The Question of Sobriety

One of the assumptions people make about someone quitting drugs or alcohol is that they are now sober. According to one definition, sober means “not affected by alcohol; not drunk.” But a more in-depth meaning of the word means “clearheaded,” “serious,” “thoughtful.” I think those are more apt words when it comes to describing what real recovery should be. Merely not taking a drink or using drugs is only part of the puzzle. Yes, it is a huge accomplishment in itself, but addiction erodes us in more ways than just via physical dependence. Once we stabilize medically, we are still very much in need of repair. Years of substance abuse create maladaptive ways of coping, we are vulnerable and raw, and even a small upset can threaten our healing.

Unfortunately, the misconception that putting away the substance is enough to recover prevails. But abstinence is not sobriety—and overcoming addiction needs to be a holistic process. It needs to involve a healthy body, mind, and emotional balance (and for the spiritually minded it needs to have the spiritual element as well). This means that attending to your mental health and your feelings is just as important as detoxing. Joining a support group, finding a therapist, or a recovery coach is crucial. Repairing your relationships with friends and loved ones and getting additional support from new connections is what will sustain you and what will make you genuinely sober. You won’t need drugs or alcohol because you will have tools and people to help you deal with adversities, and your coping skills will no longer resort to quick fixes. It takes some time to arrive at that kind of solid footing in recovery, but it is absolutely possible, and that, to me, is real sobriety.

Then there’s another side to the sobriety coin—mainly when people who claim to have it tell you that you don’t because you’re doing things differently from them. I’ve encountered folks who have years of not taking a drink or a drug and who call themselves sober, yet their conduct is often not that of someone who is “clearheaded” or “thoughtful.” I’m thinking of some of the people I’ve met in 12-step programs who are so intolerable of others that it borders on prejudice. If you’re not doing the good ol’ program the specified way (for example, by having a Higher Power that you call God), then you are not properly sober. If you don’t finish the 12 steps, then you can’t claim sobriety either. If you don’t read the Big Book if you don’t have a service position, a sponsor… and so on. And if you can get sober without the program, you’re not a “real” alcoholic.!  Those kinds of conditions border on religious teachings; they are not flexible and inclusive. They make those of us who don’t easily lean into dogma unsure, frustrated, and possibly even in danger of relapse.

Photo by Ludovic Migneault on Unsplash

Interestingly one of the most powerful slogans of Alcoholics Anonymous is “Live and Let Live,” yet it’s the one that many members don’t quite know how to practice. AA is not isolated in that kind of rigidity, but it’s probably where those issues are most glaring. You can meet people who claim to have decades of “sobriety” but who will be the first ones to predict doom and gloom for those who do the program differently or worse, leave it. To me, those people are more abstinent than sober. Beware. Treat your sobriety as precious, and don’t let anyone tell you that there’s only one way. As long as you’re seeking, connecting, and taking daily stock of your new life without drugs or alcohol, you are having a full experience of recovery.

 

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