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No, You Can’t Define Sobriety On Your Own Terms & Here’s Why

As a member of various online sober communities, I see more and more people attempting to define sobriety on their terms as if this descriptor is somehow fluid.

Peppered into my Facebook Newsfeed are iterations of the following:

  • I identify as sober, but I still drink a little here and there.
  • I had a glass of wine at dinner last night, but I’m still sober. I’m not going to let it get to me!

In the comment thread, an inevitable war ensues.

Those who have a few years of sobriety under their belt are quick to call the commenters out. And equally, there are the sober curious, and newbies who come to rally in support.

It’s a very slippery slope. One that has led many people to relapse.

So let’s talk about it!

And we’ll start with the ever-controversial. What happens if you drink alcohol again?

A glass of wine with a circle slash and a warning sign graphic. The title reads Why there's no wiggle room in sobriety
No, you can’t define sobriety on your own terms.

Sobriety by the Number: Do you have to start over at zero if you drink?

In one of these groups, a well-intending newcomer posted the following comment (which I am paraphrasing out of respect for her privacy):

Why do we have to start over at zero if we make a mistake and drink? It ends up making me feel so much worse about myself. Why can’t we just use fractions? Why can’t we say I’ve been sober for 44/45 days? A lot of people get depressed by the number when they slip up and it drives some people to suicide. I think fractions are better.”

Before I dive into why I believe this way of thinking is dangerous, let me say that I empathize with the woman who wrote it.

She lost an alcoholic parent to suicide. I also understand completely the devastation of making it 30, 40, or 50 days without alcohol and then drinking again.

But here’s why you can’t do fractions or play around with the number.

  1. The definition of sobriety is fixed for those who cannot control or have a healthy relationship with alcohol. You cannot change it. It is an abstention from alcohol, and it’s not up for negotiation.  
  2. If you are in recovery or have a problematic relationship with alcohol, the number matters. You cannot allow yourself to entertain loopholes like fractions.

The Definition of Sobriety

If you open up the dictionary, you’ll probably see something like this.

Sobriety (noun) – 1. The state or quality of being sober 2. Temperance or moderation, especially in the use of alcoholic beverages 3. Seriousness or solemnity

Sober (adj) – 1. Not intoxicated or drunk, 2. Habitually temperate especially in the use of alcohol

Someone with a discerning eye might say, “Aha! See that bit about moderation? It can mean drinking A LITTLE or not at all!”

Yes, the literal definition of sobriety does mean that, but we aren’t talking about the dictionary definition of sobriety when we speak about it, are we?

If you are a member of sober online communities, chances are you joined because you recognize that there is or might be a problem with alcohol in your life.

In fact, if you’re unsure, you can take the quiz at the end of this article.

If you are on the path to sobriety, the end goal has to be a total abstention from alcohol. 

If you are on a path to moderation, one I do NOT recommend for people who abuse alcohol, then you’re not sober, and you’re not trying to be (which is perfectly fine!).

Moderation is a GOOD thing. It’s what everyone who doesn’t routinely abuse alcohol should aim for. It’s important to note this distinction.

Who is sobriety for?

Regarding the aforementioned Facebook thread about fractions, one particular comment stood out.

Again, I will paraphrase to respect the commenter’s privacy.

I totally agree! The longest I quit was for ten months, and I refused to count the days. I’d still drink here and there, but I didn’t start over. I just accepted that I didn’t drink, but occasionally I did. In the end, though, I ended up binging for two years.

This comment fully encapsulates why counting and being a stickler about what sobriety means actually matters. Never mind the inherent contradiction of not drinking but occasionally drinking. Look how she ended it.

…I ended up binging for two years.

Mindset is everything in sobriety.

I’m not hating on her because I used to be her.

This was my mindset. I didn’t hang around in sobriety groups on Facebook (perhaps I should have) because my denial was next-level, but I always tried to negotiate my sobriety.

Every negotiation was a nudge in the direction of moderation, a fantasyland I refused to stop believing in.

And what would happen?

I would binge even harder than before, digging myself deeper and deeper into alcohol addiction. People like me for whom moderation is not remotely possible need the numbers. We need to know that sobriety means no drinking, and that’s not up for interpretation.

Why?

Because if you give us an inch, we’ll take an entire mile.

The Semantics of Sobriety

One thing I frequently hear people complain about is the idea that the recovery community does not have a monopoly on the term sobriety.

To that, I say, “The word means what it means.”

If you can moderate your drinking and live a wonderful life, kudos to you!

