Matt Mendoza and friends at The Rare Barrel Brewery In Berkley, CA.

The Real Definition Of Sobriety, Why I Claim It, Even Though I Drink

Sobriety is a word that’s evolved in its meaning over the past century. The actual definition is nearly always delegated to its root word “sober.” But, what does being sober actually signify? The answer may not be as simple as you think, it’s ambiguity, just another product of the polarization that emerged between science and the 12-step culture over the better part of a century.

For those of you that know me, you know I don’t hide the fact that I drink alcohol on occasion. I’ve done so for more than half of my seven years of sobriety. I guess you could label me a social drinker, but I don’t look at alcohol like that. I’m not an alcoholic. I’ve never been a “problem drinker.” If you must know the frequency of my drinking, it’s about two drinks a month (usually craft beer), and the occasional cocktail two to three times a year, almost always on a trip or vacation. Since entering recovery, I’ve never been anywhere close to drunk, and that matters to me, for reasons I’ll get to.

Until recently, I abstained from using the term sobriety to describe my own recovery, a life that has been abstinent from the use of opiates — or any other form of narcotics — for the past seven plus years. While I struggled to use the term sobriety with those in my recovery community, it never felt wrong to me. In the past seven years, I’ve discovered spiritual, emotional, and physical solutions to overcome the mental obsession I displayed during my active addiction to opiates.

Original Co-founders of Matt Mendoza (Left, drink in hand) and Jason Smith (Right, abstinent of alcohol)

Though it is not my intent, I know from experience that what I’m about to say will aggravate some, and infuriate others.

Despite consuming a craft beer on occasion, I’ve been in continuous sobriety for the past 7 years, 2 months and 24 days. If you’re wondering how I figured that out, it wasn’t hard at all. I just used one of those fancy sobriety calculators and entered my sobriety date.

For those of you still reading my blasphemous use of the Big Book’s holiest of words, let me suggest you take a break from the black and white thinking, and consider just for a moment, that I’m not trying to change your definition of sobriety, nor am I trying to find a loophole for counting my “clean time” or collecting chips.

Sarcasm aside, I still have a deep respect for AA and other 12-step communities, because I’ve been in those rooms, and they are filled with loving people with good intentions. I have many friends in 12 step programs. I myself spent a decade in and out of “the rooms,” and I spent the first 2 years of my current sobriety, working steps with a sponsor and going to multiple meetings a week. Though I often wonder if my first 2 years of sobriety occurred because of AA, or if I just happened to be going to AA in my first 2 years of sobriety.

Still, even with that respect of 12 step programs, I can’t help but to recognize the dogma that exists within groups like AA and NA. It’s not the people, as much as the process that I believe stigmatize the same group of people it attempts to help. While many view 12 step groups as being inclusive for those like myself: people who’ve struggled with addiction and find value in the community AA and NA provide. There is one definition that excludes me from being a member. It’s the interpretation of that word, sobriety. More specifically, it’s how that word has been shaped to define AA’s one requirement for membership, which is the desire to stop drinking. Or in the case of NA’s literature, it’s specified as a desire to stop “using,” which alcohol is later detailed to be a part of.

This brings us back to the history of addiction treatment, and its separation from the basis of all other medical treatment — science. There’s a number of factors that led to the exclusion of non-anecdotal evidence based treatment for addiction, but the effect of this movement has resulted in a limited view on the term sobriety.


The actual dictionary definition of the term sober is:

a : sparing in the use of food and drink (Check Mark)
b : not addicted to intoxicating drink (Check Mark)
c : not drunk. (Check Mark)

Moreover, the medical and scientific community looks at sobriety in the same way. The DSM manual, which is the standard criteria for the field of Psychiatry, never uses abstinence as a precedent for sobriety or recovery.

I understand that alcohol has caused many who suffer from substance use disorder to relapse, and I realize that many who’ve found themselves with an addiction to one drug have come to recognize that they have an addiction to alcohol as well. I’m certainly not advocating that people with a history of substance abuse should try to drink “normally.” What I am here to convey, is that I am proud to say I’m in recovery, and as foreign as it might sound to you, I’m proud to be in long term sobriety. I will no longer accept to consider myself anything less.

When I first entered sobriety, I did what I was told in the meetings that I went to, I wanted sobriety more than anything else, so I relied on the thinking of others. When I would bring up the question of alcohol to my sponsor, he told me that if I didn’t have a problem with consuming alcohol, then I shouldn’t have a problem committing to a year of abstinence and then re-evaluate. I appreciated that advice, and I did just that. I did it for three years. Even after I removed myself from the program, had replaced AA with other forms of community and treatment, I still waited a year until I had my first drink.

I often get asked why I took “the risk,” people imply that alcohol must have been really important to me to “jeopardize” my sobriety. The thing is, I don’t look at it the same way. Had I actually thought that alcohol had a chance at compromising my recovery, I would never had picked up a beer. I guess I just always knew that alcohol was not a problem for me, In the same way that I like to eat, gamble, and have sex, I know I don’t have an addiction to any of those. (Though, I’ve yet to try all three at the same time.)

The last thing I want to do is cause someone else to stumble, so it’s important to emphasize that this is my story, and I’m certainly in the minority when it comes to people who drink in recovery. At the same time, this story has been in the works for years, it’s taken some courage for me to use that word, sobriety, without the asterisk next to it.

If the stories and the relationships that have come from this site have taught me one thing, it’s that I’ve learned recovery comes in all forms. There’s no set of rules that works for everyone. Writing about my recovery in such a public forum definitely opens me up to criticism, but I’ve also learned that taking those opposing voices and trusting in my own has been a vital step to growing in my own recovery.