the bi-weekly LGBTQ+ meetings, and I also attended general meetings regularly. Through Tempest, I learned to think about my recovery from a holistic perspective, and there was always acceptance and support for me, no matter where I was on my path. Yet, because of the permissiveness of the approach, my thinking was rarely challenged (like it is in SMART meetings) when I showed up week after week stuck in the same pattern of partial sobriety. However, overall, I believed strongly in both the messages I received about recovery and from the support I received from Tempest. In my journaling, I often documented the ways I found the Tempest community to be beneficial. For instance, I wrote:

I'm really becoming grateful for Tempest meetings and the support I get from that community. I feel like an emotional wreck, but it helps so much to go to the meetings and see the same people week after week. I love what [fellow member] from Tempest said yesterday in response to my share. She said that just remember that every day I show up, and every day that I learn and grow, and add some more days of sobriety is progress. She said you are "becoming." You are always "becoming." But right now, there is so much change and so much evolution that I should just give myself grace and understand that even when I drink it is part of the becoming, because overall I'm growing and I'm sober more and more often as the weeks go on (Nov. 30, 2020)

Unfortunately, Tempest did not remain an ideal space for me because of a company-wide "restructuring" that occurred in summer 2021. At this time, I learned a hard personal lesson about the power of neoliberalism and the ways in which profitability supersedes rhetorical commitments to inclusion and supporting marginalized groups. During this time, Holly stepped down as CEO and was replaced with someone who was ultimately focused on growing membership and increasing the revenues of the for-profit organization. During this time, the company decided to "lay off" two beloved employees who were instrumental in building the company and who were the leaders of the LGBTQ+ community. They were let go without warning to the membership, and the support network of our community was suddenly ripped away from us. Additionally, they refused to create open dialogue with the membership about why these changes were made. After these disruptive events, many members of the LGBTQ+ community left Tempest. Additionally, a number of member-facing staff who were themselves part of, or allied with, marginalized groups left their jobs in protest.

Although Holly and Tempest have received widespread positive media coverage over the past several years, one piece of this coverage that I found particularly interesting with regard to DS and neoliberal theory comes from a tech-industry article (Cision, 2021). In this article about Tempest, the CEO was described by a Tempest board member as someone with tech-leadership background who "will continue a values-based cultural leadership approach with a hyper focus on operational execution and growth." The article continues to discuss the "market" of the company the new CEO was leading. The article reads:

About the Market: Excessive drinking is a massive issue, with only 2% of the 51 million US problem drinkers in treatment. Tempest's solution addresses every existing barrier to treatment allowing for the full spectrum of the market to be treated. JAMA Network Open's recently published survey noted that COVID-19's impact has led to a 54% increase in alcohol sales for the week ending March 21, 2020, and the overall frequency of alcohol consumption increased by 14% among adults over 30, compared to the same time the previous year. Women increased their heavy drinking episodes (defined as four or more drinks within a couple of hours) by 41%…Tempest is a modern alternative to current recovery options like AA and is focused on an approach that's empathetic and empowering, driven by a brand that's desirable and aspirational. (Cision, 2021)

This framing of women who are struggling with their alcohol use as a "market" for a for-profit company to capitalize upon is a stark example of how a neoliberal mentality approaches public health issues. The rhetoric present in this article matched my experiences, and after the restructuring of the company I felt like nothing more than a profit data point for the organization. Although I have been disengaged for years, I recently discovered that in 2024, Tempest has been subsumed by a larger for-profit recovery company called Monument (Monument, 2023).

When these events occurred at Tempest, I found myself struggling with this loss of support and feeling confused by the events that had taken place. I wrote several journal entries about what the collapse of Tempest was like for me. It first became clear to me that Tempest was headed into a direction that was prioritizing neoliberal ideals over the humanity of its membership. After a town hall introducing the new CEO, I wrote that:

The constituency of Tempest, as I see it, are people like me, who have felt ostracized and marginalized from other recovery spaces. So, I am feeling incredibly disheartened to hear and read that the new CEO is bringing Tempest in such a direction and using language that makes clear the new focus of the company is ultimately about profitability. She [CEO] literally equated the requests that have been made for the online platforms to become more accessible as a reason the company needs to be for-profit. That kind of framing of people who require access as a financial burden makes me so angry, especially from an organization that I have trusted so greatly over the past 6 months. (May, 2021)

This blaming of those who need access as the reason to require the company to be for-profit angered me in particular because after doing some research, I learned that the company had recently received a $10 million investment from private donors, in addition to the revenue generated by membership. As described by Mitchell and Snyder (2015), from a neoliberal framework, disability becomes viewed as a financial burden, which impacts the inclusion and self-understanding of marginalized and multiply marginalized individuals. Thus, despite the initial support and alignment I had to the mission of Tempest, its ultimate desire for profitability trumped its commitment to the values it rhetorically espoused.

