What Constitutes Contented Sobriety?

Hello and welcome to the fall edition of Emotional Sobriety Matters. I hope you all enjoyed our beautiful summer and that you took time to relax and enjoy yourself. I particularly love the long days – as I feel like I can get so many things done in the daylight – walk the dogs, garden, meet with friends, play on the beach. Summer is really my favorite season! As the days shorten and the weather begins to cool down, I find myself thinking of indoor tasks – like writing this newsletter. I would like to take the time to discuss with you some ideas about contented (happy) sobriety and the research that supports success in this area.

What Constitutes Contented Sobriety?

Anyone can stop drinking or drugging – staying stopped and having some emotional balance in the process is another thing. According to Dr. Allen Berger, recovery has three phases:
1. getting clean
2. staying clean
3. living clean

Getting Clean

Many people struggle with phase one as they trip over the denial that tells them their problem really isn’t “that bad”. That is the ‘obsession’ referred to in the book, Alcoholics Anonymous. Back in 1935, ‘obsession’ was used by Dr. Silkworth to refer to “the lie” that crowds out all rational thought about why the alcoholic cannot safely drink. The lie may sound like, “I’m just going through a rough time”, “I’m only going to have one” “This time it will be different.” “My problem is that I’m out of shape and need to go to the gym every day”; or “I just need to make more money and then I’ll be fine.” None of these statements correlate with the reality of the addict/alcoholic’s life, especially near the end of her addictive use. There is a quick test you can administer yourself if you are wondering whether or not you are alcoholic or drug addicted. It’s called the Cage and includes 4 quick questions:
1. Have you ever tried to Cut back on your drinking/drugging?
2. Have you ever been Annoyed by others’ comments about your drinking/drugging?
3. Have you ever felt Guilty about your behavior while drinking/drugging?
4. Have you ever needed an Eye opener the day after drinking or to ease the effects of a hangover?

If you answer ‘yes’ to any one of these you have an 80% chance of being addicted
If you answer ‘yes’ to any two of these you have an 89% chance of being addicted
If you answer ‘yes to any three of these you have a 98% chance of being addicted.
And, if you answer ‘yes’ to all the above, you are 100% addicted.

Seeing the ‘facts’ in front of us, in black and white, can help break through our denial. From there we can make the surrender necessary to begin our journey to contented sobriety.

Staying Clean

As I mentioned earlier – staying stopped can be a problem – when the obsession to use a substance or behavior is all powerful. As Mark Twain said, “I have found stopping smoking so easy that I’ve done it twenty times.” Most alcoholics or addicts can’t stand to ask for help, and prefer to do life alone (sometimes dying alone). It seems to many a sign of weakness. So, instead he goes about his life, attempting to construct a plan – in a keen, intellectual way – to solve his own dilemma. What’s wrong with this, you may ask. Well, while you may be very bright with regards to other areas of your life, when it comes to your addiction, there is a default in the system. It’s like an engine that is misfiring – you can keep driving the car a little slower, or only on Sundays, or just downhill, hoping the problem will improve, or you can take the car to your mechanic and get the spark plugs changed. If you can’t solve your addiction problem on your own by changing the type of drink or the day you drink or the time you get high – what do you do? For a lot of people, the first step in recovery is attending a support group, where you can learn from others like you, how to stay clean and sober.

