When someone quits drinking alcohol, it is a personal and typically reactive decision.
In the choice to get sober, there is generally a reason why, whether that be out of necessity or choice. I first got sober out of necessity — to continue living life with my partner. The morning following a blackout, my boyfriend told me for the umpteenth time that I had a problem with drinking. But it was the first time he told me he was done with it.
With a threat like that, I went into autopilot and told him I’d get sober. Because it was a split decision, I didn’t know what my sobriety was supposed to look like. I was left wondering: Am I actually addicted to alcohol, or do I just not know how to drink? Did I need to go into a recovery program, or could I just go sober, aka “dry”?
Growing up with a biological father so sick with an addiction that it killed him, I knew what the serious need for recovery looked like. In other ways, it was a belief I didn’t deserve to go into recovery because I hadn’t reached an ugly, disastrous bottom. I hadn’t yet let alcohol take away my job, driver’s license, or my family. I still had those things. Forget the regular embarrassing stories, constant nausea, innate ability to blackout every time, constant obsessive thoughts, and inability to make it through Dry January.
I was left wondering: Am I actually addicted to alcohol, or do I just not know how to drink? Did I need to go into a recovery program, or could I just go sober, aka “dry”?
For gray area drinkers, it can be challenging to name their sobriety, so I visited a counselor who specialized in helping people unravel their relationship with alcohol. In our meeting, she encouraged me to attend a mutual-help group, read anything and everything about recovery, and connect with other sober people. It is through these ways that I realized I was not only worthy of recovery but I likely wouldn’t stay sober without those things. I could not go the other path and simply give up drinking, I needed to change my way of life.
Because defining my sobriety was such a swirl of confusion, I wanted to connect with someone else and understand the other path — not going into recovery but simply staying sober. One of the wonderful things about sobriety is that my network of women has grown into the hundreds. I was introduced to Alyssa Hart of Austin, Texas, through a mutual member of the Sober Curious MeetUp in Chicago. Alyssa has been sober for two years and doesn’t consider herself in recovery, but rather “sober.”
Together, we discussed the commonalities and differences our paths led us. Though I was left wondering, “Do I go into recovery or go dry?”, Alyssa had a more established path, knowing she wasn’t addicted to it. To answer the question — how to know if you should go into recovery or go dry — we first defined what the two paths actually mean.
Defining “Dry” vs. “In Recovery”
When I was first getting sober, I thought there were only two paths to sobriety: Active recovery or quitting cold turkey and not changing anything else in your life, i.e. “going dry.” This notion I had that sobriety could only be described in two ways might stem from watching my dad struggle with staying sober. He was probably someone that should have sought a recovery program but instead, he had repeated and failed stints of sobriety. Being “dry” was my only other example of sobriety until I spoke with Alyssa.
“It felt weird at first to call myself sober because that word has carried so much weight for a lot of people for so long,” says Alyssa, “But for me, ‘sober’ can just mean I don’t drink. And what people interpret from that is not my responsibility.”
“For me, ‘sober’ can just mean I don’t drink. And what people interpret from that is not my responsibility.”
I like Alyssa’s use of “sober” because it indicates you don’t have to be sick or suffering from something to change your life. On the other hand, recovery means “a return to a normal state of health, mind, or strength.” To me, this means by going into recovery from substance use disorder, you’re admitting something was off-balance. That is the key differentiator between the two.
While there are different paths to staying sober, a couple of things are pertinent to defining your sobriety. Self-discovery and community or connection were key factors in mine and Alyssa’s decisions to go sober or into recovery. Through these tools, we were able to find a sobriety plan that works for us.
Self-Discovery is Key
Alyssa wasn’t as perplexed as I was early in sobriety, but we did both go through a period of uncovering and examination of ourselves in the beginning. When you quit, understanding why you drank, whether you’re addicted to it or not, is fundamental in defining your sobriety.
Just before getting sober, Alyssa was regularly attending Al-Anon meetings. There, she began to identify patterns of alcohol misuse in family members and how they impacted her.
“I didn’t quit because I was addicted to it or felt I was struggling with abuse or misuse of alcohol. I just got to a point where I realized alcohol wasn’t serving me,” explains Alyssa.
To help her begin to unravel and shift her thinking about sobriety, Alyssa immersed herself in the newness of it. She listened to podcasts, and meditated. Most of all, she learned to appreciate the new time alone. Not drinking freed up her schedule and embrace the quiet moments. Through these avenues, Alyssa determined what she wanted from a life free of booze and that set her on her path of sobriety.
“I didn’t quit because I was addicted to it or felt I was struggling with abuse or misuse of alcohol. I just got to a point where I realized alcohol wasn’t serving me.”
The tools she used in her self-discovery are not far from mine in recovery. In my early recovery, I wrote and journaled, regularly did yoga, attended therapy, and read. These things gave me an opportunity to self-reflect and conclude that my relationship with alcohol was unhealthy and I was worthy of changing it. By taking inventory of myself, I realized I drank to avoid and anesthetized, which would require work to rewire.
In getting sober, one of the first and best things you can do in the beginning is to explore your internal thinking and relationship with alcohol. Understanding why you drank can be key in defining your sobriety. You can do this by attending therapy, finding blogs and resources online, reading memoirs, attending sobriety-based meetings, or finding groups on MeetUp, listening to podcasts, meditating, journaling, or just sitting and thinking.
Community and Connection
The other tool that helped Alyssa and I define our sobriety was connecting with other sober humans, locally and online. Hearing other people’s hopes, fears and stories about sobriety can help you relate thinking back to your own relationship with alcohol. It can also be helpful to speak to your own experiences.
A community for me entailed getting to know individual women in my 12-step meetings, attending meetings for the Sober Curious MeetUp, and starting a blog to share my journey and have people share theirs. By listening to others in similar circumstances, I heard tidbits I related to and nuggets of sobriety plans I could implement in my own life. And because my path to sobriety felt so ambiguous, understanding I wasn’t alone made the journey feel less daunting and scary.
Hearing other people’s hopes, fears and stories about sobriety can help you relate thinking back to your own relationship with alcohol. It can also be helpful to speak to your own experiences.
For Alyssa, connection with other sober humans has evolved in her time sober. Her two best friends from college — who live out of state — are in recovery which has made for an invaluable support system. By having friends who were already sober, it made her new journey feel more attainable.
Then a year into her sobriety, the local community became a pillar in Alyssa’s sobriety system. In the aftermath of a breakup, Alyssa eventually found herself involved with the Sans Bar community in Austin giving her a taste of in-person support. Now, she is an ambassador to the organization and advocates to help make community easier for those who are sober or considering sobriety.
Connecting with other like-minded people can help you relate and curate a sobriety plan that works for you. Also talking about your own feelings can be a relieve pent-up tension or grievances.
Defining your sobriety — whether you go into recovery, go dry or sober — can be baffling and overwhelming at first. Alyssa and I had different roads to sobriety but getting there and staying sober looked similar. If you’re contemplating sobriety and don’t know if you should go into recovery or just be sober, take the time to explore your soul and enjoy the process of self-discovery.