OK, You’re Clean, But Are You Sober?

§ Part of the Recovery Is NOT For Quitters series §

I had heard the phrase “clean and sober” many, many times before I came to understand what it really means. Like a lot of people, I assumed that when someone said this they meant that were no longer doing drugs (clean) OR drinking (sober). I have since come to learn that it means so very much more than that.

Many people begin their adventure in recovery with some misguided notions about sobriety and what it means. The two biggest misconceptions are these:

  • To be sober all I have to do is get clean and I do that by not using drugs or alcohol
  • Once I’m sober all of my problems will be gone

These two ideas are not only false, but if not understood as early as possible, can lead a newcomer down a path of despair and relapse!

I think we can all agree that the idea of being “clean” is actually very simple (not necessarily easy), but let’s make it clear so we are all on the “same page.” For the purposes of this discussion, being clean simply means not using drugs or alcohol. More so, we could just as easily say that it means not taking part in actions that feed addiction – using drugs, drinking, gambling, viewing pornography, whatever the object of the addiction is.

Easy enough, right? We’re clear on what being clean is. What about sobriety? Doesn’t the fact that we are no longer using or actually participating in the object of our addiction also make us sober? Absolutely not! Not using is a part of sobriety, obviously necessary, but still only a part of leading a clean and sober life.

So, What Is Sobriety?

Merriam Webster says this:

Sobriety : the quality or state of being sober

OK, that’s really not very helpful. If we can’t figure at least that much out, we’re in for some real trouble. Let’s take a look at the definition of sober.

Again turning to Merriam Webster-


  1. a : sparing in the use of food and drink b : not addicted to intoxicating drink c : not drunk
  2. : marked by sedate or gravely or earnestly thoughtful character or demeanor
  3. : unhurried, calm
  4. : marked by temperance, moderation, or seriousness
  5. : subdued in tone or color
  6. : showing no excessive or extreme qualities of fancy, emotion, or prejudice

Incidentally and slightly off topic, definition 1b, “not addicted to intoxicating drink”, suggests something I have mentioned in other posts in this series. I do not believe that addiction is an incurable disease. According to this definition, if someone is addicted they cannot be sober. Logically, the reverse must be true – the only way someone can be sober is by not being addicted. This, in turn, leads to the conclusion that addiction can be cured. If not, by this definition no one who is or has ever been addicted can ever hope to be sober. This is a ridiculous idea! Alright, back to the subject at hand.

Notice that only definition number 1 has anything to do with physical actions. The remaining definitions deal with character or state of mind. This is a very important point as it leads us to what being sober truly means.

Life presents problems for everyone. Not knowing how to face these problems head on, the addict finds them to be completely overwhelming and turns to the object of their addictive behavior to try to gain even a minuscule amount of relief from them. Time and time again, this inevitably leads to problems of a more serious, and far too often, even deadly nature.

Gary Waters/Getty Images/Ikon Images

That life’s problems will not just go away is a hard, cold fact that every person on the planet must deal with. Through counseling, meetings and treatment programs, recovery teaches us new ways to think. Changing our thinking is the key to  becoming not just clean, but sober. We learn how to face life’s challenges without falling back into addictive behavior.

Recovery teaches us how to live in the manner described by definitions two through six listed above. Recovery does not remove life’s problems, but teaches us how to deal with them effectively without drugs and alcohol.

I can’t tell you how many times I’ve met someone who has the clean part down, but is still lacking in the sober part. How can you tell? One sign is that they seem to be  mean spirited, crotchety, and focus only on the negative aspects of their lives.  They’ll even sit in meetings and repeat positive quotes from the “Big Book,” but it’s obvious that they are not living what they are saying they believe.

Another common catch phrase is “Fake it til you make it.” Personally I think this is a dangerous way to approach sobriety. It can become too easy to fake it and go on faking it while never actually making positive changes. I think this is especially true when it comes to our emotional health. Being angry, sad, disgruntled, whatever negative emotion you can name, is normal. These kinds of emotions must be experienced in order to be a whole, balanced individual. They key is working through these types of emotions and recognizing them for what they are – part and parcel of existence for every human being. Not dealing with them is almost like not cleaning an infected cut. The infection festers and continues to spread.

Do not let this rather simplistic overview of what sobriety is make you think it’s all easy. I would be lying to you if I said it was. It can be very difficult at times. It takes hard work and a strong desire for a sober and happy life! As they say, totally doable. You too can do it, but be prepared to work at it! Before long, you will find yourself making progress that you can be proud of! Ask for help, there are many who have been there and are now leading healthy and happy lives. The best part is that most of them are willing to share their experience and hope so that you too can experience the wonder and beauty of being clean and sober.

Living a clean and sober life does not mean that every day is going to be full of love, light and beautiful rainbows, but it will certainly lead to many more such days.

Questions or comments on this post? Let me know!

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