The Quality of Our Sobriety Is What We Do, Not How We Think 
By Dr. Keith Witt
January 8, 2012
Like most therapists, I’ve worked a fair amount with addiction and recovery. Therapists will tell you people practicing an addiction—whether alcohol, opiates, cocaine, gambling, compulsive sexuality or whatever—can be nightmare clients. They take obscene risks, wreck relationships, and spread chaos. On the flip side, people in recovery—who are abstinent and working at being healthier, more authentic, and attuned to themselves and others—are often delightful to work with. Many alcoholics start out depressed, anxious, angry, insecure, or shy, and drinking temporarily eases grinding emotional pain. This relief, combined with wanting to keep chasing the high, leads to larger doses (called progressive use), and regular inability to say “no.” (out of control use). Addiction—progressive and out of control use—becomes a drive like hunger or thirst, only a learned drive, and drives just keep demanding when frustrated. The areas of our brain stem associated with pursuing what we need and seeking rewards like food, water, sex, and objects of romantic infatuation are the caudate nucleus and the ventral tegmental area. When these areas are frustrated in acquiring the goals they crave, they work harder, spraying the seeking neurotransmitter dopamine recklessly through the brain—sometimes driving a person to exhaustion. Some of us are also born with more capacity for addiction, and more vulnerability to certain substances or activities. Fifty percent of Americans either are an addict or have a close family member who’s an addict. I have clients who have worked recovery programs for decades—sometimes as long as thirty or forty years. A recovery program is essentially like any other spiritual path—you keep deepening awareness of your own development, keep seeking out and receiving the support you need, and commit daily to living according to your principles. Along the way, you tend to develop incredible insight and wisdom, not just about addiction and recovery, but also about the human experience. People in recovery share the kind of bond that combat veterans share. They have faced death and lived. If they’ve participated in twelve step programs, they’re steeped in inspirational and catastrophic stories from hundreds of other addicts. All have known and cared for men and women who slipped back into addiction and died horribly, wrecking havoc in friends and families. All have known inspiring fellow travelers who turned lives around, renewed families, salvaged marriages, and enriched communities. One such hero is James, an AA “old-timer” who regularly drops wonderful, wise statements like, “The quality of our sobriety is what we do, not what we think.” James later told me the quote was from Merle Adelman. What it means is that no matter how crazy your thoughts are—like, “I should drink because I’m happy/sad/celebrating/grieving/angry/ashamed/special /worthless/anxious/depressed”—if you seek support and don’t drink, everything will be OK. In other words, you can think all the crazy stories you want, but it’s how you walk the walk that matters. I kid James that AA is the aphorism champion of the universe, but I really mean it. Sayings like “One day at a time,” and “One drink is too many and a thousand are not enough,” permeate modern culture, all originating in the twelve steps. The culture of recovery has purity to it. You are either using or you’re not. Those who find ways to not use have harnessed human genius and social support to deal with the warped human drive of addiction. Addiction is nasty. When brains learn to crave alcohol or drugs like air and water, it often requires surrender to a power greater than yourself to give them up—leading to the first two steps of AA: realizing your life is out of control, and seeking a higher power to help you through. This process expanded through decades of AA wisdom tends to produce practical wisdom like, “The quality of our sobriety is what we do, not what we think.” When addiction—wanting more of a substance over time (progressive) and being regularly unable to resist another dose (out of control)—sinks in it’s teeth, saying “no” requires incredible effort and support. That’s why the first two years of recovery are the hardest. Practicing alcoholics (those still drinking) think about drinking on average once every ten seconds. Even when they decide to quit—with their brains wired to seek alcohol like food and water—70% slip (go back to drinking) the first year and 50% the second. After two years of abstinence though, the number of recovering people who slip each year drops to 3%. Apparently it takes two years of heroic effort to become relatively stable in recovery from addiction. Perhaps after two years without the substance your brain finally learns that alcohol, cocaine, opiates, gambling, or marijuana are not necessary like food, water, and human contact. If someone keeps working a recovery program through many years of abstinence, it often becomes a spiritual journey, anchored in sobriety. James’ “The quality of our sobriety is what we do, not how we think,” is hard earned insight acquired by maintaining right action, integrity, fidelity, and honesty, while depressed addictive thinking hammered him with “You’re worthless,” “Go ahead and drink; what difference does it make anyway?” “Nothing you do matters,” and “Life is joyless.” James learned to discern such thoughts and impulses as negative distortions, and to guide himself to right thought and action whether he feels able or worthy or not. James—and many men and women like him—have shown me how beautiful and inspirational recovery from addiction can be. The elegant Catholic concept of redemption—at any moment we can choose to serve the highest good—is epitomized in AA. People make fun of AA for it’s ceremonial nature and religious feel—there is much emphasis on spirituality and “higher powers,”—but such criticism rarely comes from recovering people themselves. They know that the selfish isolation of addiction often needs the kind of rigid rules, accumulated wisdom, and community support that AA provides. I feel so grateful for what AA has done for millions, and I admire hard earned insights like, “The quality of our sobriety is what we do, not how we think.”
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