The Meaning of Sobriety–How It Works and What Changes It Brings

The meaning of sobriety can be a very personal one, of course. Everyone’s journey through the pain of addiction and recovery is a deeply private one. But, then, too, there are many common experiences as well. For example, sobriety brings everyone more serenity and more manageability in their lives. The details of that will vary according to individual personalities and individual circumstances.

It is important to distinguish between abstinence and sobriety, however. Abstinence is not always sobriety. Abstinence is the absence of intoxication, and that begins with withdrawal and detox. A state of sobriety can take much longer to manifest.  In sobriety, you reach a new and stable state of relative calm and clarity. Of course, there are times of distress as life happens and we are human, but in sobriety, we return to a baseline of calm and clarity after such times. In addiction and early abstinence, we have no such baseline and experience the turmoil and distorted perceptions caused by the illness still.

The Meaning of Sobriety in One’s Emotional Life

Our emotional lives in active addiction are anything but stable and healthy. There’s a wide range of emotional disturbance that accompanies substance abuse, but among a group of people with addictive illnesses, we’ll find common emotional problems. At some point in addition, everyone will experience fear, anxiety, anger, depression, despair, self-loathing, helplessness and hopelessness, for example. And, it is common to have all of these feelings very close together or even in a mix of pain and turmoil. Suicidal feelings are also unfortunately common.

When we achieve sobriety, our emotional home turf is far improved than what is described above. And consequently, we do not dip down into the worst of the worse. For instance, we can have moments of intense emotion that stops us in our tracks or derails us for awhile, but we are most likely not to come as close to the ‘bottom’ of such experiences as we did previously. If, however, there is a co-occurring mental disorder that is not stabilized, we can. If you do not have a dual disorder (substance disorder and a mental health disorder), you should not have deep emotional plunges that make life unmanageable.

Emotional sobriety does not mean that you become immune to difficult emotional states, or that you bounce out of them quickly. There are simply some emotional experiences that are overwhelming, but normal. Grief, for example, is such a state, and it takes time to become more stable after a significant loss in sobriety as well. Sobriety does offer us protective factors, meaning we have a better chance of being resilient and recovering from overwhelming emotional events when sober than we do while using substances for intoxication.

The Impact of Addiction on the Mental Life

Active addiction alters thinking because it alters brain functioning. Primarily, the addictive illness begins to manifest in cognitive functioning as thought distortions and cognitive limitations. Some examples of thought distortions (also called thinking errors) are denial, minimization, justification, rationalization, blaming, and fragmentation. There are many more thought distortions, but these are enough to illustrate the profound cognitive effects that addiction has.

Alongside thought distortions, there are cognitive deficits caused by prolonged substance toxicity in the brain. For instance, memory loss, declined ability to reason, decreased concentration, decreased the ability to think abstractly, loss of problem-solving and decision-making efficiency, and inability to perceive problems can all occur in addiction.

Using the thought distortions listed above, here are examples of how prolonged substance use not only affects the body and emotions but also the brain and how we think:

Denial–we do not see the obvious such as our own substance problems.

Minimization–we ‘shrink’ big problems by insisting they aren’t so big after all.

Justification–we find ‘good reasons’ for our unacceptable behaviors or unacceptable living conditions.

Rationalization–we use thoughts to make ‘good excuses’ for unacceptable behaviors or unacceptable living conditions.

Blaming–we make others responsible for our bad choices.

Fragmentation–we change to fit the situation, or we split things off from our awareness if it is uncomfortable.

The Meaning of Sobriety in One’s Mental Life

In sobriety, we regain our cognitive abilities that have not been irreparably damaged by toxicity. Some, unfortunately, do experience irreparable harm during addiction, and will not recover the full cognitive functioning they once had. However, sobriety is achievable by all and will dramatically improve the quality of everyone’s life.

