Why I Am Starting to HATE the Word Sober

It sends a misleading message about one’s decision to quit.

Photo by Usman Yousaf on Unsplash

“To alcohol! The cause of… and solution to… all of life’s problems”
― Matt Groening

I read a Linkedin post the other day in which someone was celebrating their four years of sobriety and hashtagged the post with a number of different tags, but one really stood out and made me a bit mad for some reason.

It was tagged #mentalhealth and as I read and reread the post, I was trying to work out why it bothered me so, then it hit me.

It’s not that this person’s story of having stopped drinking isn’t inspiring and the fact that this decision has improved their mental health isn’t a good thing.

It’s that some people will read that message, see the hashtag of mental health, and immediately assess that this person HAD to stop drinking because of mental health issues.

This quick mental analysis will then cause this person to say, “Good for them” in their head and completely disconnect this individual’s life and decision to quit drinking with anything that is related to their own.

They will surmise they don’t have any mental health issues, so why should this person’s post about how stopping drinking has improved their lives relate to them in any way.

This is the same thing that I often feel the more widely accepted and used word “sober” does and why if we want more people to quit drinking, we should maybe use it less, if at all.

Why the word sobers can hurt more than help

It’s not anyone’s fault, but over time the word sober is almost synonymous with the word alcoholic.

Even though sober could mean a host of other things such as the abstinence of taking ANY intoxicating drug, being sparing in the use of any food and drink, or just being someone who is considered an earnestly thoughtful person, very few people think of these possibilities when they hear the word.

For some people, you can’t be “sober” unless you first experienced such a state of disarray from drinking that you were forced to make this decision.

The thought of this is summed up nicely in a quote by Bucky Sinister in his book, Get Up: A 12-Step Guide to Recovery for Misfits, Freak, and Weirdos, in which he writes,

“Your best days are ahead of you. The movie starts when the guys get sober and puts his life back together; it doesn’t end there.”

The phrase “get sober and puts his life back together” automatically assumes that this person’s life was in shambles and the only way for them to prevent it from ending tragically was by quitting drinking.

This causes many people to read quotes about other decisions to stop drinking and think, “I wonder how bad things got for them” or “Wow, I had no idea they had a problem.”

This is reminiscent of why so many people will often think you were an alcoholic when you quit drinking, as shared in a previous AINYF article.

They completely disconnect their drinking with anything that would cause them to consider stopping because they don’t have any mental health issues or are not alcoholics.

The language creates an environment in which people whose lives would be dramatically improved by cutting back on alcohol or not drinking at all don’t even consider it because they think that only individuals with psychological or addictive issues should consider this.

Frank Sonneberg put it well in his book Listen to Your Conscience: That’s Why You Have One,

“Problems are best addressed before they arise.”

However, because so many people associate sobriety with alcoholism and mental health, they never consider that controlling their drinking NOW would allow them to never have to be in a position to say they HAD to quit later.

Why I prefer the phrase “alcohol-conscious”

This is the reason that I prefer the term alcohol-conscious. To me, alcohol-consciousness is the realization that alcohol does more damage to your life than good.

It’s not a declaration that you are not drinking right now nor one that you will never drink again.

Instead, it is a statement that says you are conscious of the numerous negative effects that alcohol can have on your life and have decided to be mindful and wary of your relationship with it, as opposed to living in a world of blissful ignorance believing that the only people who are damaged by alcohol are alcoholics or drunk drivers.

It’s opening your eyes to the propaganda that alcohol is a harmless everyday part of our lives the way movies and television portray it and, instead, recognizing that every day you decide to take a drink, you are potentially putting all of your dreams at risk by creating a rut from which you may never escape.

This is well emphasized by this quote from Stephen King about why he drank for so very long,

“There’s a phrase, “the elephant in the living room”, which purports to describe what it’s like to live with a drug addict, an alcoholic, an abuser. People outside such relationships will sometimes ask, “How could you let such a business go on for so many years? Didn’t you see the elephant in the living room?” And it’s so hard for anyone living in a more normal situation to understand the answer that comes closest to the truth; “I’m sorry, but it was there when I moved in. I didn’t know it was an elephant;”

In this manner, society has made alcohol into the “elephant in the room” that everyone accepts as being normal to the point that when you say you are sober, people automatically assume that something was wrong with YOU…not the alcohol.

Therefore, instead of saying sober, one can use the word alcohol-conscious to relate it to the concept of one being health-conscious.

Just like one might decide that they prefer to eat grilled chicken and vegetables for lunch instead of a burger and fries, being alcohol-conscious is in this same sentiment of recognizing how negative this substance can affect your present and future.

This is the reason the word sober seems so wrong at times.

It is so associated by society to mean that you were at or close to rock bottom that most people automatically think of you in that way.

Our society has so accepted alcohol as being something that we should all enjoy and imbibe as much as we want (as long as we don’t become alcoholics or drive drunk), that the natural assumption of anyone who says they are now sober is that they must’ve fallen into one of the two aforementioned categories.

This seems absurd when one thinks about how ridiculous it would seem for people to automatically assume that someone who says they were health-conscious must’ve been close to eating themselves to death or dying from some obesity-related disease.

Instead, we are often envious and even admire those who make this decision as something that we “wish we could do” or “have been trying to do for some time.”

The term alcohol-conscious is a movement to create that same feeling of respect and admiration for those who have decided that they are going to become aware of their relationship with alcohol to ensure it doesn’t harm their lives the way it does so many.

Its purpose is to disconnect itself from the immediate negative images of despair and hopelessness that some connect with the word “sober” and instead connect to the image of a new emerging group of people that represents more of a promise of an emotionally and physically healthy future.

I think the second group sounds like a much better group to be a part of, don’t you?