what sobriety means to me: harm reduction, healing and social justice
i’ve been sober now for almost 20 months. this is a big deal to me. if i want to my life to get better and stay good, then i have to stay sober. this isn’t because drinking a beer is deeply wrong, but because it would hurt me. it would hurt me, and it would interfere with my continued healing. drinking, like any type of a compulsive behaviour, is a way of numbing feelings and i need to feel my feelings in order to continue healing.
i’m a survivor of extreme abuse (ritual abuse: https://stonesandsticksandwords.wordpress.com/2014/06/09/what-are-ritual-abuse-and-mind-control/), and i spend a lot of time struggling with the trauma and brainwashing i’ve survived. this frequently involves feeling “negative” emotions such as guilt, shame, fear and anger. but feeling my feelings, all of them, including the hard ones, is what i need to do to get better. numbing out using addictions slows and/or prevents me from healing. indeed, my emotions are a part of what makes me human, and i want to be fully human, even if this means sometimes feeling terrible!
i prefer sobriety. i’m happier, and my life is better. i have no doubts about it. in fact, while i’m not interested in proselytizing for complete abstinence from drugs and alcohol, i do think that, aside from health and/or spiritual reasons, this is best.
if you use drugs and alcohol, but aren’t addicted to them, then i wonder why you use them at all? if you use them to have fun, then i would ask why you can’t have fun without drugs and alcohol? i think it is more important to explore and address why you don’t have fun if you’re not high or drunk, than it is to have another good time.
when it comes to drug and alcohol addiction, as well as other compulsive behaviours, i believe in the principles of harm reduction:
Harm Reduction refers to policies, programs and practices that aim to reduce the negative health, social and economic consequences that may ensue from the use of legal and illegal psychoactive drugs, without necessarily reducing drug use. Its cornerstones are public health, human rights and social justice. It benefits people who use drugs, families and communities.
Harm Reduction is underpinned with the knowledge that many drug-related problems are not the result of the drugs themselves; rather they are the consequences of the unregulated manufacture and trade of drugs and the enduring commitment to failed policies and ill-thought-out and inequitably applied laws.
Finally, Harm Reduction ensures that people who use psychoactive substances are treated with respect and without stigma, and that substance-related problems and issues are addressed systemically.
– Canadian Harm Reduction Network (http://canadianharmreduction.com/)
i want to emphasize that when i’m writing about addictions i’m not only referring to stigmatized, criminalized and well-known addictions, but to all forms of addiction: addictions to work, coffee, shopping, exercise, and so on.
personally, i think of addictions as normal and understandable coping mechanisms for people living in oppressive, capitalist and colonialist societies such as canada and the united states. these societies are callous, dehumanized and dehumanizing and it is no surprise that people find all sorts of ways to cope with their inhumane circumstances.
i’m opposed to judging and/or criminalizing people’s compulsive behaviours. i’m interested in talking honestly about how addictions harm people’s health and well-being and interfere with healing.
i’m well aware that people have reasons for using drugs and alcohol and that judging and punishing them doesn’t help, and is actually likely to cause harm. i was an alcoholic from the age of sixteen, and while i was never seriously into using drugs, i have used them on and off since that same age. i have a good idea of some of the reasons that people choose to use drugs and alcohol.
addictions, remembering and healing
about four years ago i began to do therapy, and after i’d been in therapy for around six months i decided to try to stop drinking. one day, after two weeks without alcohol, i was overwhelmed with feelings of shame, grief and horror and with the realization that i’d been sexually abused by my biological father. my addiction to alcohol was a key part of suppressing the emotions and memories related to past abuse, emotions and memories that i needed to remember and feel in order to heal.
moreover, once i stopped drinking i noticed that i also had other addictions, including a serious addiction to work, one that was preventing me from taking care of myself properly and hurting my friendships. my addiction to alcohol made it harder for me to notice my compulsive relationship to work, and it wasn’t long after i stopped drinking that i began trying to relate to work differently.
i’m for healing. i think that healing is a central part of the work that individuals, communities, and movements must do to make a better world for ourselves and everyone else. addictions hamper and can prevent healing.
healing for all!
everyone deserves access to decent, affordable housing, a sufficient amount of tasty and healthy food, comfortable and desirable clothing, meaningful work that pays a living wage, and much more, and this is not dependent on whether they are presently engaging in compulsive behaviours.
everyone also deserves access to culturally appropriate healing services. they deserve additional support while they are in their healing process. healing is hard, and we need to recognize, value and even celebrate this work and the people who are doing it, both healers and those who are healing.
in addition to institutional support, individuals who are in a healing process will sometimes require extra attention, love, compassion and understanding.
culturally, we need to shift from victim-blaming to taking direction from people with addictions and those who have overcome them, and to take actions that will actually help people with addictions. blaming people for having compulsive behaviours is wrong, stigmatizing and criminalizing them even more so.
sobriety and resistance
sobriety for me has to be taken as a whole: it’s not only about not drinking alcohol, it’s about eliminating compulsive behaviours from my life, finding out what the root causes of these behaviours are, and healing them.
healing needs to become a central part of resistance movements, and of movement-building activities. this means that movements for social, economic and environmental justice need to prioritize healing practices internally, and fight for access to culturally appropriate healing externally.
we need to value relationship building as much or more than producing the maximum amount of resistance in the most “efficient” way. we need to take the time to actually talk with another about how we are all feeling – more than five minute check ins – how our emotions are effecting our lives, and what we can do to support each other.
most conflicts in groups are actually about triggered feelings, not about the surface level dispute. if we begin to value relationships and emotional connection, many of the conflicts in our communities and movements will wither away. when we find ways to relate to each other compassionately, our resistance will be more effective, even if it might seem initially that we are getting less “activist work” done.
healing is a profoundly political act. for example, my choice to focus first on my own well-being not only contradicts all of the abuse done to me as a child, but also systems such as capitalism and colonialism wherein my main value is as a white settler doing productive labour that benefits the settler capitalist society. it does more than only oppose these negative messages and systems, it is also provides a way forward, a way that begins by making my life better and in so doing increases my capacity to relate to, and participate in, my community in a good way, to resist oppression and to live, imagine and work for a better world for everyone.