Today, we will talk about sobriety.
Oh good. You’re still here.
The merriam-webster definition of sobriety is: “The state of being sober.” But what, I say, does this MEAN?
As I scrolled down what is supposed to be the holy grail of word definition sources, both Merriam and Webster failed to produce a farther reaching definition of sobriety than that which does not include the influence of controlled substances. I was befuddled and also in awe. Surely there has got to be more, right? There has to be a better meaning to it than this bullshit. This definition just seems so stale and even a little too holy or pure to grasp. The state of being sober. How boring. What else could sobriety even mean?
I’ll tell you.
This post was spawned by a recent communication I had with an Episcopalian priest friend of mine (hi Hilary!) who was perplexed that the people of her church were engaged in heavy (digital) debate about whether or not alcohol should be allowed on church grounds, during church functions, when in essence the space of the church should be a “sober” one. I was perplexed that there was even an argument as well. Church = sober space = no drink. Pregame, fine. But no drinkie in the churchie. I chimed in with my two cents, ultimately recognizing that the people who have resistance to anyone’s choice to not include alcohol in a social setting (whether it be church or a party or just a get together) are the people who struggle with alcohol behind the scenes. The scenes of closed doors, cloistered windows, dark minds, shame. They may not even realize they struggle. They may be chained by the fear of admission of something that could be bigger than they are, something that they can’t control because control is the real drug and who even ARE they if they can’t have THAT?
One time a friend of mine asked me how to lose weight. I get asked this question a lot by people, ironically (and so not), who both know and don’t know my history with anorexia and bulimia. It baffles me every time. But this woman couldn’t understand why she couldn’t lose weight. “I am completely gluten free, I eat veggies, I exercise with weights, I just don’t know why I can’t take the weight off.” To which I replied, “Do you drink?” “Well, yes. Of course. And don’t ask me to give up that! I need my two glasses of wine a night!” And I just stayed silent, welcoming the quiet answer that came to us both in that space. The answer that whispered, “this is why.” That answer is loaded. It’s not just about weight. It’s not even just about alcohol. It’s about control.
So what really is sobriety? What is a sober life? If “getting sober” were really just about drugs and alcohol, there wouldn’t be millions of people around the world gathering together for daily meetings where they can get reminded of why their lives are worth saving, why they matter, and why their humble sober wisdom is needed for the next sick ears that wander through the doors. These millions are the life-givers, the savers, the enemies to our built-in-forgetters, the reminders that we are all one slip away from relapse at any given moment. In fact, if you sit for a minute right now and consider this fact, there is an anonymous addiction meeting taking place every single second, 24 hours a day all throughout the world. That is one of the most sacred images I’ve ever had the pleasure of picturing in my little human brain. Amazing.
There is a new-ish trend among millennials. I can say that with gusto now, as I approach my 40th birthday and welcome the feeling of having a little more dignity with “trips around the sun” from which I can glean insight and transmit to the youngers. I’m certainly not old by any means, but my generation is no longer the one that heavy America scoffs at for “not knowing enough, not getting it, not wise enough, etc.” The trend among the young that is currently growing is the abstinence from controlled substances. Indeed, “hashtag sober” is the new skinny jean. I digress…
Many people wade through their ordinary hours of work and duty with their eye on the prize that sits in a glass bottle inside or on top of the fridge (or in the liquor cabinet, but let’s face it. You’re not going to own one of those when your student loans are begging for the money in your tattered wallet) and they gladly partake under the guise that they’ve earned the assumed mercy the bottle can give them. This pseudomercy is the physical buzz that starts in the relaxing of the shoulder muscles and actually moves UP to our heads and our minds until we are either quieted there or absolved of our shames. Either way, we look for the coverup, the turned cheek from the crimes we’ve committed against ourselves, and mabye others, that day. The “I’m not good enoughs, I’m an imposters, I should not have said thats, I should have done mores, I hate this jobs, I am tireds.” These crimes punctuate our holy moments, each time blotting out the truths that whisper to us, “You are worth being here, Your life is important, You are being used for a greater good.” And then we arrive home, our slumped pj’d bodies sinking into our couches, netflix burning, true crime shows astounding us into intrigue such that we can’t look away, and the glass touches our lips, the slow burn of drink crawling down our inside pipes, the soft paper of the joint holding smoke which lifts its creepy white ghost to our eyes, the powder line stinging our nostrils as we swallow our reward. The click and save of that porn site, of that gambling site, of this image, or that one. And on and on.
