My Struggles with a Mixed-Raced Identity
Super easy example: I’m mixed black and Jewish. I used to keep my hair really short–like a little tight fade–because I wanted to fit in with the black crowd that I was hanging with.
When I first got sober. I was like, oh, I’m gonna grow my hair out. But my hair…I have these Jewish curly locks. I would start to grow my hair out, and I would feel less black, less tough. And then I would immediately cut it.
I was really stuck between who I thought I should be and how I thought about myself. My hair was like a metaphor for that. So, for years of my early recovery, I would try to grow my hair out. Then I would feel softer, feel different, or wouldn’t feel like me, and I would cut it again.
Then I remember really setting myself free at around four or five years sober. I was like, I have to break out of this identity. I’m trapped in this hip-hop cool, tough way of being. If I really want to be free, I have to let go of that.
I started growing my hair longer and longer until it is just like how it is now. For me, it was really a symbol of letting go of one identity and embracing whatever I was becoming.
Letting Go of Old Identities During Recovery
Letting go and changing identities is a huge struggle in recovery. One of the ways that it’s challenged right up front is at a 12-Step meeting.
You’re sitting there and people are identifying. Somebody will nudge you with their elbow as they’re identifying and say, “Are there any alcoholics in the room?”
You’re supposed to kind of raise your hand–you don’t have to, but it’s culturally normative–and say, “Hi, my name is Shai. I’m an alcoholic.”
If you haven’t seen yourself in that way, it really kind of puts you off. You’re like, God, I don’t want to, is this me? I’m not sure, etc.
There are all kinds of problems with labeling yourself. But one of the things it does do is cause you to question the identity that you’re trapped in. Part of the reason why people feel stuck in addiction–and even in early sobriety–is because they’re trapped in the idea of who they think they should be as opposed to allowing themselves to become who they are.
The Recovery Identity and Transformation
Becoming who you are has to do with letting go of ideas. It doesn’t mean you have to take on the label of alcoholic. That’s a personal choice that depends on how you relate to that idea, but it does mean that your identity has to change.
Think about it. If my identity doesn’t change, how am I going to make the deep kind of transformation that I need to sustain recovery and live a fulfilling life? How can I go from being a pessimist to an optimist? How can I go from being depressed to being happy? How can I go from being anxious to being calm without letting go of how I see myself?
That’s a sacred process that needs to be held. It’s not something that happens in 30 days. It’s not even something that happens in a couple months. It’s something that we work at; it’s a developmental shift that happens over the course of years.
I call it developing a recovery identity. It doesn’t have to be somebody else’s definition of what it means to be a person in recovery, but you do have to have some definition of what it means for you to be in recovery. You have to identify that with who you are.
So when I think about myself, I think about myself as a husband, hip-hop MC, leader in an organization, father, and as a person in recovery.
What that all means…I could talk about that forever. But I identify as a person in recovery, because that’s part of who I am…It’s part of my story.
It’s part of why I’m here right now.