I heard one of the greatest scientific talks on the success of Alcoholics Anonymous by a renowned psychiatrist named Dr. George Valliant. He is not an alcoholic but has studied the issue much of his very long and distinguished career and has written a book called, “The Natural History of Alcoholism –Revisited”. His findings state that AA is the most successful approach in producing long-term contented sobriety because it contains the four necessary factors present in relapse prevention from most addictions, such as smoking, compulsive eating, opiate addiction, gambling or alcoholism. The four factors necessary for relapse are:

  1. External Supervision: AA provides this service much the same way that a personal trainer would – motivation comes from an external source and individuals must return again and again. Going to meetings, talking to sponsors and friends and working the steps all provide a continuous reminder of the problem that brought them to recovery. This can be as difficult as trying to train an alligator. Since addiction resides in the ‘reptilian’ part of the brain, which is reflective in nature and doesn’t like to be told what to do, attempting to coax an addict or alcoholic to change is about as simple as trying to train an alligator to ‘come’. As the saying goes, “You can tell an alcoholic, you just can’t tell her much”. Her addiction is impulsive, aggressive and resistant to change. This is why AA also understands that the individual must ‘want’ it, or it won’t work. You will suffer under a strict fitness trainer if you want the physical change, and you will do what your sponsor suggests if you want the emotional and spiritual change you see in him/her.
  2. Substitute Dependency: It’s a simple fact that all bad habits need adequate substitutes or significant competing behaviors. Bill Wilson, co-founder of AA, stated that alcoholics need a solution that has “depth and weight”. In other words, it is highly unlikely that someone can substitute their addiction with cross-stitch or model-building. Just keeping busy doesn’t seem to be enough, nor does locking a person up cure her from her addiction. According to Dr. Valliant, AA provides “…a gratifying schedule of social and service activities in the presence of supportive and now-healed alcoholics, especially at times of high risk, like holidays”. The time that was spent drinking or drugging is now spent learning, growing and helping others.
  3. New Love Relationships: We never outgrow our need for bonding and attachment. The problem with many addicts and alcoholics is that most close relationships have been compromised or destroyed. There is much guilt about how to right these circumstances and a general lack of skill in how to create and maintain healthy relationships. In AA, there is an immediate community available for bonding with that consists of people the alcoholic has no history of hurting. It’s like starting anew. Friendships can be made and fostered based on good feelings, rather than on guilt and shame. In addition, there are those present that can be actively helped and this creates a feeling of usefulness that fosters good self esteem. This is so significant to the emotional healing needed to provide hope, love and charity to a life that was wanting in all these areas.
  4. Spirituality: While this is the most controversial part of the AA program, it also seems to be absolutely necessary to long-term contentment during abstinence. The most important distinction is that between religion and spirituality – the former being rigid and dogmatic, the latter being expansive and open-minded. It is the qualities of inspiration to be all you can be, the hope of a better future, and the love of others who truly care for your wellbeing, the selflessness, honesty, and goodwill that characterize a spiritual way of life. AA contains all of these. AA is not a cult, even though some people think so and it is externally similar in that it is “characterized by a high level of social cohesion, has an intensely held belief system and a profound influence on its members’ behavior”. According to Dr. Valliant, one important difference between AA and a cult is that the purpose of AA’s 12 steps is not to take away a person’s autonomy, but to provide a disciplined set of ‘suggestions’ so that you won’t relapse and die. No one will tell you what you need to believe in, just that you be willing to believe in something greater than “you”.

Living Clean

There doesn’t seem to be any negative side effects to participating in a 12 step support group. Any dependency that may occur is a healthy dependency. Some dependencies weaken us and others strengthen us. Research has shown that the combination of 12 step recovery and psychotherapy results in the greatest success. Often, the years of addiction have resulted in a great amount of trauma and loss that can be discussed and worked through in therapy. In addition, many turn to addictive lifestyles as a result of early trauma and loss, which can be integrated as well. In 12 step support groups, members discuss their lives ‘in a general way’. However, in therapy, you have the confidential setting designed to resolve, in a very specific way, the issues that underlie your addiction. The end result is one of emotional sobriety, practiced one day at a time, with a formula that guarantees success.

Until next time,

Sue Diamond Potts

This newsletter is meant to provide you with information and tips for improving yourself. It is not meant as a substitute for therapy or counselling. Please feel free to forward a copy of Emotional Sobriety Matters (in its’ entirety) to others who may be interested in personal development.

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