Harry Smith

Thoughts on Sobriety

Abstinence from alcohol has been the trigger for huge positive change. More importantly, I've begun to understand what it even means to be sober.

The first time I tried to write this it was over 6000 words. At the heart of sobriety is the tension between conflict and resolving conflict. Positive action, and negative action. The correct path is not always clear, to me or any anyone else. The writing came to reflect that. One paragraph was a desperate rallying cry against drinking. The next a fitful discussion of mindfulness. What was I trying to say? Am I trying to fight a war against drinking? Am I telling my story? Is it even useful to tell this story?

I find the cultural fascination in the UK of booze fascinating. It serves a useful platform to talk about goals and failure. It might underpin the reason why many feel unachieved in life. I had hoped to put together a compelling argument against drinking. Truth is, I fell short or articulating it. Though I am unqualified to write that article, I can give justice to some of the lessons I’ve learnt.

The advantages of avoiding heavy drinking are obvious.

The advantages of not drinking at all are less so.

Complete abstinence from alcohol can seem an extreme stance. For others, it seems far too aspirational a goal. I have moved from both ends of this spectrum. There was a time when I thought it sacrilege not to drink. Somewhat more recently, it felt as if achieving sobriety was a long way off. Nice to have, but not something I was going to achieve. In the end, there was a middle road that lead to my stopping drinking. In a way, it’s this simple discovery that has been most profound.

For me, these lessons came from not drinking. For many others abstinence from alcohol will have the same positive effect. But, these lessons could be learnt from abstinence from anything.

First you learn to analyse your own behaviour, and confront it with open, honest arms. It’s no coincidence that most addiction programs begin with acceptance. Once you learn it with abstinence, apply it to all areas of life. We all act sometimes in discordance with our personal values. In general, sobriety is putting space between your desires and your actions. To build this space, you must be able to see how you generate your actions. With a bit of reflection you might be able reverse the causation. You don’t drink to escape your mistakes, your mistakes are being caused by the drink - for example.

Developing this space between action and desire is at the heart of sobriety. When I first stopped drinking, the urge to give up was strong. I’d opened up a little gap between my thoughts and my intelligence, and my thoughts wanted it back. It’s Jerry Seinfield who said ‘Do not confuse the mind with brain’. There is this hopeless feeling that comes with the opening stages of abstinence. The cravings are strong, the desire still exists. Without developing this space you are destine to fail. This is because you have associated that craving with your self. The craving is natural, unavoidable. A consequence of depriving the brain of any pleasurable activity that isn’t good for it.

You are not the craving. You are not your failures. You are not your desires. You are your actions. View your cravings in this way, and you need much less willpower to overcome them.

A deeper understanding of your cravings will allow you stay the path with all your pursuits. Every project, task or goal follows a familiar pattern. There is the initial phase, where work is quick and exciting. There is then the slog, where things get more complex and the full caliber of the project begins to take shape. Then there is the finale, which takes much longer than you’d think. At each transition between phases there is a little burst of resistance, a very strong pull to stop. Conquer it for a few hours, and it’ll pretty much disappear. Choosing sobriety is like doing this process on steroids. If you can conquer in it’s hardest form, imagine the strength and capability it could teach you.

We can not fight our demons by ignoring them. We can not escape them through our vices. There is a middle path, a path of right action. Only through accepting our demons can you begin to change them. The path of right action doesn’t mean that it is an easy path. Or an enjoyable path. It is necessary that sometimes it is not enjoyable. Sobriety is a journey of choosing to the right thing in the face of wrong things. Even when those wrong things bring pleasure. This is why full abstinence is powerful, it is not possible to walk both paths at the same time. If you are able to look at your vices with honesty and say, ‘These are of no consequence to my goals’, then keep them. Though I suspect that this can not be true for anyone. If not alcohol as it was for me - there is something. If you have never considered it, I am certain there will be something. The wrong choices are too enticing.

Similar articles to this list the somewhat obvious benefits of their chosen abstinence. They rarely have spurred me into meaningful change, so I don’t see why replicating it would be useful. I’m still learning what it means to walk this path, and I felt like I’d done it long enough to share some words on it. I don’t want to be disingenuous and suggest that my life is free from poor choices. It isn’t. But I do think that I’ve managed to make a small beachfront, a place to fight for something more. Someone ight read this and it will make the right dots connect for them, as something similar did for me 6 months ago.

Your demons may have been ejected from the building, but they’re out in the parking lot, doing push-ups.

10% Happier, Dan Harris

Get all new articles in your inbox.

Read Next

The Remarkable Magic of Hobbies
Change Tactics, Not Strategy
This vs That