What I hear over and over from people in their twenties is a little phrase that goes like this. “I got sober.” It’s so simple right? Easy peasy. As if sobriety is some accolade that needs to be announced to followers so that these people can garner pride and praise from others, so their egos are lifted up with likes and comments that willfully scar their captions with “great job! You go girl! Get it! Do it! Well done! You are amazing! You are so inspiring! I am in awe! I wish I could be like you!” And then, the person who has announced such achievements has traded a drug for a drug. Instagram is the new alcohol, my friends. We are definitely not sober.
There are 12 traditions in AA which I won’t list here. If you are so intrigued, you can get the books on Amazon to describe it all. (It is here where you jot this down on a sticky note, if you are one of us, and search for that later.) Though I feel the need to announce that I don’t aim to break any of these traditions, ever. One of these traditions has to do with not making oneself the face of AA so as to possibly deter the silent sick who need these rooms the most. Like when Brad Pitt outed Bradley Cooper by thanking him for helping him recover. Yeah, no. Can’t do that. There could be a sick person out there who hates Brad Pitt or Bradley Cooper and then says, “no way in hell am I going to THOSE meetings.” And then that person will die. So it’s a serious tradition that is not to be broken because breaking these traditions can literally kill people. But not all of the time. Sometimes people need to speak from the podium of the keyboard on a little wee blog that they post on facebook every once in a while about a subject that should be, but is very much not, taught in all schools around the globe.
In no way will I ever claim to be the face of what I have come to believe is a sacred living and breathing within the divine that allows for life to be reborn and flourish again. I can only speak from my experience in these rooms and, from this I will tell you:
Getting sober is no fucking joke.
When the twenty-somethings put down the bottle and say “I got sober!” but all they really did was put down the bottle and talked about it on instagram, we don’t say they got sober. They stopped drinking. On their own. Possibly with a therapist or a self-help book or two. But they stopped drinking. Most likely these people could still have a social drink here and there and it would not affect their ability to put the bottle back down again. They could go to a bar while remaining secure in the fact that they no longer drink. The bottle does not call to them. It does not whisper, “come back,” and if it does, it’s really not loud.
I have found it prudent to illustrate this difference in the real definition of what it means to “get sober” and the false assumption that anyone can do it, with their own wills, and no outside help. That is a dangerous accomplishment to tout and it is that very rhetoric that keeps people quiet, and sick, vomiting in their bedrooms because their drugs have overtaken them. They secretly believe that, if this can be done on their own, why can’t they stop? Why can’t they, too, “get sober?” How did that person do it? She looks so happy with her roly poly baby and her bikini screen shots of paradise and stretch mark acceptance. If she can do it, I can do it. But why can’t I do it?
Sobriety is not about putting down the drug. I mean, we have to put down the drug in order to EXPERIENCE sobriety. But getting sober is not an event or an Act I. It is the entire play. It is a lifestyle. For life. It is sacred. It is holy. A devotion. A humility. A willingness. A fucking battle. It is a daily choice that, in spite of the noise and the punctuating crimes, even in spite of slips or relapse, we choose to live each day with our eyes on the real prize: a sober, useful, purposeful life. And anyone who is a true addict knows that this can really only be done by following two indispensable tenets: Taking each day one at a time, and dedicating our survival, and then actively deciding, to give our wills away to a power that is greater than ourselves. Yep, I said it. Self-reliance is addiction’s fuel. We simply have to relinquish our wills which is the last thing any one of us wants to, or even thinks is possible, to do. I myself have called it hogwash, until I was nestled on the floor, again, hugging the toilet, again, passing out, again. The addict cannot get well without realizing their powerlessness over their substance. In other words, the addict cannot get well without relinquishing control. That’s step 1. They are powerless. They literally have no control over their drug whether that be alcohol, drugs, food, sex, gambling, social media, etc. I have met many people who can’t get sober because they simply can’t get past step 1. It is sad and deafening and a very real reminder of the incredible other-wordly power of mental illness. The self-reliant mind is the enemy of spiritual potential. It is the snuffer of the holy voice that is born within all of us. It is the utmost limitation. Unless we drop the self and open the mind up to the possibility that there is something bigger than we are, we will literally die. Yes, die. We seriously cannot do it alone. Dare I use the word God at this point in a very real hope that you won’t stop reading, that you’ve now become intrigued at my discourse up to this point.
