Over 20 years have passed since I admitted my drug problem, and committed to a new way of life. During this time, I have met 1000’s of fellow travellers on the recovery path. All have had unique stories to tell about how they got lost and, in many cases, found themselves again. I have listened to these stories from my friends in recovery. I consider them as precious in my life. What an honour that these people would bare their souls and trust me with the most tender and vulnerable aspects of themselves.
In all but a few of these conversations, comes the point where the flow clams up and things become a little uneasy. This happens when I talk about sobriety and how I personally define it in my own life. Since I stopped participating in mainstream recovery programs, much of my process has been self-guided. A big part of this has been the making of conscious choices about what sobriety is for me. While I have taken guidance from trusted friends, no one else has defined my sobriety for me. However, many have tried to force the commonly adopted view upon me, that sobriety means total abstinence and nothing else!
How I currently define healthy sobriety in my own life would not meet the standard in most mainstream recovery programs. I use no illegal drugs of any kind, including cannabis. I do occasionally drink alcohol (rarely more than 2 drinks in an evening). I sometimes buy a lottery ticket or scratch card (forbidden by Gamblers Anonymous). I don’t use pornography often these days but have no problem doing so if I feel like it. In the past, I have been addicted to drugs, I have been emotionally dependent upon alcohol, I have gambled and lost more than I could afford to lose. I have been addicted to sex, and have definitely used porn excessively.
Things are different now. I am no longer the person I used to be and therefore no longer feel a need to use these things compulsively. Sure I may use them, but they do not use me. To get to where I am now, where a healthy relationship with such things is possible, I needed to go through several periods of abstinence so that I could get sober.
Many people confuse abstinence with sobriety. I see them as two completely different things. For me, abstinence is usually necessary to reach a place of sobriety. It is not a requirement for staying sober.
Abstinence is the fact of not doing something.
Sobriety, in its original meaning, is simply the moderation of indulgence. In other words, not being intoxicated to the point where you are no longer making your best choices.
It is absolutely possible to indulge and enjoy the pleasure of certain behaviours without becoming intoxicated. This is the way I do it, and I know many others who are the same. It is absolutely possible to take a drink, place a bet, have sex, use porn, and remain conscious in the act. Actually, it’s the only way I will do any of these things! I fully accept that some people cannot do certain behaviours in moderation. I can’t use drugs in moderation; therefore, total abstinence is the right commitment for me there. I have no problem with that.
The thing to remember is that whatever we are addicted to works when it takes us away from ourselves. What I have discovered in doing certain behaviours consciously, is that they don’t have the same power over me as they once did. I stop at 2 drinks because, when I drink consciously, I simply don’t want any more than that. If I use porn consciously, it quickly gets boring, and I’ll put my attention on something else. If I gamble, I make a conscious choice and bet an amount that I can lose without it negatively impacting my finances. If I eat chocolate consciously, I won’t finish a whole bar… I simply can’t!
As the song goes…” It Ain’t what you do, it’s the way that you do it…”
It’s not about the behaviour; it’s about the way we do it!
It’s not about the object; it’s about our relationship to it!
We can change the way we do things!
We can change the way we relate to particular objects!
I often speak of recovery as an initiation into a new way of life. Recovery is also about building new relationships and choices. Surely, as a result of taking this right of passage, we should get to choose as individuals how we define sobriety. Surely we have evolved beyond having to accept rigid abstinence models that desperately need to expand and evolve.
What is really missing in the recovery community is the personalised approach that helps people find the right way for them. A method that allows people to decide for themselves whether or not abstinence is a requirement of their sobriety. Surely such an approach would be more empowering, wouldn’t it? One of the gifts of recovery is that of being able to reinvent ourselves and create a new reality. In my own journey, this has meant going from a place of having nothing, to building the meaningful life I have today.
Like many addicts, I once lost the mandate to manage my life, and needed to have the first steps on my new path mapped out for me by someone who knew the terrain. I needed help to build a foundation upon which I could trust my own choices and create a life in which I could flourish and thrive. A came time when I knew I could go it alone. I was grateful for the foundation I had in place but was not going to live in fear-based dependency upon the people and programs that had helped me build it. A time came when I gained the right to decide what healthy sobriety looked like for me, and I have exercised that right without shame or justification.
Of course, it has been edgier this way! It would have been easier to remain in a total abstinence commitment. However, in that place, I had to question what frequency I was living my life from. For me, the full 360° of recovery is integration, not suppression. Integration is where true freedom is, and it requires an ongoing embodiment and awareness of my human experience moment to moment. It requires telling the truth about what I am feeling, and who I am being. It means making sure my actions are aligned with my values. It means having the awareness to discern between me using my thinking or my thinking using me.
In my years of personal and professional experience, I have learnt that integration is not a one-off. It’s an ever-deepening process. Whether or not we are abstinent from alcohol, or whatever else we may have been addicted to, isn’t the primary concern. The place to track sobriety is on the level of our thinking, emotions, and who we are being.
Are we congruent with our own values system, or are we going against it?
Are we equipping ourselves to deal with life’s challenges, or are we fearfully hiding from them?
Are we finding meaning and purpose within daily life, or are we chasing short term highs through external things?
Is fulfilment a place we inhabit, or is it something we are grasping for out of a sense of lack?
Sobriety isn’t a solid, flat-line state. It’s an ongoing path that is both inspiring and humbling. This is what recovery can be if lived in it’s full potential of open and radical honesty. You won’t hear any talk of this in mainstream recovery programs or in rehab facilities. They are mostly focussed on a sobriety model that means committing to total abstinence with no room for anything else. Anyone I know who has attempted to define their own sobriety in such places, myself included, has been shown the door. The exception being in programs related to human needs such as sex and food, where it is accepted that sobriety is individually defined by each participant.
I see many aspects of the recovery community changing. I see some significant new influences coming in. It is excellent that the disease model is being questioned. I really like it that trauma is being accepted as a contributing factor in many addictions. I love that more somatic and integral approaches are being adopted and that the findings of neuroscience relating to the brain’s reward system are having an impact.
The next shift that needs to happen is that of people being given permission to define their own model of what a sober life, beyond addiction, looks like. Many may consciously choose to remain totally abstinent. Some may consciously decide to take authentic detours and see if a new more healthy relationship is possible to that which they were once addicted to.
The important thing is that sobriety, however we define it, is based upon conscious choices. No one should have to accept the old doctrine to be worthy of help and support. “To thine own self be true” is a quote from William Shakespeare’s Hamlet that has been widely adopted by the recovery community. Surely it is time to take full indvidual responsibility and put this into practice for the good of the recovery community as a whole.