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Stanton Peele Stanton Peele

For the Last Time: “Sobriety” Does Not Mean “Abstinence”

Words matter. We'd be a lot better off if we stuck with the older definitions of this one.

31 Substance

Differences of degree. Photo via

Differences of degree. Photo via

“He who commands vocabulary commands the battlefield.”—Napoleon

I confess: I made that quote up. But the sentiment is an indubitable truth.

“My boyfriend of five years has been sober since before we met. He abused alcohol and was a heroin addict. Two nights ago he told me he wanted to stop being sober.”

That one’s a real quote (with my emphasis), as relayed by Substance.com‘s Samantha Felix in her insightful response to an advice column this week: Slate’s ‘Dear Prudence’ Column Gives Bad Advice About Addiction.”

Did the boyfriend really say he wanted to “stop being sober”? It’s entirely likely, because of what I have termed elsewhere: “The Hijacking of Sobriety by the Recovery Movement.

I was moved to write that piece for Reason after The New York Times declared that octogenarian Elaine Stritch was no longer sober. As a “recovering alcoholic,” Stritch had decided to have a single cocktail a day while she was being filmed for a movie about her last nightclub act, Shoot Me. (The film was released in 2014, shortly before she died.)

The subtitle of my Reason piece was: “Sobriety isn’t an abstinence fixation; it’s about having purpose.” Let’s consider that “sober” has meant two things for centuries, before Recovery captured the term.

First, sobriety meant not being intoxicated. So you could drink and be sober—you know, like when you pass a field sobriety test because you had just a couple of drinks over an evening while eating.

A second, more subtle meaning for sobriety is that a person has a serious approach to life. Being “sober as a judge” doesn’t mean just not being intoxicated—it means going about your business in a steady, mindful manner.

And these definitions of sobriety carry great value when we speak about addiction.

The boyfriend in the advice column presumably has developed reasons, purposes for not being addicted to drugs in the intervening years, including finding his girlfriend. Does Prudence really think this man incapable of developing such meaning in his life?

I very much appreciated Felix’s analysis:

“There are some important things to find out here, such as, when he says he doesn’t want to be sober anymore, does he mean he wants to start doing heroin again, or that he just wants to have a beer at the holiday party?”

Exactly. And why isn’t the vast gulf between “I want to seek out my old heroin dealer” and “I’d like to have a beer while I watch the Super Bowl” open for discussion? Because of that word, that concept, “sobriety.”

The idea that moderation is impossible prevents people facing addictions from considering their possibilities in optimal ways.

Sobriety as Americans commonly use it imbeds the entire Temperance elimination of moderation as a possibility. “Temperance” itself means moderation, and yet it came to stand for prohibition. And the elimination of the possibility of moderation eliminates policy discussions not only about legalizing drugs, but about how we can encourage sensible drug use now that marijuana is being legalized.

This Hobbesian choice, cutting out middle positions, eliminates treatment alternatives like moderating drinking for problem drinkers or substituting marijuana for alcohol or heroin as a superior alternative for some people addicted to those substances.

But, most important of all, the idea that moderation is impossible prevents people facing addictions from considering their possibilities in optimal ways.

Instead, it sentences them to think of themselves as addicts, people who can never be allowed—never allow themselves—to have any psychoactive substance again.

Here’s one last real quote, from a woman on Facebook responding from the UK to the Dear Prudence article:

Anna Millington: It’s the reason Britain can’t ever have an evidence based insightful conversation about addiction. The ideology is so ingrained it is nigh on impossible to move beyond NA/AA thinking that we are forever trapped, forever one step away from jails, institutions or death.

We must defeat this black-and-white, all-or-nothing disease addiction thinking in order to move forward on drug use, drug treatment and drug policy.

Stanton Peele, a columnist for Substance.com, has been at the cutting-edge of addiction theory and practice, including uncovering natural recovery, identifying addiction as being not essentially linked to drugs, and focusing on social forces and individual choice in addiction since writing (with Archie Brodsky) Love and Addiction in 1975. He has since written numerous other books and developed the online Life Process Program. His latest book, with Ilse Thompson, is Recover! Stop Thinking Like an Addict. His website is Peele.net. Dr. Peele has won career achievement awards from the Rutgers Center of Alcohol Studies and the Drug Policy Alliance, for whom he recently featured in a special teleconference, which you can listen to here.