I learned about the "restructuring" a few weeks after I wrote the journal entry above. In response, I wrote:

I am so frustrated and sad right now due to what's going on at Tempest. I really thought I had found a space early on that aligned to my values. It turns out capitalism always wins. Apparently even in recovery spaces that market themselves as inclusive and for everyone who doesn't fit into the mainstream recovery pathways. I'm sad for us and for our community because [the employees who were "restructured"] were literally so amazing. I didn't expect it to impact me so much either, I just started crying on the call when [Tempest employee] came on to explain the changes in the company. I don't think I realized how much I counted on that community until it was ripped away from me. (June 10, 2021)

Even nearly a month after this news broke, I was still upset. I wrote in another journal entry the following about the frustration I continued to experience:

I think where I struggle is that I actually believe in the message of Tempest, still, despite everything. For people who feel ostracized by AA and 12 step programs, the message is great — you don't have to identify as having a significant problem or with any label to get support in living with no or less alcohol in your life. I also have loved the ways the organization has created affinity groups around particular, and marginalized, identities. I love the overall message of "we are not broken." So, I don't want Tempest to go away. I want it to be there for people who benefit from its' message and structure. It also seems like the administrative folks at Tempest believe we don't know how to organize or exert power to push the organization to be better and to not cave to the values of profit over the values of humans. But we do have power and strength. There are a lot of brilliant people who wield incredible power through their sobriety in their own lives and careers that have been ostracized from Tempest. To think we will just cave to Tempests' [sic] insensitive decisions and responses is incorrect. (July 15, 2021).

In fact, we did not just cave: as we (the LGTBQ+ community) watched the parts of Tempest that felt most important to us crumble, we were able to come together and create a new peer-support space. Amazingly, there are now over 200 members in an alternate group of LGBTQ+ folks in recovery who were disaffected by Tempest (Sonder, 2024). Although there are some individuals who have taken leadership roles, overall, this group was developed by members in an ad hoc organizational framework, and is now officially a non-profit organization that includes daily support meetings, unique content, and an online community. The organization and development of Sonder continues to evolve and grow as a free and inclusive queer-focused community for individuals seeking support in recovery. This new space has become my new home and really provides a supportive peer-to-peer space.

Overall, my experiences in attempting to find a recovery space that works for me has been fascinating, supportive, liberating, and also challenging and destabilizing. However, our ability to come together as a community after the collapse of Tempest, completely outside the market, to create an ad-hoc support space that incorporates the empowering and social justice-oriented ideologies that brought us all to Tempest in the first place is something I find encouraging. It allows me to think about sobriety through a framework of interdependence and through the potentiality that might exist if principles of Disability Justice (Sins Invalid, 2016) were the guiding cornerstones for recovery platforms. Indeed, I believe Sonder is upholding many of these principles in that it is purposefully anti-capitalist, intersectional, led by those most impacted by both homo/transphobia and addiction, as well as formed around collective liberation through recognizing our wholeness as humans.

Embracing Counter-Narratives that Center Community, Empowerment, and Pride

In this section, I will describe the ways that discovering and embedding myself within empowering narratives about my identity related to addiction within a community of others has allowed me to find moments of joy and pride. Although, on occasion, it is undeniable that discourses of shame and medicalization still find their way into my internalizing processes, I will discuss how my interfacing with counter-narratives has helped me gradually uncover deep understandings about myself and begin to find ways to feel proud to claim my identity as someone who has had the opportunity to experience recovery.

Early in the journey, I appreciated the feminist and holistic approach my therapist was taking with me. As I wrote:

[My therapist] has been really helpful to help me understand that the drinking relates to how I see myself in the world. The idea of pursuing deeper meaning and building a better life really resonates with me as the best motivating factor. It removes the idea that the goal is just to become a non-drinker, but instead it makes me feel like the goal is to figure out who I really am, what I really want out of life, and for some reason "recovery" gives me space to figure that out. So, whether it ends up being — no drinking or moderation, this journey should be about finding myself and uncovering what makes me feel good, right and proud. (9/15/20)

As I began to learn, through the stories of others, that many people felt grateful for their chance to experience recovery, I started to think this might be possible for me as well.

I wrote the following after attending a Tempest meeting when a fellow member helped me see a way to embrace my progress and the in-between space that I was existing within, rather than feeling as though I was failing at sobriety by constantly "lapsing" or "relapsing."

Can I not be in process, be on a threshold, be living in a liminal space, but take that for what it is? Honoring the simultaneous pain and beauty of sticking to old patterns that harm, but finding new ways of learning and living. To be out and proud about this, do I have to be on one side or the other? Or can I be in the in between? Must I feel shame and regret for not getting it "perfect" quickly enough? Or can I love myself for the growth and autonomous decision making along the way. I'm not doing this for anyone else, this is for me. I know that alcohol brings me down, and I'm learning slowly that it's probably not worth drinking, but its' [sic] a lesson I'm going to have to learn over and over. For today, I'm going to love myself for the in between. (3/18/21)

In addition to coming to terms with the process and the beauty that I was finding during the in-between, I found moments in my journals that were filled with beauty and joy that I had not been able to experience while drinking. Of this, I wrote:

