Is Recovery Even Possible Without Sobriety?

recovery vs. sobrietyRecovery vs. Sobriety

The question proposed is one I’ve thought about quite a bit; what I’m going to share is based on my own experience.

To share my feelings about the question, I’ll start with a few questions:

Why does the White Book say, “Without sobriety we have nothing to offer anyone.” (p. 185)

What does the statement – “Half measures availed us nothing,” mean in the Big Book?

Are these statements just cliche or are they really things I should be taking to heart?

Can someone be “recovered” or “in recovery” or “working recovery” if they aren’t sober from acting out?

Sober is Not Well – My Story

On page 130 of the White Book one of the titles says “Sober is Not Well.

As I think about how that relates to my life as an addict, it’s way too familiar.

When I first started attending recovery meetings I felt it went really well. I found a sponsor who could help me work the steps, and I was consistent at attending one meeting a week.

My sponsor and I met frequently, he had me email him my Step work daily, and I felt like I was making progress. I even got a little bit of sobriety, at least from acting out with porn and masturbation. (Lust was not even something I addressed unfortunately.)

I got through Step 8 with my sponsor and began working on Step 9. Some of the amends were easy, some were uncomfortable, and some I wasn’t going to touch with a 10-foot poll. “I will get to them eventually,” I’d tell myself again and again.

At around this same time our family schedule changed and the meeting I had been attending was no longer possible. Guess what I did?

I stopped going to meetings altogether.

After all, I’d gotten this far, I was “sober,” and I’d made progress farther than any other addict I knew at the meeting I was attending (a common denial statement). These were the lies I was telling myself and believing whole-heartedly. I was comparing myself to others and feeling pretty proud of my “accomplishments…”

So I stopped going to meetings, I stopped connecting with my sponsor, and I stopped working the Steps.

I was “good.” I had “arrived.”

Why Sobriety Wasn’t Enough for Me

I believe this was the end of 2011, start of 2012. To make a long story short, by 2013 I was in a worse spot than I’d ever been: the lust had always been there in one form or another, I had lost all sobriety, and I had had an online affair – my life was definitely the most unmanageable it had ever been. I felt like it was going to end.

Had sobriety been enough?

Was sobriety the end? The cure? The arrival?

Unfortunately no, no it wasn’t…

Recovery is an Ongoing Process!

In Step 10 of the White Book, it states:

“It is possible that, once relieved of the compulsion to act out our habit, we may feel cured and start coasting along with our tank on EMPTY. But the same personality defects that energized our addiction are still with us and, unattended, will take their toll again, sooner or later. Why are they still with us? Because they are us. Progressive victory over these defects, not their eradication, is the power of God at work in us. What we really do battle against is not other people but our old natures, the negative force within us we can obey anytime we wish, the force that is always willing and able to wrong another. This is why our program must come to fruition in our daily living or there is no recovery.” ( p. 131)

There are a couple things that stick out to me in this quote:

1. Coasting

2. Daily Living

I’ve heard from one fellow in meetings that “the only way to coast is downhill.” If I’m coasting along, doing little or nothing, I’m progressively getting farther and farther away from recovery and healing.

Instead, recovery:

has to be a part of my daily living.

Recovery has to become like brushing my teeth: if I don’t do it, it’s going to hurt me and others more than I even realize. And I probably won’t recognize this until it’s too late…

When Does Recovery Start?

From my experience, recovery doesn’t even start until I’m sober. Sobriety is the first step.

For me, real recovery didn’t start until I had about 2 1/2 years of sobriety, both from acting out in addiction and working on progressive victory over lust.

Does it have to take this long for everyone? I don’t really know. Maybe not.

But I have been an addict for over 30 years so thinking that recovery would come after my first meeting or a few days of not acting out was a lie I told myself over and over again.

Real recovery also started via full disclosure with a qualified therapist where I was able to be fully honest about my sexual history, both with him, my wife and myself.

Real recovery also began as I was able to finally take full responsibility for all the pain and trauma I’d caused my wife and family. Her feelings of worthlessness and nothingness were my fault – my horrific actions and manipulations were to blame.

Is there a difference, then, between sobriety and recovery?

Is the statement that says that “without sobriety we have nothing to offer anyone” a valid one?

