Alcohol free. Teetotaler. Abstaining. Clean. Dry. Sober. What word do we use, and what does it imply? Do words or rules even matter?
As Dr. Stanton Peele points out in his article on sobriety, the meaning of sobriety is to be not intoxicated and not impaired. He writes that “recovery/remission is about maintaining focus and engagement in life” (which sounds alot like Annie Grace’s assertion “the only time we stop making progress is when we stop walking,” just saying). He also argues that “in 12-step speak,” sobriety as a term has been hijacked to represent complete abstinence from any psychoactive substance ever, which simply isn’t the definition. So by his logic, one can have a drink and, as long as they aren’t intoxicated, could still be sober, right? So what is there, then, to keep us on the path to recovery, if not a day-by-day, minute-by-minute counter, a daily high five to tell us we are doing a good job? Dr. Peele says that we should keep our focus on something tangible – like physical health, financial gain, improved relationships – to keep on the path to recovery. Staying sober in the “12-step” sense of the word causes people to focus their plans around the absence of something, a black hole of sorts, an incessant ticking ticking ticking that (ideally) never ends, rather than the actual evidence that our lives have improved. The latter is actually what ultimately keeps us from naturally not wanting to pick up a drink or whatever it is that’s deeply affecting our progress, and that’s where true change is cultivated.
Last week, for fun’s sake, I installed an app called QuitThat! that counts days you’ve been X habit free. Today, I am 173 complete days without alcohol. Logically I recognize this as a HUGE accomplishment, especially thinking back to times when I tried to quit for a week and couldn’t even make it past 5pm that same day, or when I could take a few days off it would feel like all time slowed, just ticking by second by excruciatingly “sober” second. However, on the flipside I find myself checking the app obsessively everyday.. and time has again seemed to slow. It’s not the pining-for-a-drink kind of slow, because there is no end game in sight. So I guess that’s it – I am counting the days toward nothing, of NOT doing something, I am, as Dr. Peele says, now focusing on the black hole (or atleast partially, in these moments when I check the app). Look how many days I’ve NOT done something! I’d much rather focus on all the good I have accumulated rather than the time: health, mindfulness, awareness, relationship building, confidence, connection …. all of which have absolutely fucking bloomed in the past 12 months (mostly) without alcohol – 98% of the days, to be exact. I also have these slight, fleeting feelings of guilt and remorse, like “wow if it weren’t for that one drink I had in December, this thing would say over 275 days by now..” Again, focusing on the negative, the black hole rather than my overarching goals of personal enrichment. I’m torn on whether to keep it or not, but if given the impending choice of deleting 500 selfies or this app, I think the app gets the axe.
OK then, so if our lives can improve through “relapse” and maybe even – gasp – because of it, then what’s to keep me from drinking, or always pining for that “next time” in the back of my mind? It’s the complete and utter surrender to the idea that I simply don’t want to drink anymore. I made that logical decisions months, possibly years ago – yet my mind took a bit to catch up. Knowing alcohol is shit was easy part. Most current drinker friends (and even strangers) tell me as much – they envy me, they wish they could cut back, they don’t know HOW I do it. My mind, well, she had to overcome a few things: the societal norms and expectations, the awkward first few minutes of any social event past the age of 19, and finally, the stigma of “recovery.” Once I threw off these last chains, I felt more free and my brain more unburdened than it ever had in my life.