It’s lovely that you’re still reading.
I’ve met more atheists in the rooms of AA than anywhere else in my life. I’m not surprised. The shame and despair is palpable, even smellable, on the addict in the throes. Why the hell would they EVER entertain the notion of God? It’s too much. If there was a God, why would that God do this to me? Why would that God let this happen? There is nothing out there for me. I’m all alone. I don’t matter. I’ve fucked up. I deserve to die. I mean, these are just the tips of the vast icebergs of lies that addicts tell themselves in order to protect their egos from the crippling shame that amounts inside them due to years of abuse of whatever and whenever and wherever or, sadly too often, from whomever. It is kind of the most devastaing and glorious thing to see a person in this state. Devastating because it’s so fucking painful to feel that mortal, that human, that alone. Like beyond painful. But glorious because it’s so fucking possible to imagine what that person could learn and do with an opened heart. Like BEYOND possible. Anyone can put down the bottle. Anyone can stop drinking. But it takes a true hero to GET SOBER. It takes a warrior to admit defeat and still look to something he or she thinks DOESN’T EVEN EXIST for help. It takes a true Joan of Arc to lead oneself into the battle that becomes sobriety. A sober life. And when you get to witness this exchange-this divine truthe-come to light in the waking up of the sick, it makes you want to STAY sober so you can see it again and again in everyone who walks through those doors. Because this is how we stay alive. We can’t keep what we don’t give away. It’s gorgeous.
I’m blessed I never had an issue with alcohol. I think anorexia protected me from it, honestly. I was too scared of the calories. So I numbed the shame with restriction. And then bulimia. Same. The drug is not what matters. It’s the self-reliance, the addiction to control, that is at the heart of each and every addiction. If I don’t get to that root, I’ll just become addicted to something else. And then something else. And then something else. There are lots of A’s that have spawned from the original AA. They are all beautiful in their own rites, for the most part. I will still state that FA is controlled anorexia and should be outlawed and just leave it at that. But ABA saved my life. So it goes. Find what works for you and leave the rest, they say. But nothing will work for you without realizing that power that is greater than yourself. You can learn it, try to understand it, read it, but you won’t get sober until you truly KNOW it. And you can’t know God without inviting God into your self space. You know, that space deep in your heart that you don’t show to anyone. That’s the space and the shit inside the space that you use your drugs over. That is the space you want to control and just can’t. You have to open it up. Let God in there. Let God get to work scrubbing and shining and bringing you back to yourself. Let God illustrate that you are worthy and a beloved being and made for a deep deep purpose. Let God tell you the truth about who you are, that you matter, that the core of you, the deep vastness in you that is connected to the deep vastness of every other human on the planet, is needed in the ether to keep it afloat. This is a lifetime worth of work. This is how one GETS SOBER.