Mentally, sobriety is clear-mindedness. Sobriety allows us to exert much better control over our emotional states and to make much better behavioral choices. We perceive without the type of denial addiction induces, and we are more in touch with our own internal reality, as well as with the external realities we encounter.

In our ‘right minds’ again in sobriety, we regain manageability in our lives. We are no longer victims of thinking distortions, and with abstinence, we can regain the cognitive functions that had short-circuited with toxicity. Even if irreparable brain damage has occurred, we are better able to regain some of our losses with rehabilitation.

The Meaning of Sobriety in Our Relationships

In addiction, our relationships suffer, and across the board, from most intimate to most distant, can be seriously and negatively affected, In our closest ties, we retreat from responsibility and accountability to some degree because intoxication requires that. We simply cannot be present for others consistently. And, of course, as addiction progresses, so does the degree of our absence. The negative effects on relationships can be clearly seen in such close ones, however, addiction separates us from even the casual acquaintance and associate to some detrimental effect. Relationships and interactions with co-workers, employers, extended relatives, friends, neighbors and even business customers can feel the strain and damage of addiction’s effects upon us.

In sobriety, we have the presence of mind and clear sight to see the damage caused by our addictive illness, and though we were ill, we accept responsibility and hold ourselves accountable, making amends as best we can. We set the intention of doing no further harm and offer that as the best repair we can make. Of course, if there are other ways in which we can restore damages, that is often a choice in sobriety.

The Meaning of Sobriety in Our Behavior

In addiction, our behavior is governed by the compulsive need to use an addictive substance, and our obsession with using. It is also motivated by unstable and extreme emotionality, distorted thought, and cognitive impairment. Consequently, the behavior is driven by a storehouse of fuel that is volatile and relentless as long as we are using.

Behaviors in addiction are impulsive, self-seeking, compulsive, in service of immediate gratification, erratic and frequently in violation of one’s usual moral codes and standards of conduct. All of this cuts a wide swath through one’s own life and the lives of others. Relationships and reputation inevitably suffer, sometimes legal problems ensue… One can endure humiliation experiences, a great deal of shame, alienation, and rejection… Work or academics suffer… And, physical and mental health can be devastated. The list of possible, injurious consequences is impossible to complete.

Sobriety finds us overwhelmed with our behavior in addiction and its effects. Some say it is like looking at a smoldering city in ruins as they look back upon their lives with addictive substance use. There is often a sense of bewilderment as the extent of trauma, chaos, and damage is surveyed, and a shock that this bigger picture now available in sobriety was completely missed while using.

Sobriety brings us the presence of mind to stop and think before acting out impulses, urges, and emotions. We can consider a possible action and choose whether it serves us or others, or not. We can think through a possible course of action to its possible consequences, and we can reinstitute our own personal moral code and standards of conduct to guide us.

The Journey Toward Sobriety

The journey toward sobriety is a continuing one from the moment you decide to seek help. And, once you arrive at stability in a substance-free life, you will find that although difficult at times, that journey had many exciting milestones and rest stops along the way. You didn’t have to ‘white knuckle it’, and suffer with no relief in sight as you made your way to sobriety. You got to experience the overwhelming gratitude of detox completion and freedom from desperate compulsion, for example, and that amazing experience was right out of the gate. Others came, too.

Getting sick with an addiction doesn’t happen overnight, and neither does getting well. But, many gains are made along the way as your health builds, and you can build your new life steadily, getting a firmer footing as you go. Just as addiction was progressive in its effects, so is recovery progressive in its.

If you are reading this, you have already thought about beginning your own journey to sobriety. Or, perhaps you have been trying to help a loved one begin his or hers. In either case, your life has been touched by a pervasive and debilitating force that can be stopped with the right help.

If this is the time for you or your loved one, we can help you navigate the many options for treatment. We offer a free consultation service in which we will identify your specific treatment needs, clarify your insurance coverage, and make appropriate recommendations for programs that can help you. Addiction is treatable, and recovery happens. Give us a call today and we will help you get the help you need.