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Can Being ‘California Sober’ Offer Relief?

Addiction is an incredibly complex disease, often over-simplified by people and policy that refuses to acknowledge the humanity of those suffering from addiction. Recovery from addiction is often a long-term and life-long process. Addicts may struggle with traditional treatments, as most methods take a one-size-fits-all approach to such an amorphous disease. Recently, sober celebrities have come forward defining their sobriety as “California sober”. This radical new take on recovery is frequently met with an admonition from both the recovery community and in public discourse. Though shaking the foundations of something as important as recovery has dangers, it also allows for new conversations surrounding the implications of alternatives to traditional sobriety.

The following exploration of California sobriety is not medical advice from a medical professional. If people need help with addiction or resources to explore their treatment options they should refer to the extensive information provided by the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration.

What Is Sobriety?

Today almost twenty million Americans suffer from substance abuse disorders. Of those twenty million, only 19% are able to achieve what they define as a recovered state. “Recovery” in the traditional sense, often includes sobriety, though it is not the only factor. Sobriety is a state being, free from measurable amounts of a particular substance. Some sobriety does not involve substances but rather behaviors that are negatively affecting addict’s lives, such as gambling. 

In twelve-step programs — the most popular treatment for addiction — sobriety is defined as complete abstinence from any psychoactive substances. Yet, substances such as nicotine or caffeine are not considered impediments to sobriety. If someone partakes in a psychoactive substance this is deemed a relapse unless there are outstanding circumstances such as a medical need. Recovery is sometimes referred to as remission, as the disease of addiction can often flare up and needs active maintenance.

12 Step Fellowship Programs

The inaugural twelve-step fellowship program is Alcoholics Anonymous or AA. The steps are laid out in The Big Book written by Bill Wilson and are used as a treatment for addictions ranging from narcotics to overeating. The original twelve steps are as follows:

  1. We admitted we were powerless over alcohol—that our lives had become unmanageable.
  2. Came to believe that a Power greater than ourselves could restore us to sanity.
  3. Made a decision to turn our will and our lives over to the care of God as we understood Him.
  4. Made a searching and fearless moral inventory of ourselves.
  5. Admitted to God, to ourselves, and to another human being the exact nature of our wrongs.
  6. Were entirely ready to have God remove all these defects of character.
  7. Humbly asked Him to remove our shortcomings.
  8. Made a list of all persons we had harmed, and became willing to make amends to them all.
  9. Made direct amends to such people wherever possible, except when to do so would injure them or others.
  10. Continued to take personal inventory and when we were wrong promptly admitted it.
  11. Sought through prayer and meditation to improve our conscious contact with God, as we understood Him, praying only for knowledge of His will for us and the power to carry that out.
  12. Having had a spiritual awakening as the result of these Steps, we tried to carry this message to alcoholics, and to practice these principles in all our affairs.

These steps are used in 74% of treatment centers in the United States, meaning that most addicts seeking recovery find themselves in a room with others working these steps. Treatment at rehab facilities can also include additional private therapies and medication. 

Twelve-step fellowship programs are rooted in Christian teaching and theology, made evident in the many references to the Christian deity. This spiritual component is an essential tenet of twelve-step programs and today the divine power is interpreted through many different religious lenses. 

Some programs will alter the steps to fit the unique needs of their members but the core principles are present in almost all forms of addiction treatment. The main critiques of twelve-step programs are rigidity, lack of science-based evidence and modernizing updates. The slogan “it works if you work it” can end up being a shaming rod used to beat addicts unable to maintain sobriety. 

There is a societal fallacy that once an addict quits a substance that they are free from the grips of addiction. The emphasis on abstinence from a substance as the goal for a sober life can neglect the underlying causes pushing people towards substance abuse. Whether or not someone is abstinent from a substance is not the only goal of recovery. Addiction stems from a complex intersection of factors culminating in substance abuse.

Recovery must also be intersectional in order to best aid people dealing with addiction towards a different way of life. Addressing the underlying trauma and behavioral patterns driving those toward substances allows for psychological healing and hopefully remission. The strictness of traditional treatment approaches does not work for all addicts. Disillusioned by rigidity, some people seek out more flexible alternatives, such as California sobriety. 

What Does It Mean to Be California Sober?

California sober is the practice of recovery without full abstinence from psychoactive substances. For some people, this means using cannabis or psychedelics while still working towards recovery from their addiction. This model of sobriety is based on harm reduction. 

Harm reduction is an approach to addiction treatment focusing on safer or moderated drug use in an attempt to meet addicts wherever they are in their sobriety journey. As opposed to the more black-and-white twelve-step model, harm reduction is not a one-size-fits-all solution. 

The goal of harm reduction is to help addicts that are not ready to fully let go of their substance use by providing safe environments for addicts to use and find resources. There are many varied ways to implement harm reduction strategies. Examples of harm reduction programs include safe injection sites and the implementation of methadone.

Some specialists do not see California sobriety as harm reduction because it still promotes altered states of consciousness as a coping method for emotional regulation.

