The Many Modern Paths to Sobriety

no drinking

Bob the Bartender got sober four years ago, while working full-time behind a bar, and without ever attending an AA meeting. He just reached a point where he knew he had to get sober, and he knew he had to do it on his own. He says sobriety still gets better by the day. It makes you superhuman, he says, and then he whispers that we should keep that a secret, lest everyone learn the path to omniscience.

Behind his bar, you’ll find whatever weighty tome he’s currently devouring. You can ask him the name of any capitol city ON THE PLANET and he knows it. He can discuss Herman Melville’s personal quest for sense in the world. And, yes, I still belly-up to his bar, for a ginger ale or a Virgin Mary, and we have conversations that give my brain more nourishing mental superfood than any of my graduate-level philosophy or ethics classes ever did.

A friend in my meditation group won’t tempt herself with a bar or pub setting, and hasn’t in nearly five years of sobriety. She attends AA meetings and nurtures her sobriety with meditation and journaling.

Another dear friend completed a month of residential treatment that included AA meetings, medical care, counseling, meditation, and therapy with horses. She attends AA meetings almost daily and a meditation group twice a week.

A relative of mine dove straight into the deep end of AA and still swims through it, mermaid-like, every day. Her conversations are sprinkled with AA lingo, with praises for God, and expressions of gratitude. She staffs the desk at a drop-in help center and studies addiction therapy at the community college.

Very un-mermaid-like, I dipped my toe into AA and put my shoes right back on. I attend a Buddhist-oriented meditation group. I write daily and read everything I can find on the subject of sobriety. I use phone apps that provide daily inspirational readings, remind me to meditate, and track my days sober as well as dollars saved from not buying alcohol. I have a Pinterest page where I stash any little gem that feels inspirational, soothing, or motivating so I can dive in when needed.

Back in the old days, when I was a kid whose adult relatives were divided between the diligently sober and the lavishly inebriated, I overheard countless homilies on the commandments of sobriety. There was one right way to do it. Even relatives who hadn’t had a drink in ages weren’t considered truly sober unless they were doing it right.

To be fair, my family’s conservative Mormon and Irish Protestant DNA didn’t predispose them to Transcendental meditation retreats or communing with therapy horses, even if those options had been available to them. In those days and in our circles, AA was it. You were in or you were a drunkard. And if you were in, there were rules:

Taking a nighttime cold medicine was cheating.

Non-alcoholic beers or mock cocktails were as dangerous as Russian roulette.

Bars and pubs would lead right back to the bottle.

God was an essential travel companion and no one could journey all the way to sobriety without Him.

Rarely did the sober relatives veer from these commandments. One even tried valiantly to live without doctor-prescribed anti-depressants. It didn’t work, and she still feels hints of judgment for treating her unbalanced brain chemistry.

In this new generation of sobriety, the rules are generously broad, and the judgment is mercifully muted. The old ways still surface, but with less authority. In my circles, one of the Old Guard convinced a woman that true sobriety required her to stop the medications that manage her bipolar disorder. Fellow group members said she was quickly “off the deep end” and they had to pull her to safety.

There is a clear shift in the world of sobriety. There are many paths. All are good.

AA’s Big Book was written in the 1930s by Christian white guys, and little has changed since. The program is still the standard, saving lives every day, and even comforting in its weathered and old-timey feel. Fortunately, today there’s also a welcoming spot somewhere for the Godless, the counter-culture, the non-conformist and the non-joiners.

I know people who find sober sanity in a good pair of running shoes, on a yoga mat or a meditation cushion, in a church pew or a secluded forest path, and even on a bar stool across from a philosopher mixologist.