California Sober vs. Sober, Sober

By David Gerber, Willingway CEO

I recently had an alum of a program I worked at reach out to me with news that he relapsed, but has come back and is now, “California Sober.”

This term, “California Sober,” is kind of a trend or fad that started in recent years, not coincidentally, in California among celebrities, influencers and the like. Some have even started calling it semi-sobriety, but the overall premise is that an individual can decide that Substance A is bad, and stop using it, but Substance B, is fine to continue to use.

Scientists will tell you that on a chemical level, artificially raising neurotransmitters like Dopamine- the pleasure neurotransmitter, is a slippery slope at best. However, I’d like to focus on a different aspect as to why California Sober is a difficult-to-impossible undertaking. It comes from a Cognitive Behavioral perspective, and it starts with a simple question: “Why do we do things?”

Why do we do anything? The answer is not complicated. We do things because they work – or at least they seem to work. Individuals who use alcohol and drugs problematically do so for many reasons — to feel good or normal, to cope with negative emotions or mental health conditions like depression and anxiety, or even just to escape from the world. But overall, these individuals engage in problematic substance use because, from their perspective, it works for them (until it doesn’t).

Now, I’d like you to picture a square with a line drawn down the middle. On one side, you have social users who can drink or use substances with a, “take-it or leave-it” kind of attitude. This person may be at a party and hold onto the same drink all night long. The drink means little or nothing to them.

On the other side of the square are problematic substance users. They see the person holding that drink and are incredulous that they just don’t drink that drink already. For those who have substance use disorders, the substance and it’s use represents something far different than it does to the social user.

So many people who get help for substance use disorders come to recognize that their use is problematic. They stay sober for a period of time and begin to reflect on their use and begin to rationalize or come to believe that, “It hasn’t always been that bad…” or, “Maybe I can control it now.” These people try to move from one side of the square to the other and the vast majority of times, these people fail to recognize that their substance use has a different meaning, purpose and goal than the social user. They come to find their use spin back out of control and if they are lucky, they go back into treatment.

Then we have those who espouse a “California Sober” approach to substance use. This is especially true when it comes to using marijuana because many have come to believe this is less problematic even though the marijuana consumed today is far more potent and dangerous than the marijuana used years ago.

The problem with “California Sober” is that it ignores the purpose of problematic use in the first place. If a person abuses alcohol to cope with feelings of depression, then using another drug in its place will rarely satisfy that user, and this can ultimately lead back to their drug of choice.

Recently, popstar Demi Lovato traded in her view about being “California Sober” for being “Sober, Sober.” True sobriety offers a much more effective ability to conquer the underlying values and priorities that lead to destructive patterns of use.

And that brings me back to the question, “Why do we do things?” At Willingway, we celebrate true sobriety because it works. For more than 50 years, Willingway’s mission has been to deliver the highest quality addiction treatment to clients and their families, treating each individual with dignity, compassion, and respect. We are proud to have helped thousands discover the joys of life free from substance use. It might not be the easy option, but it is the option proven to work time and time again.

We offer inpatient services to adults and adolescents struggling with substance use disorders in a serene setting in Statesboro, Georgia. Willingway also offers specific tactical services to veterans and first responders because this group often has very specific needs in terms of care. Inpatient programming is an important first step on the recovery journey. Extended living and outpatient treatment service options are available to help to strengthen the bond to a meaningful and purposeful recovery. And our Almuni program offers a true sense of community to all those who have walked the path of sobriety to find a better way and life.

If you or a loved one needs help, please call us for a phone assessment 24 hours a day at 888-979-2140.

David Gerber, CEO

David Gerber, CEO at Willingway, has been in the field of substance use disorder treatment for over 30 years. Prior to joining Willingway, he was the Founder and CEO of Sober at Home, an online platform to help those struggling with substance use disorders.