Does Sobriety = Abstinenance?

Updated: Jun 29

Something that consumed my mind when I first quit drinking was what it meant to be "sober." If I took ibuprofen, would that mean I wasn't sober? If I occasionally hit a joint, would that mean that I lost the title? What about people who take antidepressants or anxiety medication? Does medication exempt you from being sober? What about caffeine? Or nicotine? All of these questions swirled around in my brain like a whirlpool, as I tried to figure out what constituted the definition of sobriety. All I knew was that I had quit drinking alcohol, and to me, that was more than enough to be proud of.

In August, my boyfriend and I took a roadtrip up the east coast. On the second day of the trip, we were wandering around New York City when I felt an intense ache in the left side of my back. I felt bloated, and I was dealing with excruciating pain. This past year, I've had a run-in with kidney stones, but this one was no joke. Ibuprofen wasn't working, and we had a concert to go to that night. All I knew was that I wasn't about to do a raincheck on seeing Jason Mraz on a beautiful pier overlooking the water in NEW YORK CITY. My boyfriend pointed out that weed was legal in the state, so I decided to try it as a pain relief. After we stopped at a discrete smoke shop, we sat on the bench so I could sit in a comfortable position, and he rolled up a jay. I hit a few puffs, and even though the kidney pain remained, it was much more bearable. I could actually walk around and relax my facial muscles so I didn't look like I was constipated! (I can joke about it now, but kidney stones really are no joke. Ask any doctor, they can be more painful than giving birth).

Once I started feeling better, a concerning thought popped into my head: Can I still consider myself sober? I felt intense fear enter my body. I had worked so hard, and I was terrified that using marijuana as a pain reliever would mean I had to start all over again on day one. Nothing was scarier to me than starting over and seeing the number zero stare me in the eyes. I kept my concerns to myself, but they still lingered in my head. It wasn't until I read Holly Whitakers book "Quit Like a Woman," where I finally felt relief with my distressing questions.

In Holly's book, I found all the answers I was looking for and more. Your sobriety is how YOU define it. Sobriety doesn't come in a perfectly wrapped box... it's complicated, fluid, complex and different for everyone. It's unfair to tell someone they don't qualify as sober if they take medication for anxiety or depression, or anything else for that matter. It's nobody's place to tell you whether or not you are sober if you've quit a substance that was harmful to you. Sobriety does not check people into boxes, it invites them into the circle. Sobriety should not be conditional, and if the people around you make you feel like it is, I suggest finding better people to surround yourself with.

All of our relationships to substances are different. So yeah, I occasionally hit a joint, but does that mean that I'm not sober from alcohol? Hell no, because it doesn't take away from the fact that I quit alcohol after eight years of binge-drinking which was a really hard thing to do. I don't have an unhealthy relationship with marijauna, so personally, I can still own my sobriety. However, if I was still using it as a coping mechanism (like I used to), then I would probably have to reconsider my sobriety status.

What I've found is that even though I consider myself sober even when I take a puff of ganja every few months, I'm more drawn to abstinence as time goes on. Even when I do smoke, I find that I've started to prefer not to at all anymore. I've started to enjoy the benefits of the reality I live in, and don't feel the need to cloud my judgment with any substance. I recently quit coffee (it's almost been a month, wow) because I realized I was dependent on it for energy. Since I quit drinking caffeine, I have more natural energy throughout the day and have a much healthier sleep schedule. I think of it this way: I don't discard my sobriety when I take ibuprofen for my headaches, but sobriety has encouraged me to use natural peppermint oil instead.

Sobriety is not a one-solution fits all. If you're dependent on multiple substances at once, you don't have to quit them all to consider yourself sober. Hell, if you did, I think you'd be more likely to relapse. My journey into recovery was a long one, though not many know about it. I quit nicotine about two years ago, quit smoking weed everyday about a year and a half ago, and just quit drinking seven months ago. I never fully considered myself sober until I quit drinking, but that was how I defined my sobriety. Nobody can tell you what your sober story is, just like nobody can take that away from you. There are clear boundaries, however, so don't get me wrong. There's knowing your relationship with a substance isn't problematic and controlling your life, and on the opposite coin being in straight denial that you're using a substance as a coping mechanism. I'd say the ground rule is, if you quit a substance that was harmful to your wellbeing and are actively trying to heal without that substance, you're on a path of sobriety.

I'm not here to put people into boxes. I'm here to say that how people identify as sober is different, and that is okay. Be gentle with people, and try to see how far they've come before judging them for smoking weed after they quit drinking. It's their identity to claim, and not yours to take away. Remember that next time someone's sobriety doesn't fit into your expectation of what that looks like.

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