Things change and shift as we journey through sobriety. Our goals, emotions, thoughts, philosophies, and spiritual approaches all change. Our daily lives change. And so, then, it is only natural that our attitudes toward recovery and our personal understanding of what sobriety means to us will also change. One of the biggest questions I have been pondering recently is, “Why am I sober? Why are we sober?”
In the beginning, sobriety is simply a battle for survival. We get sober often by medical necessity, because we are detoxing badly–shaking, sweating, fearful, with a racing heartbeat and a sick stomach–and we seek help either at a hospital or at a formal detox center. Or sometimes we get sober because of an intervention–we may be too sick and confused to even understand that we need help, and it takes the forceful action of loving family members and clinicians to get us to go to detox and/or rehab. Other times, we get sober simply because the emotional and physical pain of using has become unbearable, and it has far outweighed any perceived benefits of using, and we know we must make a change or our lives will not be worth living.
These are dark times for all addicts, and during very, very early sobriety the “Why” of sobriety is often quite easy to understand. We want to stop withdrawal symptoms, we want to emerge from serious depression and anxiety caused by using, or we want to do right by our loved ones by agreeing to go to rehab and get help (sometimes this simply is a desire to “get people off our backs,” which is also normal for many). Or maybe we have lost everything in our lives, and we literally have no choice but to get help or be homeless.
In rehab, especially for myself, there was a feeling of confusion and loss and despair, but also some relief. The cessation of withdrawal symptoms was an absolute blessing, and to be able to sleep well again without taking sedatives and to wake up in the morning without the overwhelming physical need to use made me feel a bit less panicked and out of control. I was no longer pursuing sobriety simply “in order not to die.” But I had still lost everything–my job, car, apartment, girlfriend, money, credit, and the trust of my family. The addiction was frighteningly loud in my head, almost commanding me to leave rehab and go home and drink, but it also seemed to respond to the idea that I needed to recover materially (job, car, apartment, money) before I could use again with less consequences. Here, then, in rehab, I began another phase of my “Why” which was getting sober in order to get my life back together materially and not face the fear of homelessness and bankruptcy.
As my time in rehab continued, it became clear that, through the love of my parents, as long as I stayed sober, I wouldn’t have to fear homelessness or bankruptcy. They would help me. I still wanted and needed a job, a car, and a permanent place to stay. Slowly I worked toward those goals and became more hopeful about accomplishing them.
I stayed in a rehab environment for 7 months and it was another year before I became more financially stable and could stop relying on my parents for things like rent money. I worked hard with therapists, clinicians, and in AA to find a level of serenity and joy that enabled me to maintain recovery without “white-knuckling” it. My parents began to trust me again and my sister started talking to me again. Repairing my family relationships and doing right by them had been–and remains–a very important goal for my recovery and that, too, seemed like it was being accomplished. And then, by about 16 months sober, when I had a car, a good job, and a nice place to live, my attitude toward sobriety began to shift further. No longer was I in the trench warfare of early recovery, with my back to the wall, fighting the urge to use and the need to regain the basic necessities of life in middle-class America. The material and logistical wreckage–and the family damages–of addiction had been repaired. Put simply, the survival-based objectives that had occupied my every waking hour during early sobriety had been accomplished.
The spiritual, emotional, mental, and social aspects of sobriety began to become much more salient. I asked myself “Why am I sober?” more often. Not because I wanted an excuse to use, but because I was interested in the question and the possible answers I would find. I remember and hopefully will always remember, vividly, the horror and devastation of late-stage addiction, and I understand that any use of any substance will take me right back to them. I do not want to lose everything again. I understand the depths of depression and anxiety and panic that addiction took me to, and I never, ever want to feel those feelings again. Therapists call this “playing the tape forward” and fortunately it works for me still. I can see that alcohol will bring me three hours of pleasure followed by a year of ruin and a return to the abyss.
But more than this, I have begun to find genuine peace and joy and connection in sobriety. I have begun to find a way of living that is truly better than using substances. I have moved closer to the Realm of the Spirit. My self-esteem is higher and my ability to endure emotional turmoil is stronger. I can support others in recovery. I’ve found the courage to pursue a more meaningful career and a lifestyle better suited to my personality and needs. If you asked me today “Why are you sober?” I would answer: “Because I never want to go back to the darkness of addiction, and because I value the peace, serenity, and joy that I am finding in sobriety.” Essentially, I am moving toward sobriety for myself instead of sobriety for material stability or for the approval of others. The journey is not complete, and I’m sure there are many changes and challenges ahead, but I do believe I have entered a new phase in sobriety, and one where I am finally focusing on getting sober for myself instead of for externalities.