Jul 4, 2022 | By Tim Stoddart

What is sobriety? What being sober means


What is sobriety? What being sober means

Sobriety, in recovery terms, is not merely abstaining from using a substance or not being “legally” impaired in the moment. Sobriety is a way of thinking, living, being, and demonstrating our recovery to those around us as we enter back into our lives with gratitude and humility. If these things cannot be observed in a particular individual, then it may be fair to question their motivation, approach, and practices regarding their approach to sobriety.

“White-Knuckle” Sobriety and the “Dry Drunk” Syndrome:

For many, getting sober is synonymous with no longer drinking or using a substance of choice. They equate abstaining from alcohol for example as getting sober or being sober. Many reason that since alcohol was the presenting problem then by removing alcohol from their daily life, they have achieved sobriety. Too often many enter the rooms of 12-step recovery hoping to be given an arsenal of tools to simply help them not drink or use. At the end of the day this only produces an anxious and restrictive approach to abstaining from a behavior. True sobriety comes when we learn how to replace old thinking and being with new thinking and being. Anything else is just a white-knuckle approach holding on as tightly as possible to resist the opportunity to act out. If we are just as irritable and restless in our so-called sobriety as we were in our active addiction, then we must question the validity of our relationship to our recovery. This is sometimes referred to as trying to change things without changing ourselves. A fractious and irritable person who is simply trying not to drink is often referred to as a “dry drunk” and in recovery terms, it sends a loud message regarding our mishandled approach to living soberly.

Everything Must Change:

Once the decision has been made to get sober, one must objectively examine what being sober will mean, and what it will cost. As the saying goes, we must only change one thing about our lives to get sober, – everything! True sobriety is calling out all our broken attempts at doing life and putting everything on the table for close honest scrutiny. We must take a thorough inventory of the things that may be contributing to our feelings of living in an inauthentic way. Areas of exploration may include:

  • Values (Things we tell ourselves we hold as a standard by which we measure the way we approach decision making and lifestyle choices.)
  • Belief Systems (We must explore the ideology we have claimed to live by and whether it is something that is truly authentic to us and not just a handed down acceptance of something secondhand.)
  • Relationships (Who are the people in our lives? What relationships are good for us and cause us to thrive and which relationships cause us to feel drained, taken advantage of, or even sabotaged?)
  • Secrets (We say in recovery circles that we are only as sick as our secrets, and this is proven time and again when we are trying to live authentically and yet we are hanging on to things that cause us to want to escape whenever we are confronted with them. Secrets are a quick shortcut to relapse.)
  • Resentment (Resentments must be confronted early on. They are the harbored scorecards we keep that lead to entitlement which we eventually use to justify our behavior. “I deserve…” is something no addict or alcoholic can afford to say. Resentments leave us feeling like victims and a victim with a sense of entitlement is dangerous.)
  • Structure (Most inpatient treatment facilities hold to a tight daily schedule and create structure immediately. Making a bed can be the first productive thing one does at the start of a day, and it can set the tone for taking the initiatives to do the next right thing all day long. Having a regular bedtime and a regular wake-up time creates the first step to living intentionally. Purposeful scheduling of our time and resources is paramount so that we leave little time for indecision or romanticizing our old behavior.)
  • Activity (Physical activity that stimulates endorphins and dopamine in the brain is another necessary element in the journey into sober living. Physical activity is part of self-care. When we remove a behavior or a substance, we must replace it with other behaviors. Now that the substance isn’t determining all our choices it becomes necessary for us to fill our time with activities that counter our triggers and potential depression and anxiety. A regular thirty-minute walk can stimulate healthy brain activity. A good workout creates incentive to invest in us and avoid slipping back into old behaviors.)
  • Connection (We need a tribe of people who will encourage us, know us, and be there for us. It is part of being engaged with something greater than ourselves. The greater good of the group can be a Higher Power of sorts for those who struggle with the religious implications of recovery’s spiritual disciplines. Connection to others is counterintuitive to most recovering people at first because we spent so much time in isolation to support our addiction.)
  • Spiritual Renewal (This process is one that for many is often misunderstood. This isn’t a step that calls out religious ideologies as much as it is a step of learning to surrender, to meditate, to let go, to accept that control is an illusion, and to begin approaching life as it relates to a sense of purpose and calling.)

Learning and implementing the true meaning of sobriety allows us to create a context in which the hard work of recovery can take place. Approaching sobriety as if it is only about not using our substance of choice will almost certainly result in relapse. Engaging in true recovery practices allow us to embrace the why behind the what of our addiction which ultimately results in diminishing our impulse to use.

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