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The New Definition of Sober

Once again, a word changes to keep up with shifts in the addiction field.

Key points

  • Experts have found it's unrealistic to think total abstinence of all substances is right for everyone.
  • It's a major shift in the field from past thinking.
  • Some addiction experts are leery about whether people with addictions can make good decisions about drug use.

We’ve seen multiple societal changes in our lifetime, from fashion trends to laws, to name just two, and as I wrote in my last post, there have been a number of changes to the thinking in the addiction field. To accommodate those changes, it appears that the meaning of the word “sober” has changed.

According to a February article in the New York Times titled “What Does Being Sober Mean Today? For Many, Not Full Abstinence,” to be sober previously meant totally abstaining from alcohol and all other intoxicating substances. Today, it’s “used more expansively, including by people who have quit drinking alcohol but consume what they deem moderate amounts of other substances, including marijuana and mushrooms,” according to the article. That’s a sea change in how some people think about sobriety.

Dr. Nora Volkow, head of the National Institute on Drug Abuse, a division of the National Institutes of Health, was one of the people interviewed in this article. I have admired her work on addiction and the brain ever since I learned about her years ago. These days, she says, it’s unrealistic to say that “the only way out of an addiction is total and full sobriety” for all patients and that it’s OK for some people to substitute marijuana for highly addictive drugs like opioids.

I’ve been leery of the effects of marijuana for years. An addiction counselor once told me that people have gone to treatment because they couldn’t stop smoking pot, which means, in effect, that they were addicted to it. So, even though it’s been legal for a while, it qualifies as an intoxicating substance. I would have liked to have seen that mentioned in the article.

It may take some of us—especially sober siblings who have worried about our brothers and sisters with alcohol or substance use disorder—to undergo a mental shift to deal fully with this new definition of sobriety, and we are not the only ones. The New York Times writer interviewed Doctor Joseph Lee, president of Hazelton Betty Ford Foundation, who is of the opinion that people with severe substance use problems are generally the least equipped to make wise decisions about drug use, and again, many of us who have dealt with our siblings who drink have felt the same way.

There’s also new vocabulary that goes along with the new definition of “sober.” Someone invented the term “California sober,” which encapsulates the new meaning of abstinence: substituting another, supposedly lesser substance for drinking.

We with loved ones who have become addicted will get used to the shift and the new definition. After all, it’s to help them, and that’s what we care most about.

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