An Outside Perspective on Recovery vs. Sobriety

I feel this man’s experience provides another perspective:

“When Alcoholics Anonymous first started up, in the 1930’s, before it had even adopted that name, they were not about “getting sober” or “stopping drinking”. It was about recovering from the life-threatening malady of alcoholism…The Big Book doesn’t talk much about sobriety or getting sober – it talks about recovery from alcoholism. It talks about the necessity of having a spiritual experience in order to achieve sustainable recovery from alcoholism.

“There became two types of alcoholic in AA. There was the “sober” alcoholic, who was able to maintain “sobriety” by going to meetings regularly, and didn’t really need to have the spiritual “recovery.” Then there was the “recovered” alcoholic, who went through the 12 Step process, as outlined in the Big Book, usually with the guidance of a group or a sponsor. There were a few who would have an almost instantaneous “awakening,” where the realization that a power greater than themselves could heal their problem would occur, but these were the exception. Most experienced the recovery process gradually, as they progressed through the Steps.

“Sobriety means nothing to me. It’s empty, it’s a date, it represents 17 jobs in 4 years, loneliness, depression, quiet desperation. Recovery means life, abundance, as the Big Book puts it, being ‘rocketed into a 4th dimension of existence, beyond our wildest dreams.’ That is where I live today, each day.”


As you can hopefully see from my experience, sobriety is only the start. “White knuckling” it was what I was doing, and you can see how that worked out for me.

Unfortunately, sobriety doesn’t necessarily mean I’m in recovery at all.

If I’m not sober, “recovery” is a foreign language, something I can’t really even recognize or feel.

If I’m not sober, I can’t help others work their recovery because I’m still living my addict life.

If I’m not sober, my connection with God and others is shaded at best, but most likely quite a bit off track.

Based on my experience, sobriety is not enough. “Without sobriety I have nothing to offer anyone.”

I look forward to your thoughts on this topic.

29 thoughts on “Is Recovery Even Possible Without Sobriety?

  1. I don’t think that a “sobriety vs. recovery” mindset is the correct way of framing the conversation. It treats the 2 like they are opposing ideas or approaches competing for our attention and focus. Rather, I believe that the proper focus needs to be on recovery, of which sobriety is one piece of that “pie.”

    Therefore, I do not believe that sobriety is required to be in recovery. Recovery is a healthy life with proper balance. Recovery is healthy emotional, spiritual, physical, sexual, and social behaviors. Recovery creates inner change, peace, and it provides the tools and capacity for long-term sobriety. Does recovery happen quicker or smoother or more effectively when sobriety is present? Yes! But I believe it works more like a lubricant to aid in engine performance, as opposed to a different engine altogether.

    I believe that sobriety is often erroneously viewed as happening prior to recovery, as if it is the gateway to recovery. I believe, however, as I stated earlier, that sobriety is a piece of recovery, not some stand-alone admittance process. Sobriety does not come without purpose, intent, effort, and rigorous work. Well, that sounds an awful lot like recovery to me…

    1. @Jeff C – I agree with what you’re saying here, that RECOVERY is the goal, and SOBRIETY is a “piece of that pie.” I want to add to that; while one certainly can work on his or her own recovery even while struggling to maintain sobriety (which many do in the beginning stages), they’ll only be able to get so far. Acting out is the physical manifestation or habit behind a spiritual & mental malady; “the addictive process [is] established in the inner person long before it ever appears in our behavior.” (White Book, p.49)

      I know from personal experience that sobriety is absolutely necessary in order for me to be truly connected to the Source of lasting recovery. If I allow lust to take over to the point where I am outwardly acting on that selfish impulse, it means there are things I still need to fix on the inside. Acting out impedes my ability to feel so many things: empathy towards others; accountability for my own actions; the influence of God (i.e. His Spirit); etc. Furthermore, acting out for me is almost always accompanied by immense shame—which is the total opposite of what I need to be feeling/experiencing in order to live a life of recovery.

      So while sobriety should never be the end goal, I’m convinced it’s a requirement for anyone hoping to find—and keep—real, lasting recovery in their lives.

    2. “I do not believe that sobriety is required to be in recovery.”

      I’m not sure where this statement is coming from Jeff. Do you mean that I can be acting out and still be in recovery? If so, please expound.

      You comments made me ask myself these questions:

      – How can I be “in recovery” while still acting out?

