clarifying some of the different cultural understandings of “sober” and not using alcohol and other drugs

*this pieces is in make all good things fall apart #3 by clementine morrigan and myself. it is available to order of the from the margins catalog.

there are different contemporary cultural understandings of “sober”, “addiction” and not using alcohol and other drugs. addiction is not a metaphor, it is the realest shit in my life. it’s not appropriate for people that do not have experience with heroin use to use the word junkie. it’s not appropriate for non-addicts to describe their experiences through the language of addiction. the conditions and consequences are not the same. addiction is primarily understood as a “disease”. i believe that this understanding of addiction leaves out complexity. this understanding of addiction as a disease legitimizes and prioritizes medical intervention of it. addiction is not just a medical matter. it is a social, political, psychological and spiritual phenomenon.

i am not a spokesperson for any 12-step fellowship but in a 12-step context, like alcoholics anonymous (AA), cocaine anonymous (CA) and narcotics anonymous (NA), “sober” is understood as abstinence from all drugs not just alcohol. the use of “sober” to describe abstinence is more common in AA than NA. coffee, tea and tobacco use is commonly used in 12-step circles. medication prescribed by a doctor and taken as instructed is considered appropriate. it is suggested that a person using prescribed medication is honest about their history of substance use with their doctor and themselves. i use sober to describe my recovery, it is a 12-step understanding. in NA, “clean” is used more often to describe abstinence. i used to use “clean” to describe my recovery but now refrain from using the word and opt for “sober” instead. a friend of mine provided some feedback to me and pointed out the long moralized history of “clean” & “dirty” dichotomy.

in popular culture, “sober” is more often understood as only not drinking alcohol. “sober” is also used to refer to a person that is not intoxicated, like a “sober mind”. a “sober mind” has a moralizing history as well. being sober within this context is highly valuable, virtuous and considered to having a “better than thou” attitude. personally, i have heard “sober” used to describe abstaining from a particular drug other than alcohol but this is rare.

“dry” is also used to describe spaces that do not serve alcohol or where alcohol is not allowed to be present. more often, i have noticed that “dry” is used to refer to spaces that don’t involve drinking in the anarchist, punk and DIY spaces. to me this has a negative connotation. in 12-step recovery spaces, alcoholics that are not practicing spiritual principles and just not drinking are referred to as “dry drunks”. a “dry drunk” is a person that is sober but still angry, bitter, resentful and characterized as living a non-spiritual life. the idea is that they are an alcoholic that is quite unhappy while being sober and pretty much might as well be drinking. “dry” alludes to a drink or the drunk being empty, void and nothing. my recovery and sobriety are not dry rather they are full with gratitude, life and spirituality. this is why i prefer to refer to spaces that do not involve drinking as sober spaces.

straight edge culture in hardcore and punk music also values not using alcohol and other drugs. sometimes straight edge culture also promotes not having promiscuous sex. this culture has a long history of being moralizing suggesting that if you’re not straight edge and not using substances then you’re a bad person. i have also heard about straight edge people assaulting and beating up on people that are smoking cigarettes, drinking or using other drugs at shows. the moralizing of not using alcohol and other drugs within straight edge culture is wrapped up in white supremacy and misogyny. although i love hardcore music and am sober, straight edge culture hasn’t really appealed to me as much because of this. this is not to say that all straightedge people are assholes rather it is important to highlight a part of the history of this cultural movement. i do have friends that are addicts in recovery, straight edge and equip themselves with PMA (positive mental attitude). there is a “queeredge” sub-culture creeping up and this appeals to me more because it works to make space for queer, trans, women and racialized people more visible in the hardcore music scenes.

i do not wish to moralize my sobriety. i have a strong affinity with addicts and alcoholics whether using or not before people that choose sobriety or to not use alcohol and other drugs. there are also people that do not drink or use other drugs for their own reasons. i really wish to change to culture of sobriety within understandings of addictions and substance use. i want people to know that whether an addict or an alcoholic is using or not, that they are worth it.

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2 Responses to clarifying some of the different cultural understandings of “sober” and not using alcohol and other drugs

  1. jhalladay13 says:

    I appreciate your candor! As a Recovering Addict, I refer to myself as clean, period.

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