You’re not a big drinker? Maybe you like a little cocktail once in a blue moon, but for the most part, you don’t drink?

I am radiating with envy, my normie friend. Truly!

But you’re not sober.

If your relationship with alcohol is healthy enough that not drinking isn’t plaguing your thoughts daily, you probably don’t even need these groups.

But there are people who do, and they don’t need a revisionist version of sobriety making things harder.

We Need To Look Out For Each Other

I’m worried about the people for whom alcohol IS a problem but are constantly trying to define sobriety in terms that will allow them to drink a little despite knowing full well that it will probably lead to dangerous behavior and binging. 

Here’s where the semantics game becomes problematic.

When these groups are mixed with people who are sober curious, folks in denial about the extent of their drinking problem, and teetotalers, things get messy.

I don’t believe everyone has to take a black-and-white view of alcohol consumption. I just believe that everyone for whom drinking is a problem should.

If you’ve reached the point in your life where drinking is causing major problems for you, and you’re unable to cut back or stop drinking despite the tremendous harm it’s doing, then you have to stop.

You need support, a recovery program or counseling, and a firm commitment to sobriety.

Avoiding Relapse Traps Online

What you do NOT need is a bunch of strangers on the internet giving you the bright idea that you can claim sobriety and still have a glass here or there.

You can’t.

Please recognize that when people do that, they’re not helping you. In fact, you’re enabling each other to continue destructive behavior.

When someone sees those comments as permission to have “just one,” and it turns into a full-blown relapse, they know they can return to this echo chamber and receive assurances that it’s all okay. Just keep trying!

How is that useful?

Fractions, Moderation, and Other Ways We Try To Get Out Of Quitting Drinking

When I see comments from people in these groups seeking validation for not starting over at zero if you drink or counting days or reclaiming the title of “sober” after a couple of drinks at dinner, I feel sad.

The reason I’m sad is because I know where this is leading.

These women (these are generally women-only groups) are at a crossroads in their lives. They know drinking is a problem. Perhaps they’ve done some truly awful things, and they’re trying to get a handle on it by themselves, and it’s hard.

But hanging out in the gray area is dangerous. It’s a one-way ticket to relapse.

If you don’t commit fully to the recovery process, you’re going to find yourself in a similar headspace. You’ll want to say that you have 44 out of 45 days sober so you can erase the big mistake you made, but guess what is going to happen?

That little voice inside your head trying to get you to drink? Oh, that little voice is going to seize upon your new outlook on sobriety.

Next thing you know, 44 out of 45 will probably become 44 out of 46. Still a good number, right? It’s just two days. What’s the harm?

And then that ratio will continue until you’re facing 44 out of 70 and ready to give up and go back to binging if you haven’t already.

You can’t live happily inside this kind of purgatory.

All this negotiation is a red flag.

And listen, I get it. Nobody wants to have this problem. Alcohol is everywhere. We don’t want to give it up. We want to be “normal.”

But so much of that fear of sobriety is rooted in a lack of belief that there are genuine benefits waiting for you in sobriety.

But there are! And this is how you get there.


You don’t have to figure this out on your own.

Soberish is proudly sponsored by BetterHelp. If you have tried (and failed) to find a qualified therapist who gets you, try BetterHelp. Get 10% off your first month when you click the link below.

Coming To Terms With Needing To Get Sober

During the last few months, before I chose sobriety for good, I was on a similar path.

I drank after a three month stint at sobriety. Then I didn’t drink again for about a month. The next time I drank, three weeks had passed.

Some people may look at that and think, “Okay! That’s normal.”

It wasn’t though.

Every time I drank, I binged. I binged cigarettes and alcohol. And in between those episodes, I wrestled with whether or not I was going to keep this up.

I thought about it constantly.

Can I just drink every few weeks? What if I go back to binging every night? How long before I can drink again? What are the conditions under which drinking is okay?

People who do not have issues with alcohol do not have to think about these things.

The effort was exhausting. Even though I hadn’t gone back to my daily binge YET, I knew I couldn’t keep going like I was – what it would eventually devolve back into.

You’re either on this path to sobriety, or you’re not. There’s no room for wiggling.

Once I accepted that an enormous burden was lifted off my shoulders. Sobriety would take a lot of hard work, but at least I didn’t have to keep fighting myself about whether or not I was actually going to do it.

Sobriety, Zeros, and Relapse

When you are addicted to something, relapse is likely to be a part of your journey. It doesn’t have to be! (Please do not read that line and think it somehow gives you permission to mess up.)