      – How can I gain ANY sort of trust with my wife or family if I’m acting out?

      You mentioned that you “believe that sobriety is often erroneously viewed as happening prior to recovery, as if it is the gateway to recovery.”

      Where can I find some data, some examples, some case studies that help me see otherwise?

      As I read the words of those who have laid the path of real recovery – the recovering alcoholics from the Big Book, the sexaholics in recovery from the White Book – ALL of them had to start by stopping and staying stopped (also known as sobriety) before they could feel any form of recovery and healing.

      I think the misunderstanding, especially in some cultures, is that if I’m sober, THEN I’m in recovery. I agree that to be sober does NOT mean I’m well or in recovery at all.

      But to say that I’m in recovery while still looking at porn, masturbating or having other sexual relationships outside of marriage, even if they are less often than I “used to” do them, is way off the mark for me.

      I can be white knuckle sober and not in recovery at all, but, from my experience, I can’t be “in recovery” and still be acting out.

      If I believe this, I’m continuing to practice the addictive behaviors that got me to where I am today (justification, minimization, rationalization, defensiveness, and deceit).

      Maybe I’m just misunderstanding what you’re trying to say.

      Thanks for the clarification.

    3. Recovery means to “be healthy”. One cannot be healthy if they are acting out in their addiction in any way. It’s literally impossible when it comes to the brain and it’s neural pathways (can’t heal and make those addiction brain pathways go dormant if they are activated and going strong, eh?). You can be sober and not in recovery, but in order to be in recovery you must be healthy. Ie. Sober, honest, not abusive, HEALTHY. Can you imagine people with cancer going around saying they are in recovery, even though they still have cancer? Talk about confusing..

  2. I think that the big book and the white book both explain this best when they say that the program (recovery) is about ‘staying stopped’. Acting out is not ‘staying stopped’ and thus is not recovery to me. while I do believe there are recovery-related lessons that can be learned from relapses or while still acting out, I do not believe that these lessons constitute me being in recovery, as much as lessons that i learn the hard way, instead of the easier (albeit still very hard) way, which is by working recovery. For me, recovery means being sober, getting a sponsor, working the steps, controlling my emotions, surrendering constantly and living my life one day at time, which perpetuates sobriety. Sobriety is an absolute ingredient in recovery, it’s the sauce to the spaghetti noodles!

    I have never had a relapse when I was working recovery. It’s only when my recovery work breaks down that my sobriety has been threatened. I certainly believe that i can have fleeting sobriety without recovery, but unless I’m ‘staying stopped’ I’m not working recovery because I’m missing a key ingredient. Just one addict’s thoughts though!

    1. Thanks Cameron.

      I like that: Sober > Sponsor > Working Steps > Controlling Emotions > Surrendering Constantly > Living One Day at a Time = More Sobriety

      Sobriety then leads to Recovery.

      What do others think about this?

  3. To the tune of what Jeff C said, I can see a variety of perspectives and possibilities, and not one of them is a “perfect” answer to the question. It seems to come down to two things for me: Definitions, and Intentions.

    Here’s a little context into what I mean. I am atheist and have not found strength or life-changing experiences by trying to find a Deity to be my higher power. In fact, I don’t believe that such experiences are required for recovery to be possible (unlike the man’s story shared in the post), but I could be unique in that area. My higher power, if you will, is humble recognition that there are universal truths and principles that just work when you work them, and that such principles do not require a divine creator to exist or operate. Surrender just works. Service just works. Honesty, love, humility (etc., etc.), just work. In fact, it was accepting and embracing these principles as immutable and universal that helped me awaken to real recovery.

    This ties back into ‘definitions’ because some of what I’ve experienced reading the whitebook, big book, and participating in meetings feels quite rigid and dogmatic at times, not that dissimilar from religious beliefs/theologies. In other words, not abiding by the exact definitions of recovery and sobriety outlined in AA/SA/SAL feels like I might be committing an act of heresy. But rather than focusing on criticisms, what I want to point out is that the words sobriety and recovery will mean slightly different things to everyone, and even different things at different times to ourselves. Recognizing this can empower us in our practice of the principles of recovery, namely the practice of empathy and holding space for all in the messy ways we show up.

