Radical Sobriety: Getting (and Staying) Clean and Sober as Subversive Activity

By Ed S. 04/10/19

Alcoholism has medical, economic, and social implications, none of which actually serve any kind of bohemian or utopian yearning, but deceive the sufferer into believing that they do.

Two people sitting on steps, backs to the camera, practicing subversive, radical sobriety, counter-cultural movement
Not much is anarchistic about active addiction other than the chaos of your life, but the non-hierarchical, egalitarian organization of 12-step programs makes them one of the few successful, genuinely counter-cultural movements in American life. Photo by pixpoetry on Unsplash

Sometime in the autumn of 1798, a middle-aged chief of the Seneca tribe led a hunting party from their home near the Finger Lakes of upstate New York through the verdant woods of western Pennsylvania, bringing a cache of venison and buckskin to a small settlement at the forks of the Ohio River called Pittsburgh, where they traded their goods for a barrel of whiskey. Historian of religion Peter Manseau writes in his One Nation, Under Gods: A New History that afterwards the “hunters had lashed their canoes together into a single barge and managed to make their way upriver as the liquor continued to flow,” as they made their way home to the Iroquois settlement of Jenuchshadego. Manseau records from primary sources that the returning party terrified the villagers, that they would “yell and sing like demented people,” and that “they are beastlike.”

The Code of Handsome Lake: An Early Recovery Movement

The Sachem Cornplanter, Handsome Lake’s half-brother, had seen the Seneca decimated by alcoholism, and so he banned liquor within the confederation. Handsome Lake fell into the withdrawal symptoms of delirium tremens, though as Manseau writes “it was believed that he was [also] suffering from a spiritual malady.” Expecting death to take him, Cornplanter let Quaker missionaries tend to his dying brother, until one day “some strong power” took command of Handsome Lake, and he awoke seemingly cured of his affliction. The chief told his people that while convalescing, he had a mystical vision of three angels who imparted to him the creed of a new faith that was to be known as the Code of Handsome Lake, or the Longhouse Religion. Central to Handsome Lake’s prophecy was a belief that liquor was a narcotic whose specific purpose was the anesthetizing of humans, of reducing them to bestial impulse so as to make them easier to control. For Handsome Lake, both drinking and sobriety had profound political implications, with Manseau explaining that the chief’s temperance “became the conduit for the promise of a broader redemption.”

There is no narrative of sobriety which I do not find inspiring; there is no story of recovery which is not useful to me. As different as Handsome Lake and I may be, there is an important experience which we share. Because though he is an 18th century Indian chief there is some combination of brain chemistry which makes us similarly powerless before barrels of proffered whiskey. We’re both conversant with his older contemporary the English lexicographer Dr. Johnson’s observation that “He who makes a beast of himself gets rid of the pain of being a man.” But there is something important and distinct in Handsome Lake’s example which I think is worth reflecting on: his faith wasn’t just one of personal redemption, but also of an understanding that there are radical implications in recovery, that abstinence can be subversive, that sobriety can be counter-cultural.

Trying to Make It as a Drunk Bohemian

Easy to think when we’re actively using that there’s a cracked romance in being an alcoholic: all those drained shots and pint glasses, living our best imitation of the 19th century French poet Charles Baudelaire’s commandment that “You have to be always drunk.” I probably never needed much justification to getting blackout drunk – I liked it. But sometimes rationalization was a helpful salve when I woke up the dozenth time in a month shaking, hungover, going through my text messages to see whom I offended. The disease’s conclusions may be universal, and our symptoms are largely the same. But there’s always some variation. Mine was of the pseudo-bohemian, aspiring Romantic kind; dog-eared pages of Charles Bukowski and Jack Kerouac initiating me into a society of the ecstatic, of those who “burn, burn, burn like fabulous yellow roman candles.” More fun to think of myself as among “the ones who are mad to live” rather than as the one who pissed his pants.

To clarify, I don’t blame any of those writers, some of whom I still enjoy, for my affliction. I even still have a beloved copy of Baudelaire’s Flowers of Hell. No, what I mean to suggest is that whatever the reasons why I drank, through it all I had some sort of warped sense that the damage I was doing to mind, body, and spirit served some supremely radical role, that I was a renegade against the strictures of regulated, uptight, square society. Part of me still feels that buzzed euphoric recall of dangerous nostalgia. And I didn’t quit because I rejected that gin-flavored narrative so much as that I realized in a moment of clarity that seems to have miraculously stuck (so far) that if I didn’t put down the bottle, absolutely nothing good would come of it. But what I’ve also realized, as I approach the midpoint of my third year of sobriety, is that there is something just as subversive in rejecting alcohol as in embracing it.

The Radical Potential of Narrative to Treat Addiction

In his excellent book Drunks: The Story of Alcoholism and the Birth of Recovery, Christopher M. Finan credits Handsome Lake with founding the first real fellowship that could be said to treat the disease with the radical potential of narrative. Handsome Lake is the first in a line of visionaries, from the six reformed drunkards who founded the 19th century Washingtonian Movement to Bill W. and Dr. Bob of Alcoholics Anonymous, who crafted what was fundamentally a counter-cultural ideology which rejected alcoholism, but also the servility which came with it. Finan writes that for the Seneca of Handsome Lake’s era, the “euphoria of intoxication brought temporary relief from the pain of dispossession and death.” Same as it ever was, because addiction’s particular form of mental slavery pretends to treat both profane concerns, such as making us ignorant of our own dispossession, as well as more transcendent fears, like how we can almost believe that we’re immortal for the price of a pint or 20. We prayed for art when we were drunk, but as Lewis Lapham writes, “Alcohol’s job is to replace creation with an illusion that is barren.”

