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On our obsession with abstinence

Posted byWritten by David

Why do we fixate on sobriety or abstinence regarding addiction and alcohol or drug problems?

For so long, the only socially and clinically acceptable outcome was the complete cessation of use for the rest of one’s life.

“Get on the wagon,” they say, “you’re an alcoholic now and forever.”

Fall off the wagon, you’re a failure.

Why are you a failure? 

Because you’re an alcoholic and that’s what you do. You fail. Always.

In the infamous words of the most recent former prime minister of England, Boris Johnson, “Them’s the breaks.”

This is B.S.

You’re not a failure. 

You don’t have to be an alcoholic for the rest of your life. 

And some of those wagons really suck and you should have gotten off a long, long time ago. 

Society and clinical care have conspired to perpetuate this binary measure of success and failure. 

While abstinence has undoubtedly saved people’s lives — including yours truly; it has also harmed and likely resulted in the deaths of many more.

The binary construct doesn’t care WHY you drink. It just wants you to not drink. You’re not good at it. You get in trouble. YOU are trouble. Damn to hell your feelings, just stop drinking. 

In some ways, this view is reasonable. It comes from a place of experienced harm and negative consequences. Families are destroyed. People are injured and killed. Communities bear immense economic and social burdens.

And because there are more people not causing harm than are causing harm, the minority loses.

“Hey alcoholic! Want back into society? Own your alcoholic badge — stop denying who you truly are. Commit to an outcome that is only realized on your deathbed. Do that, accept your eternal shame, and we’ll let you back in to the flock.” 

Human beings are more than one thing. We are complex and complicated. We live long lives. We change. We grow. We discover new identities.

But this one identify, once obtained, is forever etched, forever shackled to our being like a ball and chain.

It’s heavy.

Some carry this identity with pride, with gratitude. 

We’ve been to the pit of hell. We found our way out. And we’re experiencing a life we never thought was possible. What’s not to be proud and grateful of?

Here, here!

What we need, however, is a little more grace, a little more compassion, and a little more nuance.

We need this shift across society and in our clinical care systems. 

People are more than whether they do or do not do one thing.

What’s important is that we celebrate change and the attempts to change. 

We must embrace the areas of good that perpetually exist in every person’s life no matter how bad things are or how big the setbacks.

When we focus on sober or not sober as our only measure of success, we become blind to the colorful tapestry of life that can demonstrate hope, growth, strength, and resilience.

Why do we fixate on sobriety or abstinence, because it’s easy.

It’s black or white. Good or bad.

But in the immortal words of John F. Kennedy, we should focus notions of success beyond the binary of sobriety or abstinence, not because it is easy, but because it is hard.

We will unpack this further in conversation during a LinkedIn audio event, Wednesday 28 SEPT 2022. Join Patrick McGowan and I in discussion.

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Measuring beyond sobriety