    Which leads me to my second and final point. Intention is at the heart of it all. Intention determines whether we are looking for full and abiding healing and incorporation of a new way of life in the definitions and practices of sobriety/recovery, or if we’re looking for more finite boundaries and limited thinking as excuses to soothe our aching consciences. The thing is, we enter the path of recovery with mixed intentions, limited understanding, and a lot of fear, and so having a simple yet finite definition for each term is helpful in setting boundaries and benchmarks. But if you were to ask me if sobriety has to precede working recovery, I would say not at all; and yet there are degrees of recovery. Real healing, a change of heart and character, and a new way of life demand abstinence from the acting out behaviors, and progressive victory over the mental and emotional habits (lust being one of these) and negative coping mechanisms that kept us in addiction, because these behaviors and attitudes do not allow the brain and body (and spirit) to fully heal. Some will experience relapses, and even constant relapses in sobriety for years, without a loss of true dedication to working recovery because they are having to work to undo a lifetime of powerful habits; whereas others may be sober for the rest of their lives and yet never enter into what recovery demands – which is a change of heart, life, and character by digging deep and working the principles with full intent.

    1. I like your thoughts JR. I’m not sure I completely understand though:

      You said: “But if you were to ask me if sobriety has to precede working recovery, I would say not at all;”

      When I re-read this statement, it makes me think of baseball for some reason. In order to win at the game of baseball, there is a process:

      Get on base > Go around the bases without getting out > Cross home plate > Score more runs than the opponent > Win the game.

      There isn’t another way to win the game. One thing has to proceed the other.

      Like @Cameron said above, real recovery and healing requires a similar set of steps in order to be in recovery:

      Sober > Sponsor > Working Steps > Controlling Emotions > Surrendering Constantly > Living One Day at a Time = More Sobriety

      Sobriety then leads to Recovery.

      It seems like you said this later on in your comment too:

      “Real healing, a change of heart and character, and a new way of life demand abstinence from the acting out behaviors,…” – by definition that would be sobriety, correct?

      You went on to say: “…because these behaviors and attitudes do not allow the brain and body (and spirit) to fully heal.” – To fully heal, to me, means recovery in this context.

      What I don’t get, then, is this comment:

      “Some will experience relapses, and even constant relapses in sobriety for years, without a loss of true dedication to working recovery because they are having to work to undo a lifetime of powerful habits;”

      I can be dedicated to wanting to be sober my entire life, but if I continue to act out, my addiction will progress – that’s just the nature of the beast.

      In fact, that has been the story of my life since I was young – I always wanted to stop but couldn’t (by definition this is addiction – “physically and mentally dependent on a particular substance, and unable to stop taking it without incurring adverse effects.”).

      If I never stop and stay stopped, recovery isn’t even a possibility in my life. There’s too much chaos going on in my mind and heart to ever see clearly or really feel.

      I do agree with what you said about sobriety not necessarily leading to recovery. To me, this is a different discussion in and of itself:

      “…others may be sober for the rest of their lives and yet never enter into what recovery demands – which is a change of heart, life, and character by digging deep and working the principles with full intent.”

      This is white-knuckle sobriety to me; I’ve been there too.

      To me, this is never addressing the progressive victory over lust.
      To me, this is never even looking at the negative emotions (or character defects).
      To me, this is thinking I’ve arrived and not working recovery one day at a time for the rest of my life.
      To me, this is a bomb waiting to go off.

      Sobriety does NOT equal recovery, but “without sobriety I have nothing to offer anyone.” And recovery isn’t even a consideration.

  4. Thanks for the link. This article has such a powerful message. I agree with the idea that we need to be a real help, we need to be sober, but sober doesn’t mean recovered.

    I loved the vehicle analogy, that the only way we can coast is downhill. It takes energy and effort to move up, and that energy comes from daily application of the steps.

  5. In my own experience, I think sobriety and recovery are in direction opposition. I agree that they are connected and often (but not always) work hand in hand. At the same time, sobriety, I think can be a major stumbling block in recovery. I believe, sobriety without first recovery is harmful. I heard once that “good is the enemy of greatness.” To me, that means when you have something good going, you have no need or motivation to fight for greatness. Being good is fine and you can’t reach greatness without FIRST being good, but soon sets in the apathy. I think you can plug sobriety and recovery into that same phrase, “sobriety is the enemy of recovery.” Sobriety is good and a natural step in recovery, but we put too much weight on it.