But here’s the reality – between 40-60% of people who have been treated for alcohol addiction will relapse within the first year. And that’s just for people who have actively sought treatment.

If you’re in that group, you’re not alone. I’m part of it, too. 

Relapse does not feel good.

I’ve had three major relapses on my journey to sobriety. I consider any return to drinking after a 3+ month attempt at sobriety a major relapse. I’ve certainly screwed up countless times more throughout the years.

Relapses can feel utterly devastating.

But they count. Every single one of them counts.

You have to start over. But you do NOT have to let the number define you.

It is possible to embrace the sober days that preceded the relapse positively while also acknowledging that you’re starting over. 

Take the lessons you learned from your sober streak and apply it to the next one.

What To Do With Your Mistakes

There’s some talk about the difference between slips and relapse.

A slip is accidentally consuming alcohol (like when the waiter gives you an actual piña colada instead of the virgin one you requested) or when someone pressures you, and you end up taking a pill or having a few sips of the drink that’s been shoved in your face.

A relapse would be going on a bender after that drink and abandoning your recovery plan altogether.

Someone who slips immediately realizes their mistake, removes themself from the situation, and goes see their sponsor or support system. Whether that person goes back to zero is up to them.

Personally, I say yes if they consciously made a slip, but that’s just my opinion. If you do start over, however, the narrative doesn’t have to be all doom and gloom.

I had 100 days sober, and then someone gave me a drink at a party, and I caved by having a sip. I immediately saw my sponsor and now I’m back on my sobriety game. Stronger than before!

This mindset is worlds apart from the person who says:

I drank a glass of wine at my cousin’s wedding, but it’s fine. I’m still sober.”

In the first example, you’re taking responsibility for your actions. In the second, you’re pretending it didn’t happen to avoid feeling bad.

Guess which mindset succeeds in the long term?

It’s okay to mess up.

It is not okay to brush it off like it’s no big deal. It is.

Unless you treat it as such, that one glass will become two or three, and before you know it, you’re right back where you started.

You must find the sweet spot between not beating yourself up and holding yourself fully accountable. 

The other side of that spectrum is allowing yourself to plummet into devastation.

If you mess up and decide that it defines you as this hopeless person who will never get it together, you’re taking the easy way out too.

Think about it.

If your relapse results from you being a fundamentally flawed person for whom there is no hope, then you’ve given yourself the excuse you need to stay exactly where you are.

It’s not your fault you can’t get sober. You’re just built wrong. 

This last place is where I frequently found myself – wallowing in a muck of my own making. I exhausted a lot of mental energy on hating myself, but did very little actual work in the real world.

My solution was to live inside my head and shut everything else out. You’ll never get sober if you’re doing that. You have to do something.

Learn from your mistakes and try again.

There’s a Japanese proverb that says, “Fall down seven times, get up eight.”

It has become a mantra for my life. I present it here as an alternative to the constant negotiation around what it means to be sober or how to track the days.

Everyone needs to take a step back and realize what these conversations about sobriety definitions and counting are masking – people’s attempts to try to fix a problem they haven’t fully admitted exists.

The problem is not that going back to zero makes you feel bad.

What is zero? It’s nothing.

But it represents a failure.

If you’re drinking excessively, chances are you’re trying to drown out feeling like a failure already. That zero is gasoline on an already blazing fire.

This just makes it worse.

Eliminating the zero or negotiating what sobriety does or does not mean will not fix the underlying issues that make you want to drink yourself numb.

Fixating on things like that is counterproductive.

Instead, I’d like to see the admins of these groups refocus the conversation towards solutions and actions. If someone in the group drank a glass (or bottle) of wine over the weekend, they’ve fallen down.

How do we help them get back up?

Recovery is a process, and I’m not suggesting people have to get it right the first, second, third, or fourth time (I certainly didn’t), but we need to do more than offer words of encouragement.

What resources and assistance can we offer people for whom the cycle of sobriety and relapse is never-ending? 

Because that’s what people need.

They need the ugly truth from people who have been there, some love and support, and an extra hand to get back up.

If you need help with that, the Soberish community (private Facebook group) is available to you.

We are a supportive bunch. Plenty of our members have had relapses, but they keep coming back and we are always there to embrace them. If you need that in your life, send a request to join.

For Added Sobriety Inspiration

I’ve mentioned my love of a particular scene in House of Cards where Doug Stamper speaks in an AA meeting before, but I think it’s relevant to this article as well.

