How To Truly Define Sobriety
“Sobriety” is a word whose 12-step misuse now pervades our entire culture, along with ruining addiction treatment. To truly define sobriety means putting conventional definitions in their place and taking a fresh (and often controversial) approach.
Sobriety actually means, first and foremost, not being intoxicated. It does NOT mean abstinence, as AA takes it to mean. In fact, the DSM psychiatric manual (unbeknownst to virtually everyone who uses is, including even experts who write about it) contains no abstinence criterion for recovery (actually called remission). Addiction and remission are about the absence of problems— using or not using a substance. Recovering addicts already know this but they wish that their families and friends did, too.
But many people, especially those not in treatment, may not understand this definition. That’s partly because addiction is a misunderstood condition. To comprehend how sobriety works—to truly define sobriety —you first have to understand addiction.
I can’t tell you how many times I have had discussions with people—often the families of those who have just been indoctrinated at some 12-step mill—that recovery is not just making sure that the person never uses any psychoactive substance again for the rest of their lives. It is about the person being able function in life. Likewise, recovery housing on college campuses and elsewhere is about shutting people off from life—keeping them away from usual activities and “non-recovering”, i.e., regular, people. Some refer to this as the creation of recovery pods.
There are those that argue that abstinence fixation actually interferes with recovery. It’s more complicated than that but essentially, it means that abstinence is only part of the equation. Giving a person the life skills to deal with stress, to cope with anxiety and to manage their emotions is really what constitutes sobriety. So is this the only way to define sobriety?
True recovery is about maintaining focus and partaking in life rather than living in fear of relapse. A strong recovery process prepares a person to handle the world. Such a person shows resolve and commitment to sobriety with confidence. The word “sober” conveys an overall seriousness and purpose a person has. By promoting the goal of addiction treatment to be ONLY the absence of something—not drinking or using —the 12 step programs tend to gloss over an important part of recovery.
There are those who believe that the 12-step methodology locks people forever in their addiction by classifying them forever as addicts or addicts in recovery. This suggests that recovery is a temporary condition and the individual has not yet achieved – nor every will be able to – achieve sobriety.
The same might be said with respect to the medical community’s search for a pill to cure addiction, which actually means using a pill to stop using one or another substance.
One way of defining sobriety would be to say that it is the natural state of a human being. It means that their thoughts and behavior are not influenced by intoxicants. The Merriam-Webster dictionary defines it simply as the quality of being sober. In 12 Step groups the word sobriety is used to describe people who have achieved a good level of mental health; those who live a balanced life. It is therefore more realistic to view sobriety as a successful life in recovery rather than just not drinking or using drugs. It involves complete mental, physical, and spiritual health.
A quote from Ilse Thompson’s book, Recover!, Stop Thinking Like an Addict,
Let’s look at the word “sobriety.” In the real world, sobriety means not being impaired. In 12-step speak, sobriety means never taking any consciousness-altering substance, ever. This fixation on abstinence requires that people who recover through the 12 steps decide that their lives revolve around an empty space. Not only is that undesirable, it’s unsustainable. You can’t commit your life to nothingness, only to health, your goals and plans, and your belief in yourself.
Addiction is a chronic illness that affects all aspects of your health: emotional and mental as well as physical. Treatment for it will see some relapses, just as with any chronic illness. None of us would look at a patient in treatment for a chronic illness and expect that person to be healed immediately with one round of treatment.
We understand that most chronic illnesses will require long-term management. While these diseases may never be cured, people who have them can learn to handle the symptoms, effectively complete treatment, and live fulfilled lives. The same is true of those in recovery from addiction, and that’s why sobriety often isn’t a clean-cut phase of straight abstinence.
Abstaining from drugs and alcohol during treatment and in recovery (whether short- or long-term) is important. However, it’s more important that while in treatment, and later in recovery, that you focus most on your well-being and managing behavior, emotions, and thoughts that lead to addiction or relapse.
To truly define sobriety accurately, one must be beyond abstinence. One must have achieved total consciousness and be secure in the knowledge that they will never succumb to temptation or fall into relapse. For those new to recovery, this seems like an impossible goal. After years of maintaining abstinence, when the brain has had sufficient time to mend and adjust, abstinence turns to sobriety, often without you even noticing the transition.