    My journey in recovery has not been a simple one, and started 3 years ago in NA, after a year of cold turkey quitting and white knuckling narcotics. I had a whole year sober from narcotics before I found myself in the rooms, and it only made my life worse. I had fought so hard and given so much towards a goal that, in the long run, hurt myself and my family far more if I had kept using during that time. I lost every jobs, got kicked out of school, had multiple affairs, destroyed my marriage ALL AFTER in had sobriety from narcotics. I lost my mind a little. The goal of sobriety had received all my attention and ambitions while I was ignorant of recovery, but I was content because I was accumulating sobriety time. Wasn’t that what it’s all about?

    A year later after I’d meet my NA sponsor, he taught me that addiction is a progressive terminal spiritual disease with no cure. It can however, be arrested through recovery and the help of a Higher Power. With only sobriety, addiction still progresses and silently develops more severe. The big book talks about drunks who white knuckle it and have sobriety for years, but who relapse and because of the progressive nature of the disease are soon dead; their bodies being unable to handle the amount of alcohol their addictions demand.

    Recovery “arrests” the progression of the disease and relieves the insanity, we as addicts suffer. As a result, of the arrest and relief, we find ourselves with sobriety. Sobriety becomes a natural consequence of recovery, not a steppingstone towards recovery. Sobriety should be seen as is a trail-marker along the path of recovery. You notice it as you pass and you celebrate it as a clear sign that you’re on your way home, but the pathway itself is far more important than the signs along the way.

  6. To say I don’t have an agenda with the discussion group would be a lie…I do and this is it:

    To get a dialogue going about what recovery and healing really looks like and feels like.

    I feel, at least today, right now, that this discussion is achieving that “agenda” or goal. Thanks for all the comments and perspectives.

    I probably won’t reply to each of them directly at all because I want to avoid the “right vs. wrong” mentality which, for me, is ADDICT BEHAVIOR through and through.

    I will say this – I validate ALL of the comments here because they seem to be coming from a desire to understand and make progress. Thanks again.

    In my reading yesterday, I found these quotes in Step 11 which really stuck out to me, especially in relationship to what we’re discussing. Here are the quotes (all from the White Book):

    “So long as we held on to our lusts, He was lost to us.” p. 135

    “Our wrongs had separated us, not from praying to God (many of us did that ad nauseam), but from union with our God. As a result, our concept of God was wrong, and we were lost to the true God. He was either an avenging tyrant we were afraid to approach, the great Authority Figure, a Santa Claus, or some other reflection of our distorted attitudes and dysfunctional relationships. We acted as though “being good” (not acting out) somehow earned us the right to “be bad” (act out). We were trying to manipulate or make deals with God like we did with others! Creating a god to suit our sickness.” p. 136

    “Have we not seen this in our own experience? Each time when we are faced with temptation from within or without, and we surrender, are we not freed from its power? Whenever we fulfill this simple condition we are saved from acting out our wrong.” p. 137

    “Most of us coming into Sexaholics Anonymous seem to have our inner being filled with noise much of the time. Pollution. We may not be aware of this at first, since it has built up gradually over the years and we don’t sense it as abnormal.” p. 138

    “Anything to keep us from feeling our feelings and seeing what we are inside. Anything to keep us from resorting to the water of life that alone fully satisfies. This is why when we stop our acting-out and come off our primary drug, we may feel uneasy, anxious, or wired.” p. 139

    “Staying sober is our initial objective; a spiritual awakening is the unintended result. If our experience tells us anything, it is that there is no healing without such an awak­ening. And the difference between merely not acting out our addiction (being “dry”) and healing is the new life. If we want the old life intact, simply minus the habit, we don’t really want healing, for our sickness is the old way of life.” p. 143

    “Spiritual awakening is not mere sobriety, an awakening to knowledge about the Steps, belief in the Steps, or psychological insights into why they work. It is a change of state, an awakening of what was once dead.” p. 144

    “By its very nature, our recovery must go beyond the mere cessation of our acting out. Lust and dependency are more than sick externals; they strike at the very soul of our connection with God and others and have corroded the very heart of our humanity. That heart is what must be renewed.” p. 145

    What I got from these quotes, and from all of your comments, was this:

    Recovery starts from the inside. Sobriety comes with recovery, almost as a natural result.