In my early days, I got sober like this:
I woke up, rolled out of my bed (literally rolled), got down on my knees and prayed. Sometimes it was a tired contemplation that ended up in wandering thoughts that had to keep coming back to center, often times it was a gutteral weep at the mere attempt to accept this love coming from this Origin Source that truly wanted me, but mostly it was a visit that always began with a thank you. That’s the first lesson. A grateful heart doesn’t use. It’s so corny. But so fucking true. Then I’d get up and sit in meditation for 30 minutes. Just a visit, an invitation to God to come into my heart. To wake me up, dine with me, even when I didn’t want to. It was so hard. The humility needed for this was painful at first, like a fist choking my voice deep down into my gut where it sat and forced me to shut up and do the one thing I had fought my whole life to avoid: Listen. It was here where I listened for the voice of God instead of the voice of Ed. I really had to practice it. Something like this doesn’t just happen. It took me years. It felt so impossible. I wept and wept and wept. But I did it (and still do) every morning. And then my time was done for that and I read from an AA devotional. This all began at 5:00 am. I called my sponsor at 5:45 each morning, even on weekends, even on Christmas. I told her about my day, what was ahead, what I could fix so it wasn’t so busy. And I told her what I was going to eat. Not in a militant way. But in a promise sort of way. Like I don’t want to break this promise because to break it is to hurt myself and to hurt myself is to deny God. And God loves me even if I don’t, and God believes that I am worthy even if I don’t. And if I don’t have faith today, I can borrow some from my sponsor. But I can’t find that faith if I’m in my disease. So I will tell her what I’m going to eat and keep my promise. Do you know how fucking hard that is? All addicts do this, not in the food sense, but in the promise sense. Their sponsors are simply witnesses with the same affliction. Witnesses to their growing friendship with a God that wants them to get well. They make a promise to not use for one day. One day only. Even the vets. The ones in the rooms for 50 years. They live by one day alone. Someone with 1000 days of sobriety behind them is not protected from an addictive tomorrow. We know that in our bones. To not live in the present is just too much. But to make the distinct promise to live in the present requires help from a power greater than our limited minds. After the sponsor talk, I would weigh and measure my meals (most of the time this is done the night before), I ate my breakfast at a table, without the phone, hopefully not alone even though alone is the only place I ever want to be because Ed is there and he lies to me about feeling safe with him. And then I’m done. I’d go to three meetings a week, more if needed. Sometimes daily. I called three people a day. I committed to a study of the AA book once a week. I found a separate sponsor who guided me through the 12 steps. I’d talk to that person once a week too. It is daunting painstaking work. And, busyness aside, it’s super uncomfortable for the psyche. But not for the soul. This is the work God wants us to do. This is the work God needs us to do. We need to die to the self so that we can increase in spirit and then go out into the world and live like THAT. This living doesn’t necessarily mean professing your feat on social media, though if you’ve chosen to actually BE in the business of helping people recover from addiction, perhaps you’re called to do it that way. But this living is humble and true to the new self. The self that God has seen this whole time. At night, I’d take an inventory of my day. Where have I messed up? To whom do I apologize? I’d journal. I’d pray again. And that’s the day. And when we have reached the 12th step (which can sometimes take YEARS), we spread the word.
Does this sound like anything to you?! It sounds like Church! Prayer, meditation, teaching, readings, meetings, mistakes, apologies, amends, evangelizing. All of it. I don’t care what kind of religion you practice or don’t. You can’t get sober without God. And you can’t STAY sober without others (which, newsflash, is where God LIVES). It’s a lot of deep work, the cracking open of the heart in order to die to the self and really then to get to the mush that the source wants to see. To abandon the ego is one of the scariest things we do here on earth. What does it truly mean if I do this? Who AM I? I am a child of God. Not his God, or her God, or that God, of this God. I am a child of the God of my understanding in whatever way God shows up in my life.
For the record, I do not go to meetings anymore. But I do have a daily spiritual practice. I do talk to God every single day. Like, kind of all day. I pray when I’m tired, when I don’t feel like it, when I’m scared, on my knees. I’ve been known to get on my knees right there in my own damn kitchen. I maintain a grateful heart. I look for the piece of God that is in everyone, especially the people I don’t like. I listen to podcasts on my long drives to and from school. Podcasts that talk about God and addiction and sobriety. I still read my AA literature. I still weigh and measure my food, but not my body. I still have some AA friends. And I still live one day at a time. I am never recovered. My recovery is a living and breathing evolutionary BEING. It is a sobriety. A way of living. It’s fucking gorgeous.
So next time you want to tout that you “got sober,” start by getting sensitive. Have you needed to do the work to truly get sober? What does a sober life mean to you? Are you brave enough to adopt sobriety as a way of living and admit that there is something greater than you at work in your soul? I don’t care if you drink or not. I don’t care if you drug or not. I care that you fully learn and then respect what sobriety really is. And then either aspire to that sacred way of life, or announce that you’ve simply stopped drinking and leave it at that. The silent sick are everywhere. They need to understand that they can’t do it alone. Do not equate sobriety with self help, with ego. Lift it up to the reward of God. Teach others that it is a holy act, a spirit of sorts that must be activated first by a deep longing of the soul and dying of the self. Only then will you know. Only then can you say, “I’m sober.” Blessed be, my friends.