What these fellowships have always promised isn’t denunciatory scolding, but rather a rejection of a narcotic which helps to keep people in physical and spiritual bondage. Alcoholism has medical, economic, and social implications, none of which actually serve any kind of bohemian or utopian yearning, but deceive the sufferer into believing that they do. Meanwhile, the addict’s world constricts into a smaller and smaller circumference. Odd to consider that temperance as a reform movement was often grouped alongside abolitionism and suffragism, since we so often see it as fundamentally anti-freedom. And prohibitionist and neo-prohibitionist arguments have been social and moral disasters, maybe especially for the individual suffering with addiction. But the grouping of temperance (as distinct from Prohibition) with those radical political movements is not strange, for the personal rejection of intoxication has a certain radicalism to it as well, a turning away from an exploitive thing-of-this-world. That is before we consider how addiction has been used to target marginalized communities, how it can be a function of poverty and class, and how the criminal justice system and the media treat different sufferers in different ways. As Finan writes, the struggle to get sober, and the ways in which alcoholics have been able to help other alcoholics get and stay that way, deserves to be understood as one of the “great liberation movements” of American history.

The Myth of the Bar Stool Revolutionary

When I sat on a bar stool feeling the electric thrum, or when I passed out on my apartment floor, or on a city street, I may have imagined that there was something subversive about my antisocial behavior, but in sobriety I’ve developed a more jaundiced view of how my own particular predispositions were exploited in a way that was anything but counter-cultural. I had my radical political poses, my underlined copies of bohemian poets and political theorists, and I could talk a big game about being “anti-capitalist,” but I had no compunction about shoveling out thousands of dollars over the years to pad the bank accounts of liquor and beer companies, apparently seeing no irony in paying for the very poison that was killing me. Once I recall formulating a bar-stool argument that the local tavern was one of the last democratic institutions in the United States, and I think there is still some merit to that, but I’ve found far-more radical potential in how groups like the Longhouse Religion, the Washingtonians, and AA are organized.

Not much is actually anarchistic about active addiction other than the chaos that characterizes your life, but the non-hierarchical, egalitarian, horizontal organization of 12-step fellowships makes them one of the few successful, genuinely counter-cultural movements in American life. Author Michael Tolkin describes AA as having a “cunning structure; no due, no tithes, no president, protected from permanent officer and the development of cults by a rotating leadership for each separate group, no other requirement for membership than the declaration of fellowship in a shared condition.” What they offer is something in genuine opposition to the gods of this world, the market system that will profit off suffering while promising you paradise, what Tolkin describes as “spiritual slavery to the internal compulsion engine.”

To turn down a drink, that which is pushed through advertisement and neighbor alike, that edifying, enjoyable, relaxing nectar, is to reject the status quo in a way which courts its own type of infamy. The only drug you’ll kick where you’re viewed afterwards as being a bit suspicious. “Can’t you have just one?” As with Handsome Lake’s realization that liquor wasn’t just physically killing him, but holding him in a sort of bondage, so recovery has radical implications that go far beyond health and self-care.

Recovery as a Liberation Movement

The fundamental brilliance of such fellowships is the sharing of a common affliction and the communal support of those who’ve been where you have. This is the same brilliance of all great faiths. Where the endless addictions of capitalism build you up only to tear you down (for profit of course), the process of recovery is one where you must first be torn down to be built up. Religion at its best is a process of ego diminishment, an understanding that you are one of many, and that ultimately you are something infinitely more precious than a mere consumer — you are a human. When Finan talks about recovery as a liberation movement, he means the way in which there isn’t just a physical freedom promised in sobriety, but a mental, emotional, and spiritual one as well. No longer chained to the endless cycle of believing that one more drink will promise something immaculate in “just fifteen more minutes” which never comes.

Apart from the political, I think that the most radical potential of recovery is something a bit more personal, something that is an issue of transcendence itself. It's all well and good to claim that addiction is a good metaphor for those things which oppress us in life, but addiction is also literally addiction. Followers of mystical paths have always advocated behaviors which others specifically can’t, won’t, or don’t do, from celibacy to fasting. Sobriety is in its own way such a radical, unexpected, unconventional behavior, as author Peter Bebergal has written: “Sobriety is its own kind of altered state of consciousness.” In Too Much to Dream: A Psychedelic American Boyhood, Bebergal writes about how in early recovery “A cup of coffee in the basement of a church… tastes like the nectar of the gods. A roast beef sandwich is like… something from Eden,” and the most profoundly true of observations: “Sleeping for the first time sober and waking up clean is a mystery of boundless grace.”

“Mystery” and “grace” are religious terms, and indeed 12-step recovery often gets libeled as a type of religious mysticism. I would only take offense to that were I against religious mysticisms. But Bebergal is right, the first time you go to bed sober and wake up clean does feel like a mystery, because it’s so antithetical to who you have been, and it does feel like grace because for once you have a sort of freedom you’ve never known before. It’s a staking out of agency, of personal sovereignty, and it’s a declaration of independence. “Freedom” is simply another word for grace, and there is never anything more powerful, radical, or subversive than freedom. Bebergal writes that “Removing the pall of daily addiction is like flash powder going off in your face,” as it was for Bill W., as it was for Handsome Lake, as it was for me, and as it possibly can be for you.

In addiction there is that pursuit of freedom, the lie that one more drink will get you closer to the comfort and safety of a home you’ve never known. The radicalism of sobriety is that it actually gets you there.

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Ed S. is a widely published writer and an academic.