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Sobriety vs. Recovery

For those who have struggled with an Addiction issue of any kind (whether it be alcohol, drugs, nicotine, sugar, work, sex, pornography, codependency, relationships, spending, food, gambling or beyond), you may already have spent some time thinking about the differences and similarities between recovery and sobriety. Or you may not have. A lot of people use these terms synonymously, but they could also be viewed as separate, though complementary, entities. So what does an Addiction Psychologist have to say is the difference between recovery and sobriety?

I hate to do this because it sounds like I’m giving a bad toast at a wedding, but the dictionary defines these as… (I know, I know, but bear with me here!). Sober is defined as not being affected by alcohol. Period. When it comes to Addiction treatment, many people have latched onto this word “sober” or “sobriety” to define where they are at and their goals with wellness. Usually this is meant to refer to the fact that they are pursuing abstinence and currently not using alcohol and usually drugs too, though this is all dependent on the individual. Some people believe that if they’re not using alcohol and continue to use marijuana that they are “sober.” Technically, based on the dictionary definition, I suppose there is truth to that. Others feel that you are only “sober” if you’re not using any unnecessary substances (though usually people exclude nicotine and caffeine from this). As you can start to see, it is a bit confusing and very individualized depending on who you talk to.

The dictionary defines recovery as a return to a state of wellness in health, mind, and strength. This can practically start to happen even if substances or unhealthy behaviours are continuing to be engaged with, though the engagement with those substances may eventually stop people from continuing to move forward in their wellness. It’s almost like the continued substance use or behaviour engagement serves as an anchor. While you can move forward with your recovery with it being there, progress will be slowed down and at times completely impeded by that.

To make this even more confusing, it is therefore possible for someone to be sober (not using substances) but not be in recovery. It is also possible for someone to be pursuing recovery but not be sober. What I observe the majority of people striving for is both. Pursuing recovery while also pursuing sobriety. This is not me preaching abstinence from a moral, ethical, religious, or principled place, it is just the reality of what can happen when it comes to Addiction healing.

So what exactly does recovery entail? Typically recovery is a multiple fold process involving exploration and action to attend to physical, mental, emotional, relational, spiritual, cultural, and financial health. That’s a lot of categories because recovery requires a lot of action in a lot of different areas. Someone who has stopped using substances but not changed anything else in their lives will benefit somewhat from the changed behaviour, but may continue to experience a lot of problematic symptoms that were present during active using. This is not because the substances weren’t a problem (they were), but it means Addiction is a complex entity with many moving parts that need to be regarded. Sobriety without recovery can lead to the “dry drunk” phenomenon talked about in Alcoholics Anonymous. Basically this is someone who is not consuming alcohol but is usually quite miserable, emotionally unavailable, isolated, and unwell in many ways.

I professionally am a huge proponent of recovery first and foremost. I find this usually leads to sobriety of some sort and I also believe that is healthy for the mind and body. But start where you can. If sobriety seems unreasonable, unattainable or undesirable but you are miserable and want some change, start taking recovery action. Work out. Deal with feelings. Develop different connections. Set boundaries. Do whatever you can and need to do to start taking care of yourself differently. Not sure where to start? Talk to someone. A friend, doctor, counsellor, HR person, whoever, to help you identify next steps. If sobriety is your first step, take it. This will hopefully lead you to explore other things. Past trauma. Attachment styles. Relational patterns. Stress management. There is no set recipe for Addiction treatment (though a lot of people want this) and this flexibility, though overwhelming at times, is also freeing and empowering.

By Paige Abbott, Registered Psychologist