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The term sober means different things to different people. For some, it means simply not drinking alcohol. Others use the term to state that they refrain from using all substances. Still, others consider themselves sober but still smoke cigarettes, regularly using nicotine. Part of the problem is understanding semantics, but the other part is defining what it means to be sober.

The Semantics of Being Sober

Technically speaking, according to the Oxford Languages Dictionary, sober is an adjective that means “not affected by alcohol; not drunk.” This literal definition simply refers to the state of not being inebriated and would most commonly be used to describe someone who had previously been drunk.

An alternate definition that has developed because of the use of the term sober within the addiction recovery community is “free from alcoholism; not habitually drinking alcohol.” This term has been applied along with the term sobriety and used generously within the recovery community, but it is not technically accurate, semantically speaking.

People have used the word sober and abstinent interchangeably until the implication is that sober means the same thing. But the word sober literally means not drunk at that moment, whereas abstinence is the word that describes the more lasting commitment to not consuming alcohol.

Being Sober in Relation to Alcohol

For some people, not drinking alcohol is their version of sobriety. Abstinence from alcohol is what they know as sober. They may still smoke cigarettes, use marijuana or other recreational drugs, and consider themselves sober. By literal definition, they are not wrong since the word sober is tied directly to alcohol.

Maintaining sobriety alone is a slippery slope. Continuing to use other substances increases the chances of an alcohol relapse. This is why so many people involved in addiction recovery recommend not simply abstaining from alcohol but complete abstinence from all substances.

The Abstinent Version of Being Sober

The version of sobriety most commonly associated with addiction recovery, also known as clean and sober, is complete abstinence from all substances. The reason for this is not to be extreme or only give you two choices. The reason is based on the fact that complete abstinence is the best way to prevent relapse of alcohol or other drugs.

Some people may argue that some substances are less addictive or do not cause the problems that other substances do, but using any other substance does greatly increase your chances of relapsing with the substances that are addictive and do cause harm in your life.

Complete abstinence gives you the best chances for success in the high-stakes venture of relapse prevention. Considering that up to 50% of people who seek addiction treatment will relapse within their first year, you want to do everything you can to get the odds in your favor, so complete abstinence is a worthwhile investment for your life.

Your Version of Sobriety

No matter what anyone says, your version of sobriety is yours to define. There are plenty of people who have been through addiction, treatment, and have been sober or abstinent for years who can share their experiences with you and make recommendations. The Surgeon General can continue to issue warnings, and your doctor will tell you that smoking is dangerous for your health. However, if your version of sobriety includes smoking, then that is your version of sobriety.

Whether you take the recommendations of others or not, or whether you choose the road of complete abstinence, you must make peace with your own definition of sobriety. You take the information that you are given and you make the best decisions you can for yourself, knowing the risks and accepting responsibility for the potential consequences. Those who love you will not judge you, only accept you.

Sobriety vs. Recovery

Another commonly transposed set of words is sobriety vs. recovery. Sobriety or abstinence is simply the act of not using drugs or alcohol. Recovery, on the other hand, is a shift in mindset, a change in lifestyle, and a long-term commitment to not only abstain from using substances but to continue improving daily. You can be sober and be in recovery, but being sober alone does not necessarily mean you are in recovery.

While this may seem like a lot of semantics, words do matter when it comes to your health, life, and future. Committing to being completely abstinent removes all doubts about what sobriety means to you and others. When you are in recovery, there can be no question that you are committed to a complete lifestyle, not just avoiding substances. 

Defining what it means to be sober should not just be left to semantics. You can look deep inside and find out what you truly want for your life. Do you want to be completely abstinent from all substances, or do you want to be not just clean and sober, but also in recovery? At West Coast Recovery Centers, we are here to support you on your chosen path. We offer 12-Step programs, Refuge Recovery, SMART Recovery, and other options for you to choose what works best for your own healing. We offer truly individualized care with both evidence-based and holistic modalities for you to experience and choose from so that you have the best chance at lasting recovery. Our goal is to help you transition back into healthy routines through our outpatient care and sober living environments. Call us today at (760) 492-6509 to learn more.