The Difference Between Being Sober and Being in Recovery


It’s been months since I’ve been at the keyboard so it’s belated but worthy praise to say Screedler deserves major kudos for really taking the blog to another level. Though not writing much I still read every letter sent through “Contact TDA” and felt compelled to respond to this one. Respecting anonymity I am posting my response sans the original request/letter. I was asked by someone very close to an alcoholic that is “sober” yet continues with other addictions and self-destructive behavior this question: “Could you clarify what “recovered” actually is?” – TDA

I am always hesitant to critique the recovery of others, perhaps though an explanation of what I’ve learned about my own recovery may be just as helpful.

First of all, sobriety and recovery are two different things. You may have heard of the “dry drunk” often spoke of in AA meetings, the guy who is white knuckled sober but still full of that “stinking thinking”. Sounds like the description of your guy doesn’t it? AA uses catchphrases like this to quantify behavior or even results that aren’t easily explained ergo the “it works if you work it”. This was where AA always lost me. I wanted to know the dirty details of how and why right then, the only trust and blind faith I had were in the power of alcohol. In all fairness though, their method is effective considering such complex topics have to be covered all in a 50 minute church basement meeting composed of complete strangers, from various backgrounds, all with pickled minds over-stimulated by cigarettes and stale coffee. There are certainly more cerebral AA meetings and deeper discussion on topics with the old-timers, but I never stayed with AA long enough to get past newbie status and I digress…

So what is a dry drunk and how does this pertain to the difference between sobriety and recovery?

The sobriety portion is easy to explain, it just means being clean… no alcohol, self-medicating, abuse of prescribed drugs, and no manipulation of medical and psychological diagnoses. There are grey areas, but in my opinion if the lines are blurred then sobriety is doubtful. Being free of drugs and alcohol is the certainly one of the first steps in recovery but that is all it is. Actually it’s the easiest step of recovery because there is no secret to sobriety: just quit using drugs and alcohol. People get thrown into to jail all the time and go straight cold turkey; inpatient rehab, even religious retreats are successful in getting people sober every day. The method of getting sober can be as simple as a locked room or strong coffee. Staying sober is the problem; sobriety is a state that is too often temporary. A dry drunk has attained the physical state of sobriety but without recovery continues to suffer from the mental disease of addiction.

Sobriety is a state. Recovery is a process.

One does not recover from being a drunk, they sober up. Recovery is about the process of freeing the mind and emotions from the mental illness portion of addiction. Drinking to excess doesn’t cause the mental illness of addiction, but it can be a catalyst and a diseased mind is certainly more susceptible to alcohol and drugs. Most people do not subscribe to the disease concept of addiction. They may be PC and acknowledge the theory to avoid conflict, but it’s my experience that most “normal” people think addiction as a disease is feel-good hoopla. There is a valid reason why the concept is so difficult for ordinary people to understand, the actions of an alcoholic/addict are not sane. The same goes for any mental illness really. I really have a hard time understanding or even sympathizing with someone battling a dissociative identity disorder. No mean spiritedness here, just ignorance. The sane, logical mind bereft of context has a hard time dealing with things and actions that are… well to be politically incorrect, insane.

Much like any mental illness, an alcoholic/addict has a skewed decision making process, deals with an altered reality, and often has no adult experience with anything remotely related to normal behavior. None of this changes when they enter the state of sobriety. It is the epitome of insanity when a sober, withdrawal-free alcoholic returns to drinking in full knowledge of the severe impact it will have on their health, family, financial and freedom. Somehow the alcoholic mind rationalizes the jail time, health problems, and zero happiness as the “good times”. This is crazy; this is the disease portion of addiction.

Recovery is the process of returning to and maintaining a healthy mind, sound body, and logical decision making. One needs to enter into a prolonged state of sobriety to give recovery a chance of taking hold, but a successful recovery depends on much more including time, support, and most importantly, brutally honest introspection. Initially none of this can be given as a gift or taught by a mentor, it is usually learned through self cognitive therapy of rote routine and repetition of positive and productive habits. The mind is certainly resilient and my experience has shown that even hardened alcoholics and addicts can find recovery. The reverse is also true of the disease. Given the right triggers and lack of positive reinforcement, many people do relapse into the illogical decision making and rationalization process of the addicted mind.

People ask me when will they know they have achieved full recovery and my answer is never. Life will always bring a fresh set of circumstances that we need to deal with and adapt to in a positive manner. Marriage, death, poorness and prosperity all bring unique challenges that we must deal with in a positive manner or face the circumstances of a possible relapse. I must stop now with this already too long reply could because I could go on indefinitely about the continuing process of recovery. I’ll borrow the catchphrase method of AA to wrap this up in one sentence. I know that if I am not moving forward in a positive or at least productive manner, then I am at risk of reverting back to old behavior and the mental disease of addiction… drinking will most surely follow.

My advice to those dealing with addicts and alcoholics is always the same; be prepared for misery, the collateral damage around an addict is immense and the stress involved with an afflicted loved one continues long after the drinking and drugging stops. Always guard your safety, sanity, finances, and happiness first- then and only then give what you can afford to lose. Be honest with yourself. Know that in giving these things it is to make ourselves feel better because the alcoholic/addict will only find recovery through their own sacrifice and hard work. I have been on both sides of the fence as an alcoholic draining the resources of family and friends and in recovery trying to help a family member find what I have… in vain. One never needs to stop loving or just to give up on those afflicted, just always maintain a healthy honesty and strong sense of self preservation.

I hope this has helped.




Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s