Emotional Sobriety – What Does It Really Mean ?

Everyone’s journey from active alcoholism into sobriety is both unique and complex.

One thing that is fairly common however, is that when people do sober up, they have to start living with themselves without alcohol.

This means beginning to live with the reality of what they were trying to escape from when drinking, both internally and externally.

For many people, this can be a pretty daunting process, can take a long time and is a lot of work to really heal. It is probably fair to describe this process as emotional sobriety.

The phrase emotional sobriety was first used by Bill Wilson, one of the co-founders of Alcoholics Anonymous, in an article he wrote for the AA Grapevine in January 1958.

The article was entitled The Next Frontier : Emotional Sobriety.

In the article, Bill Wilson outlined his thoughts on the emotional struggles he had had, largely during the time of his depression, and how he had come through them with a much stronger sense of his inner world and what it meant to him.

Many people seek to interpret this phrase, and how Bill Wilson wrote about it, in a number of different ways.

The reality is, as with everything that he wrote, and all AA literature, that people have an absolute freedom to interpret in anyway they find helpful or not.

Trying to interpret his writings in ways that mean people have to fit their own experience into the context of what he was saying, is in many ways an emotional death wish, and something he most likely would never have intended or wanted.

It is clear from pretty much all of his writings that he intended to share his experience, both at a personal and an AA level, in the hope that it could be helpful to people, and that they could use his experience as part of the process of rebuilding their own life once they got sober.

Getting Sober

It is probably a fair assumption to say that the emotional drives that fuel people’s alcoholism are for most people fairly deep-rooted, and quite often go back to childhood.

When someone gets sober, they start to live with the legacy of these emotional drives as they affect them on a day-to-day basis. The depth of this emotional trauma can often seem too overwhelming to go near for many people.

Most people soon begin to realise that their emotional lives are out of control at some level, and that in some way this either contributed to their drinking, or was the cause of the dread/terror inside them that alcohol seemed to be the solution to.

People’s understanding of their own alcoholism comes in time, and this sense that alcohol was the solution, not the problem, is pretty common and pretty core to this understanding.

It is also completely at odds with the understanding that someone who is not an alcoholic is likely to have of alcoholism generally.

Emotional Turmoil

There is a saying in AA, that when you get sober you begin to realise why you drank.

This is not normally intended to be taken literally, as in finding the reasons people drink alcoholically.

It is meant to refer to the fact that when people get sober, they begin to live with themselves without alcohol, and as such soon begin to realise at some level this emotional turmoil that fuelled their drinking.

At some point in their recovery, people are likely to realise that they need to in some way process this emotional turmoil or they are likely to start drinking again.

This is normally around the fact that most alcoholics see / saw alcohol as the solution to their problems, not the problem itself.

Once sober, the alcohol is gone, and people have to start living with themselves without it.

This can be a fairly tough thing to accept, and people’s ways of dealing with it differ significantly.

It is very likely however that it will take a significant degree of emotional pain before people become willing to really own and address their underlying emotional issues, although there are obviously many different reasons for this.

The phrase emotional sobriety really covers this entire process, pretty much from day one through till whenever it stops !

It is probably a mistake to think that the phrase only deals with issues of later recovery, or with issues of depression.

The nature of staying sober for many people is around finding ways of healing the internal emotional turmoil that alcohol helped to give some relief from, and this is normally a lifelong process.

Alcoholic Homes

Although anecdotal, it is fairly clear that a significant number of alcoholics in recovery grew up in what are normally referred to as alcoholic homes.

This normally refers to homes where either one or both parents were active alcoholics, or where there was a significant number of alcoholics in the extended family.

The effects of growing up in an alcoholic home can be varied, but there are a number of common traits.

The most common one is an absence of safety.

This can either be an emotional absence, or an actual absence or both.

People growing up in alcoholic homes describe a total lack of stability or safety, the lack of feeling anyone is in control, and the need to take responsibility for their own lives at an early age.

Growing up in an alcoholic home has a significant impact on someone’s development and sense of self.

It can distort ancestry damage how someone  relates to themselves and other people.

Someone who is also an alcoholic themselves and grows up in an alcoholic home will find that the emotional chaos of their childhood is likely to have played a significant part in their own emotional development, and how they tried to force their life to work in some way.

Emotional sobriety is about finding ways of healing this emotional turmoil, and getting a real sense of peace and stability internally that can enable someone to really live at peace with themselves, possibly for the first time ever.


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