How Is California Sobriety Being Popularized?

The term California sobriety was first coined in a Vice article by Michelle Lhooq and is used colloquially in medical and public spaces. It has recently gained attention due to celebrity Demi Lovato publicly coming out as California Sober. The Grammy-nominated singer-songwriter suffered an extremely public overdose on crack cocaine and fentanyl in 2019. Prior to this overdose, she was a poster child for sobriety, entering recovery at nineteen and maintaining abstinence-based sobriety for six years.

In her recent docuseries, Dancing With the Devil, Demi describes her struggles with addiction, bulimia and suicidal ideation. She made the decision to partake in weed and alcohol incredibly publicly by releasing a song titled “California Sober” on her newest album. 

In a recent interview on The Joe Rogan Experience, Demi outlines how part of her process is keeping the terms of her sobriety vague to the public. Although she no longer uses the opioids that caused her overdose, she does admit to smoking weed and drinking in moderation. Her use of alcohol is somewhat contradictory to the original intentions of California sobriety, but due to the nature of the term, it has varied interpretations. 

A celebrity foray with California sobriety is not indicative of outcomes for the general population who struggle with addiction. Most celebrities tend to have access to endless financial and medical support that the everyday person is incapable of mirroring. The present solution for any famous person does not constitute anything more than their personal lived experience and needs. 

Public figures promoting California sobriety can send a misleading message about managing substance use. Though alternatives to abstinence-based treatment have positive outcomes for some, each person’s journey is unique and should not be modeled after someone else — especially an influencer with millions of dollars and a team of professionals supporting their every move.

What Are the Implications?

Addicts choosing to pursue California sobriety might open themselves up to a myriad of risks. Addiction specialists and prominent voices in the sober community have come forward against California sobriety. It can be very dangerous, for some addicts, to be given the impression that it is okay for them to attempt moderation. It goes against the tenants of the twelve-step program and could potentially trigger life-threatening relapses.

It can also be dangerous for addicts to force themselves into a dogmatic system unable to yield to their specific needs. The steps work for addicts partially because they are the only steps widely available. There is very little research on the long-lasting benefits of the currently available addiction treatments. There aren’t accurate statistics on how many people stay sober or how many sober people have relapsed during their recovery. It is challenging to garner honest data from a pool of people who are actively demonized into anonymity

For the sober community, California sobriety can seem like a slap in the face to their lifelong struggles with substance use and the programs they use to stay sober. However, alternatives to conventional sobriety do not invalidate the success stories and lived experience of addicts working their respective programs.

The discussion surrounding California sobriety facilitates conversations about the current treatment options available for people dealing with addiction. There is limited research on addiction and the only heavily studied treatments are cognitive therapies, FDA-approved pharmaceutical medications and 12 step fellowship programs. If addicts struggle with these limited treatment options there are few other resources for them.

Though California sobriety may not be the best option for some, as the world continues to evolve and change so must the way practitioners treat addiction. Helping people towards recovery with compassion includes listening to the needs of each individual person. Addressing the root causes of substance abuse can be a messy and ongoing process. Finding recovery is a journey addicts must face alone aided by the community and necessary resources. California sobriety may be a part of some people’s journey towards healing, and hopefully, aid the public’s understanding of the complexities of addiction.

Psychonaut Thoughts

Have you heard anything about California sobriety? If you have any thoughts about the benefits or consequences of alternative forms of addiction treatment, we would love to hear your comments below.

3 thoughts on “Can Being ‘California Sober’ Offer Relief?”

  1. I have never heard of California sobriety. I have been in recovery from cigarettes and alcohol for 40 years. If I tried the California sobriety program I would not be in recovery!!!!! I attribute my recovery to God and the twelve step program.

  2. In my experience, cannabis use and TRUE sobriety (meaning freedom from any and all monkeys on one’s back) are not compatible. Cannabis use in the guise of “medication” or necessary “support” for withdrawing from alcohol or other substances seems like a deceptive blind alley. Of course there is huge pushback against this but it is the truth for many, many users.
    Sobriety can mean different things to different people. For some people it just means “I don’t drink” and something like cannabis or nicotine dependence doesn’t matter. For me it sobriety includes clear seeing about everything if that has power over me and whether or not I feel I actually have a choice over what I put in my body. Whether there is suffering involved.
    Psychedelics absolutely leave me a choice. Cannabis does not. This is just me.

  3. This is a great article! Thank you for bringing more awareness to this topic. It’s true that very often people are going through extreme levels of pain, guilt, sadness and shame and that substances like alcohol can be a form of self medication. Psychedelics, in my experience, can help our mind integrate what is causing the pain with the experience of the pain itself – in other words, to cease cognitive dissonance and denial. However if we truly want to mitigate the overconsumption and self medication, we have to address the behaviors that cause the shame, grief and pain in the first place. That is usually much easier to do in a social context with others who are working to change the same habits, but we always need the one who goes first and that brave “first follower”. Here’s to self respect and saying “no” to those choices that end up making us feel despondent and isolated long after the high is over.

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