Living Sober Versus Not Drinking
Updated: Jun 8
There is a fundamental difference between not drinking and living sober. The former is tough because you focus on being deprived. You feel left out because you are no longer able to carry on with past behaviour. You are likely also resentful of others who are trying to impose change upon you and you may be jealous of those who don’t seem to suffer with the same problems as you do.
It might be a choice you have made not to drink. But it often doesn’t really feel like a free choice. In a sense, I chose not to drink any more when I was stricken down by panic attacks that were clearly brought on by “alcohol abuse disorder”. I made the connection and I was desperate to get well. It felt like the choice was imposed on me, however, because there was no alternative.
If you adopt this attitude, then recovery is going to be very challenging and, indeed, will likely not be sustained. That is because you are viewing not drinking as a burden, almost as a form of punishment. It’s something to get through, a bit like Dry January. Of course, as we know, even regular drinkers find Dry January to be a challenge. Imagine how much harder it is for somebody who has become psychologically and perhaps physically dependent on alcohol.
I imagine that much the same feelings would be experienced by anybody suffering from "lack" of something or having to undergo a fundamental change in behaviour and lifestyle. It’s easy to think of examples. These might include physical disability, life changing illness or whatever. Those who cope best accept their circumstances and the need for a change in lifestyle.
Living Sober is different from simply not drinking. It’s a commitment to living one’s life differently. It’s about attitude, commitment, habit, practice and who you mix with. The chances of sustained recovery are far greater if you can bring about meaningful changes in your life rather than adopting an attitude that not drinking is a burden that deprives you in some way.
In the early stages of recovery, the lessons have not been fully learned. We are surrounded by temptation and vulnerable to relapse. It’s very tempting to think that we are well again, we’ve demonstrated that we can stay dry for a period of time, and that this shows we have the problem under control.
In the Confessions, Augustine says of his own desires: “They tugged at the garment of my flesh and whispered: ‘Are you getting rid of us?’….I hesitated to detach myself, to be rid of them, to make the leap to where I was being called. Meanwhile the overwhelming force of habit was saying to me: ‘Do you think you can live without them?” (Book 8, chapter 26).
Augustine felt unable or unwilling to commit in terms of changed behaviour. The addict can be confronted with the truth. The addict can come to accept the truthful insight of self-harm. But even in acknowledging this truth, and earnestly desiring to get better, is pulled down by the force of habit. Why? The question facing every addict is – do you really want to get better? Shame and guilt are quickly left behind when faced with the next temptation. Fortitude is enhanced when the behaviour and desire to change is confessed and shared with another.
Living Sober requires a change in belief and practice. I was reminded of this when I watched two movies recently. The first was The Sound of Metal (2019), an award-winning movie in which Riz Ahmed plays a drummer and heroin addict who suffers irrecoverable hearing loss. He experiences emotional turmoil in response to his deafness and is booked into rehab to avoid relapse. While there he is told that rehab can’t treat his hearing loss but can help with his coping. He needs to reach acceptance.
The second movie I watched was Smashed (2012). This is about a young couple living a hedonistic lifestyle. The character played by Mary Elizabeth Winstead spirals out of control. When she leaves rehab, she is surrounded by the same former temptations, people in her life and so on. She comes to realise that her recovery is at risk unless she makes fundamental changes to her life.
The point of these stories is that recovery is at risk without a fundamental change in attitude to life. Abstinence is tough enough when viewed through the lens of an imposition. The first lesson is to let go of attachments and be more accepting of self and others. Fundamentally there is a need to be comfortable in one’s own skin – to be able to sit still.
The second fundamental lesson is about the challenges we face when living sober. Others don't get it – they are not living in your shoes. You may need to move on. It’s a life commitment – not necessarily as the seemingly impossible task of “for life” but in terms of how you live your life. This is not about forgoing pleasure and wearing a hair shirt. It’s about a reorientation of life.
Living Sober is more than just not drinking – it’s about finding a new sense of hope and purpose in life, new practises, and new sources of enjoyment in a community that shares your outlook on life.
Some people talk about the “gift of sobriety” – accept the gift and the transformation it brings on your path to recovery.