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August 30, 2021

Can we just Normalize “California Sober” Already?

I celebrated 11 years of constant sobriety a few days ago.

Well, “celebrated” may be a bit of a stretch. Working in the hot sun for 13 hours followed by a $20 sushi dinner isn’t a night at The Ritz, but you get the point. There are some celebrations in life that happen mostly on the inside. A feeling that follows us throughout the day.

The most memorable celebration was, of course, my first year. This was a gala affair where all of my new recovery family—and even the lady who would later become the mother of my two crazy daughters—showed up to talk about how proud they were of me and how great I was. Those first year 12-step anniversaries are pretty incredible.

A couple months after that day, I walked into a meeting where this guy I knew was getting ready to have his first year celebration and, honestly, I was somewhat indignant. I was a taxi driver at the time and I used to pick this guy up every day and take him to the methadone clinic. How could he possibly have the effrontery to celebrate a year of sobriety when he was doing that?

Luckily, my sponsor was with me and he said, “We don’t judge people here. For him, not shooting up in dark alleys or selling himself for a fix for an entire year deserves some applause and a piece of cake.”

It took years before I could wrap my head around this idea. I give my old sponsor a lot of credit. There are few people involved in 12-step recovery who have this attitude. The way I was reacting was a perfect illustration of the typical indoctrination. Most of the time in a Narcotics Anonymous meeting, you’ll find people with a few months of abstinence judging people with a few weeks and people with a few weeks judging the people with a handful of days and people with many years judging everybody. It can be a real comedic sh*t show at times.

Don’t laugh, though. The hierarchy is a very real thing and it’s life or death for a lot of these people. In the tougher sections of town, there have been fist fights that break out over whether someone should lose their “clean time” for taking Nyquil when they’ve had a cold.

What my sponsor was essentially explaining to me was a concept known as “harm reduction.” The tenets of harm reduction are fairly simple: total abstinence from all mind and mood altering substances is ideal, however this is not a realistic approach for everyone. Many people are so drawn to the relief of these substances that they will abstain for a short while and then make a split second decision to relapse over something. And then, many times, they will die. That being the case, the second best thing is to give these people something to relieve the compulsion to get high and offer medical and psychological intervention.

Now whether other people accepted this approach or not wasn’t really anything worth being concerned over since 93,000 people died in the United States last year due to overdose. If that doesn’t constitute an emergency, I’m not sure what does.

Early this year, Demi Lovato began to speak of their own version of harm reduction called “California Sober.” As you may or may not know, Lovato suffered a near-death fentanyl overdose in 2018 that resulted in multiple strokes, a heart attack, and permanent brain damage. This was after several years of total abstinence from all substances. From what I gathered watching their YouTube documentary, they weren’t comfortable with the idea of trying to go full bore sober again. They were allowing themselves the comfort of a little wine and a little weed. The idea was to let up a little on themselves.

Well, as I mentioned earlier, in 12-step circles, this was met with indignation and ridicule. Even Elton John piped in by saying he didn’t think it was a good idea. John has been the perfect model of 12-step recovery for many years.

There are numerous facts and figures that can be brought to light to defend Lovato’s choice, but facts and figures are typically boring. The logic here is that, when it comes to human beings, one-size-fits-all is not realistic. For some, total abstinence is the best approach. For some, opioid antagonists such as methadone or suboxone is the right approach, and perhaps, for some, “California Sober” is the right approach.

As the author of a recovery book, I run into a lot of people, both in and out of the recovery process—so “California Sober” is not just a theory for me. I have seen real people try to integrate this approach into their own lives. I met one woman who uses marijuana to keep her stabilized and away from crystal meth. I met another who decided to just drink wine after putting down heroin. They both have been pretty successful at maintaining a decent life.

So, will some people try “California Sober” and be led back to their drug of choice? Of course. Probably just as many as will go from 12-step sobriety to relapse. The larger point is that with more than 90,000 fatalities in a single year in the U.S. alone, we are in no position to take any options off the table.

Harm reduction is just that: an attempt at reducing harm. We really need to normalize every approach and stop judging one another. Recovery means different things to different people—but what it means to everyone is that an attempt is being made.

No one should be allowed to get in the way of even the slightest effort of a person trying to help themselves.


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