We don’t become well by stopping drinking, that isn’t enough, we become well by practising recovery and that skill has been dubbed “Sobrietry”. This isn’t like a science where if you learn enough of the facts you will become an expert, it is more like a craft. For example, if you bought a set of carpentry tools then this alone does not make you a carpenter. To be a carpenter you need a set of tools and the skill to use them capably… and this takes practise. It is the same with Sobrietry. This book has laid out the principal tools of recovery, but it takes practise to become able to use them successfully and this takes both time and application.
The effort involved in staying well reduces as we become more accomplished at using the tools, but the challenge is a stern one. We are driven into addiction by two key characteristics: we want more of the good stuff, and we want it now. This is what tips our reward system into a runaway state and sets us on a course into disaster. But these two characteristics are precisely the opposite of what is required in recovery. To stop drinking and to stay stopped we have to deny ourselves something now because it will help us later. This is a ridiculously difficult thing for us to achieve because it requires us to act against our very nature, and this is our Achilles heel. In order to become well we have to do something now (that we aren’t motivated to do) in order to gain some benefit later (which we don’t much care about). What causes our addiction also obstructs our recovery and we need to recognise this. Our brain actively works against our recovery, and in truth our fight is not with the bottle but with our own mind.
Our mind creates cravings for alcohol because it has mistakenly identified alcohol as something beneficial to us. But in our case it is not; it is disastrous. Our mind also creates plausible seeming reasons to drink in response to the cravings, but the cravings are falsely launched so the justifications are equally false. These justifications are supported by our memory which incorrectly presents drinking as something wonderful, whereas in reality it was awful. Our mind lies to us about alcohol but we have no direct way of preventing that from happening. Our task is to recognise the lies as they come and then counteract them by force of will. We never get ahead of the curve on this, it is always reactive. We have to recognise each lie as it comes; be it a craving, a self-sabotaging idea, or a memory, and then we have to recognise it as incorrect and reject it. At first we have to work hard to notice when our mind is doing something unwanted and then take some deliberate alternate action to counter it but we get better at it with practise.
It took practise but when we learned to ride a bicycle we became able to balance without conscious effort, and learning to stay sober is the same. We don’t get it right first time, or every time, but we slowly get better at it. As our self-awareness grows and we repeatedly identify issues and successfully counter them then these actions themselves begin to operate automatically. The aim is not immediate perfection, that is never going to happen, it is incremental improvement. We don’t like this because we are inherently impatient for results, this is a part of our nature that causes the problem in the first place, but slow progress is something we need to train ourselves to accept. This challenge takes time to overcome.
Recovery isn’t passive; it requires us to do things at every turn. A carpenter can’t sit and look at their tools and a pile of wood and wait for it to transform into a piece of furniture. They have to pick up the tools, fashion the pieces one by one, and fit them together. Recovery is the same. At each problem we have to do something. We have to recognise the issue, know what will correct it, and then do it. There is some advice often given in recovery: “this too shall pass” but this can be the worst advice ever for an alcoholic. This tells us to sit and endure some discomfort because it will be better later, but we don’t care about later! If you are sitting with a problem then do not wait for it to go away. Sitting with it will make it persist so do something to make it go away. Whether the action is to accept something that you can’t change, or it is doing something to make it change, then decide what is required and do it: advance towards the problem. The path forward is never doing nothing, because doing nothing changes nothing. We do not change the way our mind works by letting unwanted mental processes go unchallenged. We change the way our mind works by repeatedly contradicting unwanted thoughts. Our brain does not learn new ways without new actions, so sitting and waiting achieves nothing; we need to act to change it. This is how we progress, by repeatedly not doing the things that hurt us and by repeatedly doing the things that will help us. “Doing” is a verb. We advance nothing by inaction.
The traditional wisdom is that “A leopard can’t change its spots” and while this inflexibility may be a true of leopards it is not true of us. We can change, but we do not change by being passive. We cannot wait for recovery to come to us; we have to do the things that will change us. At first our recovery effort is arduous and constraining, but this is the work that makes us free, and that is what we become: free from the horrors of addiction, free to become ourselves, and free to achieve our potential. Addiction is not inescapable. Most that become addicted will recover but we have to work to gain that freedom. Go and get the life that you deserve. Go and become the person you should have been a long time ago. Advance towards the problem. Do something about it, and keep going.