Anyone who loves somebody in recovery from addiction, or is in recovery themselves, knows that the road to long-term sobriety doesn’t always follow a linear path. Many times before a person finally becomes abstinent from drugs and alcohol there are periods of setbacks, relapses, heartbreak, and financial struggles. For those fortunate enough to achieve remission from the disease process, it is a hard-fought battle, won with the help of parents, relatives, doctors, therapists, treatment centers, churches and support groups. Anyone who has witnessed someone pick up their anniversary chip or key tag in a 12 Step Meeting will attest to the fact that the journey to obtain lasting recovery is worth the effort.
But what happens when the initial rush of recovery wears off?
Since my first days in the world of recovery, I heard a disparaging phrase used to describe people who were abstinent from alcohol and drugs, but were still dealing with other issues which were affecting their quality of life. These so-called “dry-drunks” were sometimes banished to the fringes where many times they were forced to figure out their problems on their own. From the beginning, the term ‘dry-drunk’ left a bad taste in my mouth, probably because I know what harsh self-critics people in recovery are. And because after watching many friends die from the disease of addiction, I knew that if a person stayed sober, they at least had a chance to confront and conquer whatever demon was plaguing them. In active drug addiction there is no hope for self-correction. As I became seasoned as an alcohol and drug counselor, acquiring more knowledge about co-occurring mental disorders, process addictions, and the effects of trauma on the brain, I began to cultivate a deep sympathy for those struggling in their recovery, especially those with years of abstinence.
As a result, I devote much of my practice to helping people move towards that elusive state of being that Bill Wilson, the founder of Alcoholics Anonymous, called emotional sobriety. What is emotional sobriety? It probably depends on who you ask; but to me emotional sobriety is when a person is no longer running from their addiction, but instead are moving towards their highest purpose. It is living a life free from constant anxiety and depression, not fettered to compulsive patterns of behavior and unfulfilling or abusive relationships. It is striving towards compassion for one’s self, one’s loved ones, and even one’s enemies. Emotionally sober people live in truth, not in shame; they are not perfectionistic, but they do not shy away from the challenge of making themselves better people. Emotionally sober people make mistakes, but they don’t make excuses. They understand that sickness, death, and unpleasant feelings don’t mean that life is going badly, it means that I am a human being, with human emotions, and human frailties.’
Lastly, and maybe most importantly, emotionally sober people know that if you haven’t struggled and suffered at some point in your sobriety, then you haven’t been sober very long. They deeply understand the old spiritual aphorism that “it is better to be a living dog than a dead lion.” To have recovered from a disease that kills millions of people every year is no small accomplishment. That the addiction manifests in other areas is just the nature of the disorder. I am always deeply moved by the courage of people who are willing to sit in my office and admit that they still have some work to do on themselves. Their humility is to be admired. They are the ones who will break patterns of dysfunction that extend back through the generations. They will be the ones to map the final frontier of emotional sobriety.