A publication of the Secular Organizations for Sobriety (Save Our Selves)
The Sobriety Priority
One comes to a program of recovery from addiction when one is most
vulnerable, reaching out for help. This does not mean, however, that one must
sacrifice intellectual integrity or compromise individuality in order to achieve
and maintain a life of sobriety.
Studies of religions and cults have consistently proved that people tend to
convert at times of great stress or failure in their lives. These are times when
promises of enlightenment and cures for pain are most appealing. People don’t
look for proof or evidence or even coherence in belief. They see someone
throwing them a life-preserver, and they grab it.
When you’ve lost faith in yourself, its only too easy to find it in
What is “cognitive sobriety?”
“Cognitive” means knowing, learning, perceiving. We look at the world and
our lives in a rational way and try to understand the dynamics behind issues and
events. The current “just say no” philosophy doesn’t help people very
much. How could it? We are thinking beings. We need to know how, we want to know
why. Simpleminded slogans don’t fulfill these basic human yearnings. Perhaps
the pervasive repetition of such a slogan will convince a few that it is no
longer popular to “get ripped;” then again, perhaps its dogmatic,
self-righteous tone will have the opposite effect.
Traditional therapies, usually based on AA’s twelve step model, connect
sobriety to God. New Agers or proponents of what is called “transpersonal
therapy” would connect it to some mystical “unity” or “cosmic holism.”
Even those who are more rational often say, “If you get good, you can get
sober,” meaning that if you make other positive changes in your life, sobriety
will follow. Others will hedge: “Well, you have to learn coping strategies.
You have to alter your life here, and take these certain steps to do such and
All these things may very well be valuable and important, and I am not
advocating that people just get sober and sit in a chair. But I am saying that
one should not lose sight of the priority — which is sobriety, not goodness,
not cosmic unity, not obedience to the will of a so-called higher power. It’s
sobriety itself. Sobriety is a priority, but it’s not an obsession. It offers
a kind of backdrop against which one can have a life, a meaningful life. If
people want to just “be,” they can do that, too, and be sober; I have met
such people. And I rejoice in their sobriety.
Some “experts” on alcoholism feel that alcoholics can “unlearn”
drinking behaviors and thus modify their intake. This is a ludicrous idea. I
wonder, do they plan eventually to apply this approach to cocaine and heroin use
Even though some addicted persons may be able to control their drinking for
varying periods of time, what have they gained in the process? In his Natural
History of Alcoholism, psychiatrist George E. Vaillant writes, “Their
situation [is] analogous to driving a car without a spare tire — disaster [is]
usually only a matter of time.”
If an alcoholic chooses a life of sobriety, what has he or she lost in the
A Personal Perspective
A number of years ago I stood by the hospital bed of a close friend who had
just died at the age of forty-seven. He had been “only a heavy drinker,”
diagnosed as “nonalcoholic.” Yet he died of alcohol-related deterioration.
The doctors in attendance said that he had simply “fallen apart” physically.
I’ve known persons of all ages who have tried time after time to find a way to
handle their “problem drinking.” I can’t think of a single case where
sobriety would have brought them harm. I had a seven-month interruption in my
seventeen years of consuming alcohol. That period of sobriety ended with a
bizarre “celebration:” I was “able to drink again.” To “prove” it, I
downed a fifth of premixed vodka martinis. When I related this to my therapist
at the time, she agreed that “this, indeed, makes good sense.”
Several years later, when I got sober again, I had a more difficult time of
it. To wit: screaming and shaking and sweating and thinking that I was dying. My
alcoholism had deepened profoundly, and I had abandoned my nonchalant attitude
as well as my agreeable therapist. By so doing I abandoned the alcoholic’s
most persistent nemesis: denial.
Those seven months had merely been a “time out.” Visions of future drinks
were dancing in my head. I had had no program, no strategies for (or commitment
to) my sobriety. Now I do.
In 1978, when I began my new period of sobriety, I was scared half to death.
I have wanted to retain the positive essense of this experience as a way of
maintaining a healthy respect for my arrested condition. I wanted a life of
sobriety this time, not dreams of future drinks. And I was willing to do
whatever was required to achieve that.
