Photo courtesy of Alison Scarpulla
On Getting and Staying Sober
If you or someone close to you has ever been treated for addiction or been to Alcoholics Anonymous (or any of the Anonymouses), you know two things: first, how hard getting sober can be. And second, how hard staying sober can be.
Sobriety is more than the initial period of detox; cravings, whether for a substance or a behavior, stick around. That’s why it takes time to develop a skill set to combat them, says Carder Stout, PhD, a Los Angeles depth psychologist who had addictions of his own. Stout has written for goop about addiction before (see “Why We’re All Addicts” and “Calling It Quits”), but this time, he speaks from a deeply personal perspective, mapping his experience with addiction and sobriety from his rock bottom to rehab to what, in the end, really worked.
My own rock bottom looked like this: I was lying on a cold cement floor in a jail cell in Albuquerque. I had just been arrested for my second DUI in a year, and in a few short hours, my eight-year-old nephew, who had flown by himself for the first time, would be arriving at the airport to spend a week with me. I had to call his mother collect from the jailhouse payphone to let her know I couldn’t pick him up. She thought I was kidding and laughed—and then started to cry.
I considered taking my own life that morning.
We grow so accustomed to the patterns of our lives that it usually takes a psychological earthquake to move us toward healing. My rock-bottom moment was the worst of my life, but it also got the ball rolling. And I wasn’t alone; many addicts arrive in treatment or Alcoholics Anonymous only after hitting rock bottom: having lost their marriages, their children, their homes, their jobs, their freedom, or their minds. If you’re trying to get sober and haven’t hit bottom yet, that may be why you’re having trouble; for many, bottoming out is vital to the successful pursuit of a new way of life. When the pain becomes too overwhelming, we tend to do something about it.
In my case, I got sober soon after—really sober. Thirteen years later, I remember that day vividly. Something shifted in me. The pain was too much to handle. I couldn’t hurt myself anymore, so I began to change.
But first, you have to ask yourself this question: Am I an addict?
When diagnosing substance-related disorders, I rely on three main criteria:
- Are you obsessively thinking about alcohol or drugs in a way that is impacting your life? Is this obsession relieved only when you take a drink or engage with your drug of choice?
- In the face of potentially severe consequences, do you still drink or use drugs? If you feel compelled to use substances when you know you shouldn’t—like the night before an interview, or when you know you’ll be getting behind the wheel, or when it forces you to sleep in when you’ve promised to take the kids to the beach—then you may be a substance abuser.
- When you begin taking the substance, do you have a difficult time stopping? If you always want to have one more, are consistently the last person to leave the party, or find that you just cannot stop, then it may be time to get sober.
If you find yourself answering yes to any of these questions, then you may qualify as an addict, and it may be time to get help. But keep this in mind: If getting sober were easy, everyone would do it.
I have worked with hundreds of addicts in my career as a psychologist. The overwhelming majority of them have relapsed more than once. The success rate for long-term sobriety is less than 10 percent across the board. Relapse is part of the whole equation. And truly, relapse is a learning experience—one that can be helpful in identifying what strategies aren’t working for a particular patient. When someone relapses, I tell them not to worry about it and to lace up their bootstraps a little tighter this time.
Relapse usually comes when addicts take matters into their own hands and slip back into old patterns. A newly sober person should not meet friends at a bar or go to a party where drugs and alcohol are available. This is a common mistake: People think that they can carry on in a normal way, but in order to change their lives, they cannot. When I was in the early stages of recovery, I mostly hung around sober people, and if I went out socially, I brought a sober friend along for security. Ultimately, for a recovering addict, where and with whom you spend your time can be the difference between life or death.
One of the most difficult parts of early sobriety is finding the right kind of support. Treatment facilities around the country profess long-term sobriety in high numbers, but that’s just marketing. I’m not saying that treatment is bad or that going to rehab is a negative experience. It is an isolated place to dry out and catch your breath before emerging back into life—but in most cases, treatment alone does not keep people sober. Many treatment facilities discharge patients without effective aftercare plans other than “go to AA meetings” and “just say no.”
The fact remains that sobriety is the most difficult thing for addicts to accomplish—perhaps second only to telling the truth about it. Many recovering addicts who claim to be sober are not telling the whole story. Addiction is riddled with secrecy and deception; it hides the shame and protects continuing efforts to get high.
One of the main tenets of Alcoholics Anonymous and all other twelve-step programs is this idea of rigorous honesty: Without honesty there is no sobriety. I agree with this theory. I have found that telling the truth, however difficult it may be, helps immensely. When we lie, we deflate our self-esteem. Self-esteem is vital to healing. We must feel good about who we are to defend ourselves against our addictions.
For those in early recovery, AA also provides a community of like-minded people to serve as supports and guides. Most addicts self-isolate. Most of us must break out of seclusion to gain forward momentum.
It was not AA meetings themselves that kept me sober, but the post-meetings: French fries and milkshakes at a late-night diner on LA’s Westside, surrounded by colorful people. It felt good to make friends again and laugh with people who had been through similar experiences. For me, it was a place to go when I had nowhere else and people to talk to when I had no one else. Even if you think AA won’t work for you—if you’re dissuaded by the concept of twelve steps or if you have a problem with the word “god”—my advice is to still check it out, not for the coffee and doughnuts but for the people.
If you decide twelve-step programs are not your bag, make sure you find support elsewhere. Spend time with healthy people engaging in activities that do not involve substances. Find a therapist who can help you navigate these dangerous waters. Rely on family and good friends, and never try to do it alone.
In my case, gritting my teeth and willing away my addiction was not an option anymore. I had tried it many times before and failed. For many, religion works. I had grown up Episcopalian and sat in church pews my whole childhood, and I never felt connected to any of it. Religion was not for me. Many recovering addicts feel the same way. However, I found connecting to a strong and personal belief system outside of religion was crucial to my recovery and sobriety. Your intelligence, money, or success does not matter; without some kind of spirituality, your addiction will always win.
Spirituality can be almost anything. Many people find it in the most obvious of places—if they are looking. It may be found through a loving relationship with a friend, a partner, a sibling, or oneself. It may be uncovered in literature, film, poetry, or good conversation. It might emerge on a hike in the mountains, a walk on the beach, a hot bath, or a song on the radio. Spirituality is anything that connects us to the soul—the deepest and most loving part of yourself. Many addicts find this place when they dedicate their time to helping others. Seek the spiritual being inside yourself, and remember that you are perfect and whole and full of kindness. We tend to forget these truths when we are in the throes of addiction.
Staying sober requires hard work and tenacity, and you may find that you require your own specific formula. The ingredients of mine: spirituality, therapy, prayer, meditation, beach walks with my dog, endless hours of laughter with my children, good friends, the love of my wife, and a vocation that fulfills me. When you find yours, do more of them. It is absolutely possible to find your way again. Don’t give up; your life is just beginning.
Carder Stout, PhD, is a Los Angeles–based depth psychologist and therapist with a private practice in Brentwood, where he treats clients for anxiety, depression, addiction, and trauma. As a specialist in relationships, he is adept at helping clients become more truthful with themselves and their partners.