I feel joy today. I feel love today. I feel pride today. I am soaking up the sun and my life with joy. Although alcohol crosses my mind, today I am realizing that there are many aspects of life that I love for what they are. I don't need to love sunny days because they are great days for drinking. I can love sunny days because they are just that, sunny days. I can love sunny days for long walks with the dogs. I can love sunny days for the smell of fresh air and grass. I can love sunny days for the stunning blue sky and for the birds chirping. Today I woke up feeling strong, feeling brave, feeling proud, feeling optimistic. Today I feel joy without the falseness of alcohol. (3/1/21)

In addition to slowly finding beauty, pride, and joy in the recovery process — I also began to find that being honest, vulnerable, creating, and sharing my story was a necessary part of my recovery process. It was the way I would reject shame. On one occasion, I wrote that my goal was to shed shame from a past I could not change. Instead, I decided that "I need to own my story and use it to help others—this is my pathway to owning aspects of my identities that are interconnected to addiction and mental health—where owning and sharing my story helps me to grow" (8/15/21). Similarly, I came to the following realization in an entry:

Through getting support in recovery groups and hearing others stories, I myself have gained so much awareness. I have learned a framework of empowerment and that context is everything for me in being able to feel strong enough to deal with cravings and my underlying desire to drink. It also feels like a reason why I need to share my story and stop hiding in shame, because as scared as I am of what the world will think when or if I choose to be honest about my problems with addiction, I also know it's the only way for me to feel liberated. It was the same way when I came out as gay. I hid in fear and shame for years and years. It had mental and physical ramifications on me. All the hiding and the shame about killed me and actually made me cope through drinking. But now at least part of me is ready to do what others have done for me - share my story, be vulnerable, be honest, and be proud of the work I have done to understand myself more deeply (September 8, 2021).

In these entries, I was amazed to realize that I have found much unexpected beauty, community, and connection to others that I would not have otherwise encountered. In her memoir, entitled "We are the luckiest," Laura McKowen (2020) honors the challenges it took her to get sober, yet cherishes what sobriety has given her. This message has begun to resonate with me. Frameworks that embrace all of the beauty one discovers through recovery are the perspectives I try to hold on to. I thank the field of DS for guiding me in these empowering directions. Sometimes, these moments of connection, beauty, and unexpected joy are so much stronger and more powerful than the deficit-oriented discourses that weigh down on me at other times. Yet, both exist at once and the push and pull I feel between them feel potent and omnipresent. Yet, the more I've embedded myself within community that adopts prideful discourse, the more I'm able to learn and grow, and the more confident I feel in sharing my own story to both benefit myself and, hopefully, others.


Through the interconnection of DS theory and my experiences, I have been able to describe ways that both dominant and counter discourses impacted my view of myself as I navigate alcohol recovery. Ultimately, I have been able to describe the need for recovery paradigms that do not rely on the dominant deficit discourses that position all people experiencing addiction as either morally defective or medically deficient. Instead, I have been able to seek out and find liberatory spaces and communities promoting counter-narratives that are bolstered by DS theory. I've learned to see the theories behind DS come alive and help guide me through this journey.

However, there is no "before and after" narrative for me. My process has been and is messy and non-linear. I am not through anything, and I am not fully sober. I continue to give myself time and space to figure out what it is that makes me feel like the best version of myself. Sometimes I feel self-defeated and other times I am grateful. Of course, this is just my journey. I believe that for some people, full and lifelong sobriety may be the safest path. I do not deny that alcohol addiction threatens the lives of many people. I know that even for me alcohol has affected my health and safety at various points in my life. Yet, at the same time, I feel comfortable that I can now safely explore what it feels like to actively choose to drink occasionally, while mostly staying sober, because for me the near-daily drinking is where I start to really lose my sense of self.

I also wonder about what "successful" recovery even is. I question the very measure of success, because it is hinged on a binary view predicated on the notion that if one claims to struggle with addiction, then one is an addict, and thus they only way to be counted as a success story is to become abstinent, and anything less than that is counted as a failure. I believe that dominant discourses of AA have kept many people from seeking recovery in the first place, and that alternative spaces have the potential to allow addiction to become destigmatized. I also believe that the recovery process can be framed as an opportunity to discover oneself more deeply — where the end result may or may not be full sobriety. This is a contrasting framework to assuming that one must be burdened with the challenge that being an "addict" will present for the rest of ones' life.

I also want to continue to ask what it would mean to use DS and Disability Justice (Sins Invalid, 2016) as a guiding framework for building a model of recovery that exists outside of neoliberalism, capitalism, deficit frameworks — and instead embracing collective liberation. I want to promote an ideology that does not rely on asking individual bodies to reform, so as to keep the neoliberal system intact by espousing individualist narratives, while companies make massive profits through alcohol sales and through the recovery/ rehabilitation industry. Ultimately, I want to ask what it would mean to create narratives about addiction and recovery spaces which embrace anti-capitalism, liberation, love, and community along with a DS ethos — even when you are, like I am now, living somewhere within the "in-between."


I would like to thank Priya Lalvani and Ashley Taylor for being supportive friends and offering invaluable insights on early drafts of this article.


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