Reflections and Research
During my first year of sobriety I questioned a number of sober alcoholics,
searching for the common thread for their successes in maintaining a lasting
sobriety. When I was about three years into my sobriety, I began to challenge
some of the concepts of Alcoholics Anonymous, but felt that I stood alone in
that endeavor. By the time I was sober for five years, I had compiled an
extensive file of responses and, from four years ago to the present day I’ve
collected data from more than two thousand “sobrietists.” Both from this
research and from my own experience of recovery, I have put together a specific
secular approach to achieving and maintaining long-term sobriety. I call it the
“Sobriety Priority.” I wish to offer it here as a way (beware of anyone who
offers the way) to achieve and maintain sobriety for life.
With the Sobriety Priority, arresting one’s chemical addiction and staying
sober becomes the top priority. It is separate from everything else in one’s
life, including religious or spiritual beliefs. Rather than turning one’s life
and will over to an outside force or higher power, recovering alcoholics and
addicts credit themselves daily for achieving and maintaining sobriety,
empowering themselves, rebuilding self-esteem, and building the best possible
protection against relapse. This is not a “spiritual” or “twelve step”
program. And it’s not a package deal. Achieving and maintaining sobriety is
approached as a separate issue, not as part of a larger mystic/holistic plan
that requires fear of one’s human imperfections. The Sobriety Priority method
works. Thousands have used it successfully, not only for drug and alcohol
addiction, but for other addictions, such as overeating and gambling.
The Cycle of Addiction
The Sobriety Priority approach for achieving and maintaining freedom from
alcohol and other mind-altering drugs is a cognitive strategy. It can be
applied, on a daily basis, as long as one lives, to prevent relapse.
The Sobriety Priority approach respects the power of “nature” (genetic
inheritance, physiological constitution) and of “nurture” (learned habit,
behaviors, and associations)by showing how to achieve the initial arrest of
cellular addiction and stave off the chronic habits that result from this
The “cycle of addiction” contains three debilitating elements: chemical
need (at the physiological cellular level), learned habit (chronic
drinking/using behavior and associations), and denial of both need and habit.
The cycle of alcohol addiction usually develops over a period of years.
Cycles have been found to be much shorter with other drugs, especially cocaine.
In all cases, however, the addiction becomes “Priority One,” a separate
issue from everything else. And as it progresses, it begins to negate everything
The Cycle of Sobriety
The cycle of addiction can be successfully replaced by another cycle: the
cycle of sobriety. This cycle contains three essential elements: acknowledgment
of one’s addiction to alcohol or drugs (you may have euphemistically called it
“a problem”); acceptance of one’s addiction; and prioritization of
sobriety as the primary issue in one’s life.
The daily cognitive application of a new “Priority One,” the Sobriety
Priority, as a separate issue, arrests the cycle of addiction. It frees the
sober alcoholic/addict to experience “everything else,” by teaching him or
her to associate “everything else” with sobriety, not with drinking or using
behaviors. The cycle of sobriety remains in place only so long as the sober
alcoholic/addict cognitively chooses to continue to acknowledge the existence of
his or her arrested addiction(s).
The Sobriety Priority, applied daily, gradually weakens booze and drug
associations, halting the cycle of addiction, allowing time for new associations
to form as one experiences life without addictive chemicals. As one continues to
“make peace” with the facts regarding his or her arrested addiction—that
is, as one continues to recognize alcohol and drugs as a non-option—one comes
to prefer a sober life-style; one longs to preserve it, to respect the arrested
chemical addiction, and to protect the new, sober life.
Portions of this brochure are excerpted from Unhooked: Staying Sober and
Drug-Free (Prometheus Books, 1989) by James Christopher, founder of SOS.
Publication of this material is made possible by support from SOS members and
friends and by the Council for Secular Humanism, a nonprofit educational
Copies of this and other SOS brochures may be obtained from the SOS
Clearinghouse. This brochure was updated January, 2000.
SOS Clearinghouse (Secular Organizations for Sobriety/ Save Our Selves)
5521 Grosvenor Boulevard, Los Angeles, CA 90066 USA.
Tel : (310) 821-8430 Fax:
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