If you’ve been sober or are thinking about getting sober, you may have wondered what exactly the word “sobriety” means. If you ask for a definition of sobriety, you’re likely to get different answers and opinions from different individuals. It’s literal definition is the state of not being effected by alcohol or intoxicants. In twelve-step rooms, this is often referred to as remaining free of all mind altering substances.
There are a few different ways to look at sobriety, and I think it’s a great investigation for us to each look at individually. We’re not here to tell you what your path through recovery or sobriety should be; rather, we want to offer some different thoughts and perspectives that can help you understand what exactly it means to be sober.
The first piece of sobriety is remaining abstinent from drugs and alcohol. There are many different perspectives on this, but one of the most common is that we should steer clear of all mind-altering substances such as alcohol, recreational use of prescription medications, and illicit drugs. Under harm reduction models, sobriety may mean quitting a hard drug for now and leaving the less harmful drinking or marijuana use be. Neither model seems to work for absolutely everyone.
Whether we are working with an abstinence-based program or a harm reduction model, sobriety means not ingesting mind-altering substances. If we’re using a harm reduction model and using other drugs or alcohol, we may be in recovery from an addiction but it certainly isn’t accurate to describe ourselves as sober. This doesn’t mean the person is failing or a bad person; it’s just worth recognizing that there is a difference between sobriety and addiction recovery.
This is one thing that we just cannot answer for you. People often ask about coffee, nicotine, energy drinks, and things like prescription medication. Things like caffeine and nicotine are up for your investigation. We can use them with an addict mentality, or we can have coffee “like a gentleman.” The useful thing to consider is our relationship to these substances and the consequences. Are we perpetuating addict behavior? Does our need for caffeine or nicotine cause harm? We can look at these things and address them as necessary.
As far as prescription medication, we should really face this issue with a medical professional or clinical help. There may be times in which you need to take prescription painkillers. If you’re in a car accident, have serious pain, or a surgery, you may be prescribed painkillers. Not taking your painkillers because you’re sober may be dangerous, as painkillers can help us not tighten around pain and cause further damage. However, we really should have the help of a sponsor, medical professional, and clinician in making these decisions. For myself, I go with the rule that if I talk to someone about it, really need it, and take it as prescribed, I am absolutely sober.
There is a difference between being sober and being in recovery. At our sober living in Los Angeles, California, we stress this point quite a bit. You can be physically sober and abstinent from drugs, but not behaving accordingly. Sobriety at its core is about abstaining from drug and alcohol use, while recovery is about our behavior and movement.
Being in recovery means we are actively working on ourselves, our behavior, and the way we respond to situations. This may be through working a program like the twelve steps or going to Refuge Recovery meetings, or it may be through working one-on-one with a therapist. We can recover a number of different ways, but the point is that we are actively taking action to move forward. We look at our behavior, remain open to learning, and continue to grow toward lasting sobriety.
The last piece of sobriety is that we need to build a life around our sobriety. Getting sober isn’t easy. We may experience prolonged withdrawals, fear of losing the life we know, or depression after quitting opiates. We really need to find a way to build a new life sober. This may mean finding new friends, getting a new job, or trying to relate to our old friends or situations with new viewpoints.
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