    But without sobriety, I can’t really recover at all. The acting out will continue to muddy the water and make real connection with anyone (God, my wife, my family, or others) impossible.

    I feel like my Church experience is a reflection of this too: if I’m SO focused on the outward things (sobriety) – reading my scriptures, praying, doing my Home Teaching, magnifying my calling, etc. but the inward things aren’t a focus (recovery) – like connecting with God, digging deep into my own nothingness, surrendering, and asking for His help – I’m MISSING THE MARK!

    Sobriety and recovery, for me, are like the Chicken and the Egg argument – which one comes first?

    Without sobriety, I have nothing to offer anyone. But sobriety, in and of itself, is not the final destination either. It has to be deeper than that.

    Thanks for all your comments. It’s really helped me think more about what I believe and where I am today.

    May the discussion, and my agenda, continue! 🙂

  7. The White Book states that “Without sobriety we have nothing to offer.” So, I think sobriety is necessary but not sufficient. As far as chicken-egg, I think you can have sobriety without true recovery, but, that sobriety will be limited, probably in quality and length. I just had 14 months of really clean behavioral sobriety in terms of media use, but, I then had a relapse because I did not have progressive victory over lust. This is because my recovery was not where it should have been. I don’t think you can have recovery without sobriety, because acting out hurts yourself and others. So, perhaps sobriety is a building block for recovery, but also evidence of recovery, in an integrated (non-chicken-egg) way. If they are intertwined, life is good and we keep going in the right direction. When they are not, things aren’t as good, and we keep cycling back through and to some extent starting over. I think in all of this the key for me is that sobriety MUST include progressive victory over lust. It is too easy to focus on behavioral sobriety because that is attached to the sobriety date. But, such sobriety is shallow without progressive victory over lust.

  8. I read this last night in the White Book – wondered how you all interpret it:

    “Sexual sobriety opens the door to recovery, where the healing begins. We feel better phys­ically, emotionally, and spiritually when sober and when the principles of the Steps are effective in our everyday lives.” (p. 33)

    To me, this is another fairly clear statement about how, without sobriety, recovery isn’t possible at all.


    1. I agree, but I just think we need to take care not to confuse recovery FOR sobriety. Sobriety is a symptom of recovery that we force until the true healing takes place. The ultimate “fake it till you make it”.

      1. This reminds me of “addictive behaviors” vs. “addictive actions.”

        If I’ve “stopped” the addicting actions of pornography viewing, masturbation, inappropriate relationships, or whatever else I use to numb out, but I’m still impatient, angry, detached, not working recovery steps, or resorting to another form of numbing – I’m not in “recovery” at all – I’m just white knuckle sober.

        Thanks for your insights Chris – they have really helped me think more about what recovery really looks like. I hope the conversation can continue so we can all better see what recovery is.

  9. I read this today in Step Seven of Step Into Action – made a lot of sense:

    “I live a sober life, by God’s grace. I accept that sexual sobriety alone does not guarantee healing. It makes healing possible because it allows God to enter into and change my life. Just as sobriety is a gift from God, God’s progressive healing of my defective nature is also a gift.” (p. 70, bold added)

    Sobriety doesn’t guarantee recovery, but without sobriety, how can my Higher Power even help me to heal?

    Thanks for this discussion.

  10. Both Sobriety and recovery are moving targets. What they were to me 5 years ago are not what they are to me today..

    1. Thanks for the comment Edward.

      For me, sobriety is a pretty clear target – either I’m acting out or I’m not. I guess one’s definition of sobriety could be different, but if I’m following SA’s definition, it’s pretty clear.

      Recovery, on the other hand, is a moment to moment thing. I could be in recovery right now, and then blow up on my kid and not be in the best recovery, then make amends (Step 10) and be back “in recovery.”

      This is just my perspective.

      I guess I don’t know what a “moving target” really means. Could you explain what you think?

      I do know from the experience of others and my own experience that “without sobriety I have nothing to offer anyone.”

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

* Attention: your comments will be viewed by other people in our community and potentially by the world wide web. If you'd like to remain anonymous, please only put your first name and last initial.

Your email may also pull up a picture of you depending on how you've set things up with your email provider. Unless you want to receive notifications of comments via email, you are welcome to put Thanks for your participation in the community.