No, Sobriety Won’t Make You A Better Person
But it certainly makes it easier to do so.
When I finally quit drinking on November 5, 2016 after a solid quarter-century of alcohol consumption, I was elated. Annoyingly so, even. And in retrospect I was catastrophically naive about what sobriety would actually translate into in reality. On some level, I think I thought it would automatically transform me from a habitual excuse-making liar into an upstanding truth-telling Dudley Do-Right of a citizen.
If only it were that easy.
Most ex-drinkers who have struggled with alcohol addiction have their go-to list of “sober heroes”, people who either never drank at all and still manage to be paragons of awesomeness (straight-edge icons like Bif Naked, Ian MacKaye, Henry Rollins et al.) or who fought against the demon of alcoholism and won and are all the better off for it (Eminem, Trent Reznor, Sia, Stephen King, to name but a few). As a creative who struggled with addiction, it was important for me to have go-to reminders that sobriety does not kill your artistic élan vital — and that in most cases artists become more productive and more vital once the poison is out of their system.
But as somebody who has been sober for over two years now, I find myself thinking less about my “sober heroes” and more about who in this world I want to emulate, regardless of their relationship to alcohol. Sure, quitting drinking (or any other addiction) is a major accomplishment that anyone who does should be proud of, but one doesn’t have to look far to find people who are a) non-drinkers and b) assholes.
Here is a list of individuals who, to my mind, fall into both categories:
- Adolf Hitler —Hitler famously abstained from alcohol and tobacco, as well as (for much of his life) meat. That said, Der Führer increasingly became a walking pharmacy under the “care” of his personal physician, Dr. Theodor Gilbert Morell. Take Brian Wilson’s bizarre relationship with psychotherapist Eugene “Dr. Feelgood” Landy, add a galaxy of methamphetamines and other substances, and throw in a world war and a genocide and you’ve got the picture.
- Osama bin Laden — OK, perhaps it’s unfair to include the most extreme modern exponent of a religion that explicitly forbids alcohol, but in actual fact many of his most ardent supporters did engage in all manner of haram behaviour. Nevertheless, Osama was not only a mass murderer but also a relentless micromanager who issued all manner of fatwas aimed at fostering “good” behaviour among the ranks of his organization. Pity none of those prohibited indiscriminate murder.
- Mickey Cohen — The notorious Los Angeles gangster and Cohen crime family boss was famously abstemious despite his Prohibition-era criminal activities. Also famous for killing people.
- Ernesto “Che” Guevara — Forget the vodka bottles emblazoned with his iconic mug. El Che was an avowed teetotaller who famously sought to ban alcoholic beverages in the revolutionary hub of Santa Clara, Cuba. Oh, and he was also a Stalinist who was largely responsible for pushing the Castro regime from a fairly moderate form of Marxism into full-fledged Soviet-style repression.
- Jerry Falwell — Credit where credit is due. As odious a human being as the Reverend Falwell was on many fronts, he nonetheless had a soft spot for sufferers of alcoholism. In 1959, he founded the Elim Home for recovering alcoholics, which exists to this day, inspired in large part by his own father’s struggle with the bottle. Nevertheless, Falwell’s animosity towards alcohol was still rooted in his intolerant fundamentalist Christianity, and clearly did not stop him from forming alliances with awful people like murderous Guatemalan dictator Efraín Ríos Montt, Apartheid-era South African President P.W. Botha, and gangsterish US Republican lobbyist Jack Abramoff.
- Plutarco Elías Calles — As the illegitimate son of a drunken bureaucrat, former Mexican president Plutarco Elías Calles grew up to despise alcohol, and would emerge as a leading voice of temperance in early 20th century Mexico. Unfortunately he was also a tyrant whose radical anti-clerical views (He hated the Catholic Church even more than booze.) led to the Cristero War that left an estimated 250,000 people dead between 1926 and 1929.
- Ted Nugent — As a seventies rock icon, the Motor City Madman always stood apart from his drug and alcohol-addled contemporaries for his straight-edge lifestyle. Unfortunately his rejection of seventies rock ‘n’ roll excess stopped short at boning underage girls — and celebrating doing so in songs like “Jailbait”. And then there’s the whole being a racist gun-nut thing prone to outbursts that make Fox News hosts blush. Couldn’t he have just drank instead?
- Tucker Carlson — The embattled Fox News pundit has been sober since 2002. One can only assume he was an asshole before he quit drinking, because he certainly is one now. Normally when people are confronted over racist and misogynistic ramblings on call-in shows they at least have drunkenness as an excuse. Tucker, alas, no longer did in 2006.
- H.P. Lovecraft — Lovecraft hated booze. Also Jews. And black people. He loved coffee. And Hitler. Yes, he was an amazing writer whose influence is everywhere in modern horror and science fiction, but one doesn’t have to dig deep to be confronted with the man’s deeply troubling racism — which even his contemporaries found noteworthy.
