Redefining Sobriety

By Scott Binder 01/20/16

I have 15 years sober, and I use psychedelic drugs.

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Redefining Sobriety
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By the time you read this article I will have celebrated 15 years of sobriety. However, if you read my recent article, “The Healing Power of Psychedelics,” you might be among those who believe that I am no longer sober. And that’s fine with me. However, my recent cancer diagnosis and decision to use ayahuasca and other psychedelics has completely changed my perspective on the topic of sobriety.

During my first 14 years of sobriety, my stance on the subject was that unless there was a valid medical reason, if one used any kind of mind-altering drugs, I considered it a relapse. I based this belief system on what I had learned in AA and therapy, and adopted them as my own beliefs. But was this truly what I believed? Did I really think the requirement of sobriety started with abstaining from certain chemicals? For some time I thought so, but now these beliefs no longer serve me, as I see that life is more dynamic than this black-and-white perspective. 

I recently saw a TED Talk by Johann Hari called, “Everything You Think You Know About Addiction is Wrong.” Although I don’t believe that everything we know about the subject is wrong, his talk resonated with me, because I believe that it’s time for our society to look at addiction in a different way. Calling it a disease just doesn’t seem right to me. What message am I sending to my mind, body and soul by repeating to myself that I am diseased in some way? Below is a passage from Johann’s talk that I especially love.

“There was another professor called Peter Cohen in the Netherlands who said, maybe we shouldn't even call it addiction. Maybe we should call it bonding. Human beings have a natural and innate need to bond, and when we're happy and healthy, we'll bond and connect with each other, but if you can't do that, because you're traumatized or isolated or beaten down by life, you will bond with something that will give you some sense of relief. Now, that might be gambling, that might be pornography, that might be cocaine, that might be cannabis, but you will bond and connect with something because that's our nature. That's what we want as human beings.”

I don’t want to call addiction “bonding,” but what I like about this is that he’s not saying that we are wrong to think that there is something happening with this thing we call addiction, but perhaps our view of it is slightly off base and limiting. When someone is struggling with an addiction there are serious issues that need to be addressed. But what I’ve found in my sobriety is that once we work on ourselves, sober people are some of the most big-hearted people I’ve ever met. I believe part of the reason we have the struggle with chemicals is that our subconscious knows that it will help us discover a deeper purpose and that there’s more to life than numbing ourselves and running from the pain we feel. 

Below is another Johann quote that followed the one I mentioned above:

“And at first, I found this quite a difficult thing to get my head around, but one way that helped me to think about it is, I can see, I've got over by my seat a bottle of water, right? I'm looking at lots of you, and lots of you have bottles of water with you. Forget the drugs. Forget the drug war. Totally legally, all of those bottles of water could be bottles of vodka, right? We could all be getting drunk—I might after this—[Laughter] but we're not. Now, because you've been able to afford the approximately gazillion pounds that it costs to get into a TED Talk, I'm guessing you guys could afford to be drinking vodka for the next six months. You wouldn't end up homeless. You're not going to do that, and the reason you're not going to do that is not because anyone's stopping you. It's because you've got bonds and connections that you want to be present for. You've got work you love. You've got people you love. You've got healthy relationships. And a core part of addiction, I came to think, and I believe the evidence suggests, is about not being able to bear to be present in your life.”

What I like about this passage is that I found a similar effect happened during my sobriety. After getting past a rocky first year, I noticed that I had lost interest in using drugs and alcohol. Did it mean I stopped thinking about using? Of course not. But once I started to heal, damaging my life no longer appealed to me. And I’ve seen this happen for many of my sober friends, too. It may take a while, but as we gain separation from our destructive past, we become interested in living a meaningful life. 

For me, the desire to destroy my life is long gone. Does this mean that I don’t have something inside me that wants to push limits? Absolutely not, and I hope that never leaves because I enjoy living life passionately. But this energy inside that we call addiction doesn’t have to be a negative thing for us. Once I realized my life was worth living, I started channeling that energy into positive directions. There’s certainly a difference between someone like me who ends up in treatment, and at the meetings of AA, and someone who doesn’t. I’ve always pushed the envelope with most things in life. But to call one of the best things to ever happen to me a disease just doesn’t feel right. What’s inside me is part of my makeup, and there’s nothing diseased about that. Once I uncover and work with my demons, I can channel that energy more constructively, whether it’s with meditation, creating music, hiking, writing or knitting. There are many ways to transform that once destructive energy inside into a positive direction.

This is where redefining sobriety comes in. When I made the decision to take ayahuasca, and then other psychedelics, I did them with a specific purpose in mind. I took them to help me gain insight about the cancer inside, to heal, and yes, to enjoy the effects. Since having these experiences, I feel more connected now than ever before. If someone wants to say what I’ve done is a relapse I won’t argue with them, because it’s not my job to convince anyone that what I am doing is healthy or not.

I am in no way saying that people should do what I’m doing. All I’m saying is that life is more dynamic than we make it out to be, and everyone’s path is unique. I have the utmost respect for anyone who has made the decision to stay away from all chemicals. I walked that path for nearly 15 years and have nothing but respect for it. So you would never hear me say that doing so is limiting in any way.

I’ve done a lot of work on myself over the years, and I am now at a point where I know what is healthy for me and what is not. And what I know is that what I am doing feels right for me.

I’ve drawn clear boundaries for myself during my exploration. To drink alcohol or use substances like cocaine, crystal meth and pain pills is where I draw my line. If I consume any of those, I would consider it an act of falling back into destructive behavior. What is abundantly clear to me, though, is that our society needs to take a hard look at our relationship to addiction and how calling it a disease affects us. Why would I call the two best things to ever happen to me—having cancer and being an “addict”—a disease?

Scott Binder is the author of Make Some Noise. He recently wrote about how his cancer was a gift and a breakdown of his experience of Vipassana meditation.

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