Sobriety is Modern Temperance

Stanton Peele By: Dr. Stanton Peele

Posted on July 7th, 2021 - Last updated: October 2nd, 2023
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The new cudgel against drinking and drug use

Move over racism, sexism and age-ism. We have a new label to shame the majority of people who choose to drink and use recreational drugs. They aren’t “sober.”

Medium ran a three-part lead-article series by Benya Clark, in his Exploring Sobriety column.

I quit drinking about four and a half years ago. I love to write about my own experiences with alcoholism and recovery, but it’s also interesting to hear the stories of celebrities who have gotten sober.

Our culture is largely celebrity driven, so when a star opens up about their addiction, it can go a long way to inspiring others to get help. For each one, you can click through to the linked story to learn even more about their addiction and recovery.

Among the ten are Hangover co-stars Bradley Cooper and Zach Galifianakis. “Cooper got sober before skyrocketing to fame” (in his early 20s). But Galifianakis didn’t quit drinking until later, when it was getting him into “too much trouble.”

Is “getting into too much trouble” the same as alcoholism and addiction? Are there ways to get in less trouble with alcohol other than abstaining the rest of your life? These ways are called harm reduction.

Also included in the ten are Elton John. According to the Medium piece, “Elton John decided to get sober after having a young friend die from HIV in the early nineties. The man’s death, and his family’s reaction, were wakeup calls to John.”

Wait a second! I know that event inspired John to become an anti-AIDS activist. But does this imply that the young friend was addicted to drugs? I wrote about how John described finding a clarifying purpose in Filter:

“I had the luck to meet Ryan White and his family. I wanted to help them,” John said. “Ryan was the spark that helped me to recover from my addictions and start the AIDS foundation. Within six months I became sober.”

But Ryan White wasn’t an addict (or a man). He was a 13-year-old hemophiliac who contracted AIDS through a routine blood transfusion! His school then banished him. 

In that same Filter article, I noted somebody who took a totally different, “non-sober” path — legendary Grateful Dead guitarist Bob Weir. Weir had a decades-long long history of relying on painkillers and drinking before . . .

Well, before what?

“Today Weir is, to all appearances, healthy. He has replaced a drink before getting onstage with a shot of ginseng and, for the most part, pharmaceutical painkillers with herbal supplements. But he stops short of saying he’s sober. ‘I’ve tried that, and I’m not as happy as when I drink,’ he says. He is adamant that he is able to have a glass of wine these days and stop there. Likewise, the occasional painkiller when the exercise and herbal remedies prove inadequate. There was a time, way back, when getting trashed and completely nuts was, I felt, my best approach to the blank page.’”

But he doesn’t feel that way any more. He’s happier when he drinks and still sometimes uses painkillers. What do you call that? It’s not sobriety.

In fact, Weir is antisobriety: “I’m not sure I buy the basic tenet, which is that you’re powerless. I think that we humans are enormously powerful, and I tend to think there’s nothing that you can’t do. It’s a matter of self-mastery, and if self-mastery amounts to total abstinence, I think that’s incomplete. I think you’re selling yourself short.” 

But Weir knows this is box office poison: “So I don’t talk about it much.” (The Medium article didn’t include him, that’s for sure!)

Is Ben Affleck an Addict Who Must Abstain?

Ben Affleck is one of the 10 included in Medium. Affleck quit drinking for his kids. I discuss Affleck’s case in my memoir,  A Scientific Life on the Edge: My Lonely Quest to Change How We See Addiction. Here is his story:

People with compulsive behavior, and I am one, have this kind of basic discomfort all the time that they’re trying to make go away. You’re trying to make yourself feel better with eating or drinking or sex or gambling or shopping or whatever. But that ends up making your life worse. Then you do more of it to make that discomfort go away.

Then the real pain starts. It becomes a vicious cycle you can’t break. That’s at least what happened to me. I drank relatively normally for a long time. What happened was that I started drinking more and more when my marriage was falling apart. This was 2015, 2016. My drinking, of course, created more marital problems.

That’s the description of addiction and recovery we use in the Life Process Program, where we avoid 12-step concepts of “recovery,” “sobriety,” and certainly “disease.” We avoid labeling people “addicts,” like Medium  Benya Clark prefers to label people. Instead, we focus on people’s larger values and positive life experiences and roles they have. Parenthood is the number one candidate in this personal value/role inventory. 

By coincidence, Affleck’s description here appeared in an issue of the New York Times which reviewed six modern recovery books.  I discussed Affleck and these recovery stories in my memoir.   None of them resembles the sobriety and recovery Medium promotes.

The Medium blog concludes: “Each of these celebrities has taken a brave step by opening up about their addiction in front of the world. I hope that their stories help to fight the stigma surrounding addiction, and to inspire addicts to find help.”

In contrast  to the Medium temperance tales and recovery stories, I assert in my memoir:

  • Don’t focus on the substance or object of addiction and on abstaining from it.
  • Don’t deify AA/NA, even when the worst drug addictions are involved. 
  • Focus instead on personal values, life meaning, purpose, and family.
  • Resolve to reorient your life around a new, non-addict identity.

Then, perhaps, we won’t feel like shouting “Hallelujah!” every time someone tells us how they overcame an addiction! 

P.S. Someone who isn’t sober, Lola Flash, describes how she spends her Sundays:

“WINE, ONLINE Happy hour has become an important part of my Sundays. That’s online too. Anywhere from three to eight women come together, and we talk and have a glass of wine.”

Stanton Peele

Dr. Stanton Peele, recognized as one of the world's leading addiction experts, developed the Life Process Program after decades of research, writing, and treatment about and for people with addictions. Dr. Peele is the author of 14 books. His work has been published in leading professional journals and popular publications around the globe.

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