Where do these labels come from? It seems we are inclined to draw distinctions that give definition to our identity.
Since I’ve been on this nonprofit journey, I’ve been exposed to ideas with which I was previously unfamiliar. In my younger days, a “drunk” was someone who was severely intoxicated. Drunks existed in real life just like in the movies – the hobo loitering outside the liquor store, drinking from something wrapped in a brown paper bag. Or he might be slouched at a bar slurring loudly to no one in particular, stumbling out at closing time. Occasionally it was a woman, but the stereotype was usually men. My undeveloped mind likely assumed it was a lifestyle choice, as they did appear to have free will.
The word sober was basically the opposite – someone who wasn’t currently drunk. I remember my parents’ friends referring to themselves as “sober enough to drive.”
Then I learned about addiction.
I was probably ten years old at my first AA meeting. My stepfather’s recovery was prompted by a nudge from the judge and changed the temperature of our home. In my father’s house, however, the partying progressed into destitution. Once educated about all the drugs and alcohol in our lives, I felt branded and cursed.
At the time, people who quit drinking were viewed as having a problem. No wonder it was so uncool to stop self-destructive habits. You were placed in a category of flawed humans. At meetings, you stated your name and identified yourself as an alcoholic, regardless of whether you were still drinking.
Later I learned alcoholics could be highly functional. Or stay-at-home moms. There was still a clear distinction between those who drank alcohol and the ones who used street drugs. Prescription drugs were less taboo (“mother’s little helper”) than marijuana, but the definitions have changed with the times and the accessibility of Oxycontin to teenagers, expanding to include what we now know is a societal epidemic.
It’s tempting to categorize methods of impairment. An alcoholic is different from a stoner is different from a heroin addict, right? Not so much. Sure, young people can get carried away with their peers and manage to self-correct. What I’m talking about is the spiritual malady associated with the desire to escape. It doesn’t seem to matter if someone’s parents were awesome – sensitivity can be an existential burden.
Enter the ‘Sober Curious’ movement.
When I first heard this expression, I was… curious. A book of the same name by Ruby Warrington described how she was able to examine her relationship with partying and question whether her life would be better without it. She details her time in abstention, then tests her reaction to small amounts of alcohol, and goes on to intentionally withhold how much (if any) she now consumes. It was eye-opening, especially considering my experience with something that is more like an undertow people get caught in, fight to keep their heads above water, and sometimes drown.
Still, I appreciate the grey area perspective as well as the author’s willingness to inspect the common consumption of potential kryptonite. As moms brag about morning cocktails on social media, and even yoga classes are now offering wine, other people are coming forward with variations of sober lifestyles.
As for me, I wish to abstain from anything that prevents me from being fully present or separates me from my authentic self. I have not been to rehab, lost a job, or had an intervention, but I can honestly say that drugs and alcohol have caused me more harm than good. I can have one glass of wine without going overboard, but I also recognize a progression over the years in the direction of too much too often. Others have shown me how deep the bottom can get. I don’t need to see it for myself. Also, substance use is incredibly damaging to my body and mind. True, it is also relaxing, but so is a bubble bath, which will not result in a hangover or cause me to say and do regrettable things.
As an introvert, this is easy for me to say. I prefer a good book over small talk any day, but some people crave the company of others, and getting sober can translate into isolation. This is where AA really saves lives. You find fellowship with non-drinkers, but even better, they openly discuss this very real, personal struggle. Witnessing the vulnerability of others is heart-opening. These people can look past the substance abuser into the soul of the person who wants to belong and feel loved.
AA is not a perfect system. It is not for everyone. I do benefit from connecting with others but only in small groups or one-on-one. I do not enjoy the spotlight, so sharing can be more stressful than healing. I have also been judged by those who believe I do not attend meetings regularly enough. One person told me point blank if I didn’t get a sponsor and follow the steps, I would fail. I almost let these people scare me aware from AA entirely, but there are many gems – those who simply say what worked for them and offer support without intrusion.
Some philosophies do not place emphasis on an individual’s sobriety date. Self-efficacy suggests that when relapse is identified as failure, the person may stop believing in their ability to succeed. It can be a lifelong battle.
Some people stay in contemplation for years, some try to stop before realizing they are no longer in control, and some only get sober when outside forces intervene (like prison). There is no one size fits all. But we are on this journey together.
If you just want to stop drinking and stay social, there are hiking clubs, volunteer organizations, and an uptick in alcohol-free bars. Only you can know if there is something deeper tugging at your heart. What has helped me most is meditation. Getting to know myself was crucial. The best version of me was suffocating. My recovery is a spiritual path, and I will be a work in progress until my dying day.
Whatever your reasons for getting sober, whatever path you take, I support you.
About the Author
Johannah Warren is a San Diego-based writer, speaker, and nonprofit founder. Areas of interest include narrative nonfiction, human potential, and addiction recovery.