What Is Sobriety?

Some mornings I wake up feeling off — foggy, disoriented, stumbling. Perhaps it’s a lingering dream. Or digestion doing what it does (or doesn’t). Or deep rooted anxiety about the father who abandoned me as a child. It could be a lot of things.

But, in any case, I get into my car and drive like shit. I scrape against the garage door; I almost hit a pedestrian I simply didn’t see; I pull into traffic too slowly and am greeted with the panicked honk of a swerving driver.

I ask you this: Am I sober?

Like most people, this fog usually disappears with some coffee. In fact, if I don’t have coffee, I get agitated and a headache. Just ask my kid — every time I’m grumpy he suggests we get some coffee. It’s humiliating. And that pang of humiliation, I believe, comes from how we define sobriety.

I am addicted to coffee, I suppose. But what does that mean? That I must have it? I must have lots of things — water, air, food. What is it about coffee that’s different? When I’m wired on caffeine, am I sober?  Is my foggy daze more sober because I didn’t consume anything? If that’s the case, the only way to be truly sober is to be dead.

Well, I suppose that unlike water, air, and food, I don’t need coffee to survive (which is a false assumption: I maintain that we need delight as well water, air, and food). I just need coffee to be smart and not be an asshole to my kid.

My dependence on coffee sometimes makes me feel weak — ergo, my humiliation. I imagine I should be like Gary Cooper, the strong silent type (pace Tony Soprano). We say that coffee is a crutch which implies that the need to lean on something is wrong. Which implies that our vision of what’s right is someone who’s self-contained.

But what is self contained? If I eat a really heavy meal, I feel like shit. All the sickly puds who eat Doritos and McDonald’s and find themselves sickly and depressed and stupid — are they sober? As I’ve gotten older, I spend more time trying to dial in the right food at the right time because I’ve learned how much it can affect my mood, my disposition, how I think about this life and my place in it.

What am I, what are we we, other than a collection of moods?

I sometimes imagine that underneath it all I am this. All the vicissitudes of mood are transient, surface, and in the end, irrelevant. I am me! Here! And so all the coffee and booze and drugs — whether prescribed or not — is a distortion of me. To be sober, I imagine, is to be the real me. Shouldn’t I be able to feel the things I feel on coffee or drugs on my own?

The problem is there’s always a mood in the way. We are mooded from the get go. And there’s always stuff — food, air, bacteria, viruses, dreams, desires, drugs. We are fundamentally environmental beings: we are always already enmeshed in the world. Billions of bacteria live in us, letting digestion happen. Yes, we are hosts. We have holes in our faces and asses in and out of which the world passes. We will never have been self-contained units. We are ecological beings, even if we act like selfish pricks.

I can’t tell you the number of times I’ve heard someone tell me I prefer natural highs. That’s a vapid, specious claim usually uttered by people who are afraid to let the cosmos overwhelm them. There is no such thing as a natural high (and that includes the famed jogger’s high — every jogger will admit to you that their addiction to running is as destructive as an addiction to other things).

And people who tell me they prefer natural highs tend to be the precise people addicted to some ideology or another — bourgeois, new age, neoliberal. If someone is self-loathing and depressed because she hasn’t found a husband, is that any less deranged than the junky without a fix?  We are addicted, in a way, to the bullshit stories fed to us from the crib onwards.  Why else do people work 60 hours a week at a job they loathe as their colon gives out and their cock goes limp? Is that sober?

Maybe, then, it’s not that coffee is extraneous that makes it different from food and air as much as it’s so efficient. One minute, I’m a fog brained dullard, the next I’m clever and insightful — and handsome, to boot! Everything’s gonna turn out great! It seems like a cheat (this is the language we use to describe our greatest athletes — an odd turn for capitalism: efficiency of production is wrong when it comes to the body but not the accumulation of wealth or exploitation of workers).

Perhaps feeling good should take time, a lifetime of ascetic training. But Terence McKenna suggests that we can all bypass that lifelong labor, smoke DMT and, voilà, we can experience things usually reserved for shamans and such. To McKenna, this speed is a gift. But that rubs our Puritan work ethic the wrong way (delight — not to mention delirium, insight, and inspiration — rubs our work ethic the wrong way). If I told you there was this amazing salad you could have which makes you insightful and inspired in five minutes, why wouldn’t you eat it?

Taking drugs is framed as a guilty pleasure (a phrase I loathe) — a short cut or perversion or both. I know people in their 40s who’ve partied their whole lives who still feel pangs of guilt when they get high — as if they are cheating or wronging their true selves. But why feel guilty for having a drink? Do you feel guilty for taking Paxil? Or Xanax? If I take a lavender tincture rather than Ambien, am I free of the guilt or perverting my true self? Is lavender a natural high?

Now, I have no desire to belittle the horrors of drugs. Peoples’ lives are ruined. Any walk down any American city street makes this soul crushingly clear. There are clearly certain substances that get inside certain people and wreak havoc — a havoc all the worse for bringing pleasure, inspiration, delight, even if only temporarily.

But that doesn’t mean all drugs — or even that all dependencies — are bad. Or that drugs should even be reduced in our eyes for being external, whatever that means.

It seems relevant that we use sobriety to mean both abstinence and a serious temperament. Apparently, to be sober is to be serious. Well, ok. But is being serious my true self? My ideal self? My better self? Or does sober simply denote being serious as distinct from being playful or delirious — in which case, sobriety is no longer privileged but is a state among states, a mood among moods, a serious mood?

I am not saying drugs are good in and themselves. I am saying that drugs are stuff like other stuff, only more potent. And hence the internal-external dichotomy that underpins our thoughts about sobriety is wrongheaded.

I suggest that rather than view our consumption in terms of internal vs. external, pure vs. cheat, we look at ourselves as the systems we are. We take in; we process; we produce. Some things spur the system on; some clog the cogs. The question we should always be asking ourselves is this: Is what I’m doing, is what I’m consuming, making me more vital?

This introduces a different approach to drugs. Rather than saying yes or not — being guilty or pure — you should look at the performance of the system you are. Did smoking that joint make me better? What is the payoff for a hangover? How about eating this or that? Doing this or that?

Sometimes, I do want to feel sober — serious, quiet, reserved. Sometimes, however, I want to be delirious. My system — my intellect, my mood, my health — demands it. As a system going with other systems, I try to be a discerning consumer of my world, with an eye not to sobriety but to surging vitality. Thought Catalog Logo Mark

Daniel is an independent writer, reader, teacher, and philosopher. Follow him on Twitter here.

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