We could have a lot of technical and metaphysical discussion about what defines “personality,” but the more we try to pin it down in words, the less recognizable the definition gets. Personality is a mix of the kind of person you are and the kind of person you choose to be.

We see a lot of generalizations about people with addiction/alcoholism, working in the recovery field. Everything from “They’re people with a character flaw that makes them do bad things like take drugs, drink too much, and do irresponsible things,” to “They’re people whose past includes tragedy or trauma that makes them self-medicate and do irresponsible things.” While both of those things may be good descriptions (of the same person!) they don’t entirely explain why that person ends up developing the disease of addiction, which is based on complex mixture of vulnerabilities and triggers that vary from person to person.

And once the disease is in charge, personality factors don’t actually make much difference, because the “disease personality” takes over.

People with addiction or alcoholism lie, cheat and steal to maintain access to their addictive substance(s.) They put their needs first and manipulate others to get what they need. They disregard others’ safety and well-being. They make stupid decisions and act impulsively. They disregard their own health, safety, and well-being in favor of the instant gratification of the needs generated by their addiction.

And they suffer. You can’t be doing such profound damage to yourself, your relationships, your future, your ability to function economically, your hopes for success and growth (however you define it) without hurting. We drink and we use to deny, ignore and pretend away the hurt, and the using and drinking increases the hurt even more. The only thing that would hurt worse, our addicted brains tell us, is stopping.

Two pictures of the addicted person, two sides to the disease: The addicted person as destructive (there’s really no other word) asshole. The addicted person as suffering victim.

And they’re both accurate. Suffering victim and destructive asshole, all wound up in the same person. That’s the “alcoholic/addictive” personality. But who is the “real person” underneath the disease?

Short answer: We don’t know. Not even the one with addiction or alcoholism herself/himself knows. We learn, slowly, who the “real person” is, during recovery.

And recovery takes time. Brain changes wrought by addiction range from minor to profound, depending on how long the addiction lasts and how much/what kind of damage has been done. A lot of the damage is overcome in the first year, but we don’t have good scientific information on how the process works, how long it takes, and what affects the rate of recovery.

Recovery also involves learning or re-learning how to hook healthy behavioral responses to the challenges and stimuli of everyday life as a sober person. When you’ve spent (in some cases) most of your life responding based on what the disease demands of you, learning to do something else can be a long haul.

Addiction treatment, among other key tasks, helps the addict/alcoholic begin the painful process of disempowering and ultimately destroying the “alcoholic/addictive” personality—all of it, suffering victim and destructive asshole—in order to create space for the person underneath to emerge and grow.

Long-term recovery and sobriety programs support that process and help the emerging sober person find positive models for defining themselves and making choices.

We may never be the person we were before the disease. The disease changes us forever. But we don’t have to live with the “alcoholic/addictive” personality forever. With support from others in recovery, we can discover who we are now, and grow in freedom from the disease to be the “real person” we are meant to be.