Skip to main content

Verified by Psychology Today


The Meaning of Sobriety

How 12-step newspeak robs and misleads us.

"Sobriety" is a word whose 12-step misuse now pervades our entire culture, along with ruining addiction treatment.

Sobriety actually means, first, not being intoxicated. It does not mean abstinence, as AA takes it to mean. In fact, the DSM psychiatric manual (unbeknownst to virtually everyone who uses it, including even experts who write about it) contains no abstinence criterion for recovery (actually called remission). Addiction and remission are about the absence of problems—using or not using a substance.

I can't tell you how many times I have had discussions with people—often the families of those who have just been indoctrinated at some 12-step mill—that recovery is not making sure that the person never uses any psychoactive substance again for the rest of their lives. It is about the person's being alert to and proceeding in life. Likewise, recovery housing on college campuses and elsewhere is about shutting people off from life—keeping them away from usual activities and "non-recovering," i.e., regular, people. I call this the creation of recovery pods.

AA's monomania, its abstinence fixation, actually interferes with recovery.

Recovery/remission is about maintaining focus and engagement in life. The word "sober" conveys an overall seriousness and purpose a person has. By promoting the goal of addiction treatment to be ONLY the absence of something—not drinking or using (an impossibility in many of the new addictions we are recognizing, like eating, shopping, electronic media, sex, love, etc.)—the 12 steps miss the most important part of recovering. (Notice this is not the permanent state of "being in recovery," another 12-step neologism that locks people forever in their addictions.)

The same is true in neurochemistry's search for a pill to cure addiction, which actually means using a pill to stop using one or another substance. As I point out in the current Practical Recovery (SM) Newsletter, this is barking up the wrong tree to recovery (as well as an impossibility).

So, while the cutting edge of addiction theory and practice recognizes that purpose is the solution for addiction, the 12 steps and neurochemistry lock our minds on nothingness. As Ilse Thompson and I say in Recover!, Stop Thinking Like an Addict,

Let’s look at the word “sobriety.” In the real world, sobriety means not being impaired. In 12-step speak, sobriety means never taking any consciousness-altering substance, ever. This fixation on abstinence requires that people who recover through the 12 steps decide that their lives revolve around an empty space. Not only is that undesirable, it’s unsustainable. You can’t commit your life to nothingness, only to health, your goals and plans, and your belief in yourself.

Here's a funny, but incisive, comment:

Dr. Peele, How dare you

Submitted by cmw on February 17, 2014

Dr. Peele,
How dare you contemplate that there is more to life than black and white thinking, outside the box thought, yes and no answers. How dare you suggest that change ultimately occurs because of decisions (thinking) people make for themselves. Why would you suggest people change with they are HURT ENOUGH and HAVE TO, or when the LEARN ENOUGH AND WANT TO. How dare you suggest that people overcome addiction out of purpose-based motivation—they quit when they recognize how their habit violates who they were (believe they can do it), what they want to be (purpose), where they want to go in life (faith in self).

Stanton Peele has been at the cutting edge of addiction theory and practice since writing, with Archie Brodsky, Love and Addiction in 1975; find him on Facebook and Twitter.

More from Stanton Peele Ph.D.
More from Psychology Today