If you don’t know anything about this character, he is ruthless, which makes his take on sobriety and counting all the more profound.

I’ll leave it here for you:

F*ck the zero.

Alcohol Use Quiz

This quiz is similar to the type of questionnaire you receive at a doctor’s office. It is not a substitute for an official diagnosis or medical advice. Use this for informational purposes only.

Welcome to your Alcohol Use (AUDIT) quiz

1. 
1. How often do you have a drink containing alcohol?

2. 
How many units of alcohol do you drink on a typical day when you are drinking?

A unit of alcohol is one standard drink. Examples of one standard drink include:

  • 12 oz can of beer with about 5% alcohol
  • 5 fl oz of wine (roughly 12% alcohol)
  • 1.5 fl oz shot of spirits like vodka, rum, or whiskey (about 40% alcohol)

3. 
How often have you had 6 or more units if female, or 8 or more if male, on a single occasion in the last year?

4. 
How often during the last year have you found that you were not able to stop drinking once you had started?

5. 
How often during the last year have you failed to do what was normally expected from you because of drinking?

6. 
How often during the last year have you needed an alcoholic drink in the morning to get yourself going after a heavy drinking session?

7. 
How often during the last year have you had a feeling of guilt or remorse after drinking?

8. 
How often during the last year have you been unable to remember what happened the night before because you had been drinking?

9. 
Have you or someone else been injured as a result of your drinking?

10. 
Has a relative or friend or a doctor or another health worker been concerned about your drinking or suggested you cut down?

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9 Comments

  1. It’s an all or nothing thing for me. I can’t conceive that you would hear herion addicts say its ok to have a little brown now and again. Nil by mouth has been the only solution for me.

  2. You offered a false choice: Either lie and say you’re sober, or fuck the zero.
    There is a third way, but I’ll leave that for you to ponder.
    That fuck-the-zero clip you showed at the end of your piece didn’t make sense considering what eventually happened to the character.
    In the clip you showed, He equated his ruthlessness on the job (ruining people and commiting murdert) to being ruthless enough with himself to not drink, so he would never go to zero—and he was rather proud of himself for it. Dramatic mic drop and all.
    But, think about it: ruthless enough to do both things—commit murder and never go to zero. And the pride. Don’t forget that.
    Well, as the show progresses, his character is eventually sacrificed by his employer. Yes, he is murdered, himself after being so loyal. So, counting days, in his case, was a hollow tool regards the quality of his life in the story, don’t you think???

    Had he been a little more willing to wrestle with his conscience maybe take mushrooms or something, he might have lived.

    AA is as a SPIRITUAL program: sobriety is a tool so we can experience truth. All we have is this—today! The purpose of a spiritual program, in deed of being sober is to face the truth, The goodness of today the way it is is the gift.
    Counting can be dogma that diverts us from larger truths that we must face, as your “fuck-the-zero” character eventually found out. He was murdered for being loyal to the wrong things. Sober but not wise.
    Do you think the writers of that scene knew it was so profound? Was it their point that his arrogance and ruthlessness to loyalty and fuck-the-zero attitude would lead him inevitably to his own betrayal and murder?
    How do you square that storyline?
    It’s a koan
    The whole reality of that show is a koan, a sad one.

  3. I am a “normie”. What should my response be, as a bartender, when someone asks me if I am a sober bartender? I never drink on the job. On my own time though, I may have a drink or I may not. I don’t think about it anymore than I think about buying a newspaper, a sweet or new kind of salad dressing. I could go my whole life without, but it is just a simple luxury to enjoy a drink if or when I feel like it. So, how does a “normie” answer the “Are you sober?”question?

  4. My belief is that if you are constantly questioning your alcohol intake then you have a problem. And it is nothing to be ashamed of. I have been living a beautiful sober life for three years.

      1. Hi.

        In early (~4 mo) sobriety, and needed to hear this.

        I’m not an AA’er, but actively doing the emotional work of recovery. For most things in my life, I despise black-and-white mentality. But I resonate so much with this story and with the story of countless others who struggle with addiction that it can’t be a coincidence. Our brains are just wired differently, for better or worse.

        Does it suck that I will most likely never be able to drink “normally” again (if, in fact, I ever really could)?

        Yeah, absolutely.

        But here’s what sucks more: being a miserable drunk, obsessing over how and how much to “moderate,” and the inevitable self-esteem spiral upon failing.

        I’ve found 100% abstinence light years easier than 95%. Not that I have ever been successful with the latter.

        Anyway. Thanks for your candor sans shaming. IWNDWYT.