- Donald J. Trump — Yeah, you knew this one was coming. The 45th President of the United States is well known for being a lifelong teetotaller, largely in response to his late brother Fred’s struggles with alcoholism, and this is perhaps the man’s most laudable characteristic. The irony, of course, is that almost everything else about Trump’s personality — the diarrhetic Twitter outbursts, the compulsive lying, the unhinged personal attacks, the non-existent attention span, the bad diet, and the chronic TV watching — all paint a picture of a catastrophically addictive personality with zero impulse control. One can only imagine what he would be like with alcohol thrown into the mix.
So there you have it — quitting booze does lots of good things for a person, but it is far from a prophylactic against being a jerk, as these shining icons of sobriety demonstrate. That said, if you do want to be a better person, ridding yourself of alcohol addiction, or any similarly debilitating addiction, is probably a necessary first step.
But it’s worth reminding yourself that being a good person is a separate project.
Lying: Addiction’s Insidious Handmaiden
Donald Trump may not be a drunk, but he certainly acts like one when it comes to his relationship to the truth. And while few of us (thankfully) lie with the astonishing regularity and casualness of the current occupant of the White House, many of us have a terrible habit of bending the truth and peppering our lives with little “white lies” that we figure will make everything easier.
In my own experience, I’ve learned that in many ways being sober is easier than being honest and transparent. Mendacity may be an inseparable partner of addiction, but the habitual truth-bending that invariably accompanies addiction becomes an addiction in its own right, and does not go away once the addictive substance has been removed from the picture. When it comes to being an honest human being, breaking free from addiction is a necessary first step, but it’s also worth remembering that it is only the first step.
I learned to lie well before I learned to drink. We all did. And as a teenager crippled by self-esteem issues and fear of bullies, I learned to lie deftly. While lying always felt wrong on some basic, fundamental level, I figured that nothing could be worse than the awful truths that I had come to believe about myself. At an early age I learned that if I always told the truth I wouldn’t have any friends, if I even managed to survive recess with my skin intact.
Given that fear was such an integral part of my personality, it’s little wonder that I developed into an adult with a debilitating anxiety disorder — and that I sought to medicate it with alcohol. The booze wasn’t always out of control; in fact, from most people’s vantage point I was a paragon of responsible drinking. But this was a big fat lie, and my habitual dishonesty to myself and others coloured everything in my life. Thanks to booze and self-deception, none of my failures, disappointments, or heartache were really any of the above. Everything was somebody (or something) else’s fault.
The trouble with this kind of thinking, however, is that it’s if anything harder to get out of your system than the booze itself. Moreover, there is a terrible tendency for many recovering alcoholics to blame absolutely everything about their past that they’re ashamed of on their addiction. Relationship on the rocks? It was the booze. Finances in the toilet? That damn alcohol again! Professional reputation wrecked seemingly beyond repair? Did I mention that I was a drunk? The problem with “externalizing” an addiction in this way is that it tends to perpetuate the same sort of excuse-making that addicts themselves specialize in.
Of course, none of these statements are, strictly speaking, lies. It is true that alcohol addiction has a way of wreaking havoc on almost everything in a person’s life, and at times externalizing an addiction can be a very healthy thing to do — after all you’re trying to excise it from your life. But this song and dance ends up sounding rather a lot like the excuse making of practicing drunks, and ignores the rather obvious fact that addictions don’t occur in a vacuum, and generally creep up in response to more deep-seated problems — problems that don’t simply go away when the problematic substance is removed.
Lying and addiction — they pretty much always go hand in hand. Addicts are expert liars, duping both themselves and others about their self-destructive behaviour. But like former prison inmates who emerge from incarceration with enhanced skills at breaking the law, people tend to emerge from addiction with well-honed skills as being deceptive. And when the sobriety kicks in and the full scale of the damage that a person’s addiction is revealed in stark detail, the tendency is to keep on lying just as much as before — all the while leveraging the “it was my addiction” canard.
No, sobriety doesn’t make you a better person. Honesty, however, does, and at the best of times getting sober is an important first step towards building a healthy relationship with the truth and new habits of truth-telling. While I have my issues with certain aspects of the Alcoholics Anonymous canon, this is one area where Bill W. and Dr. Bob were completely on the mark. But a problematic relationship with the truth often predates the introduction of alcohol into a person’s life, and is oftentimes much harder to correct. I speak from experience.
Can you have a healthy relationship with the truth and still be an asshole? I suppose so. Genghis Khan is reputed to have said, “The greatest happiness is to scatter your enemy, to drive him before you, to see his cities reduced to ashes, to see those who love him shrouded in tears, and to gather into your bosom his wives and daughters.” Say what you will about the Mongol warlord whose conquests are said to have murdered as much as five percent of the world’s population at the time — he was at least honest about his ambitions.
But most of us don’t hunger for murder and mayhem. Most of us, deep down, want to be good people — we’re just not that good at it. For most of us, being honest — really, truly honest — is the best investment we can possibly make into becoming better human beings. And while for many of us this is closely related to breaking free from addiction, I have learned from experience that it is an entirely separate project, and that the celebration of sobriety-for-its-own sake has a paradoxical way of obscuring this fact.
Don’t get sober because you want to be a better person. Get sober because you want to be healthy, sleep better, save money, be more effective at your job, have more energy, not stink like beer, et cetera. Sobriety is something you do for yourself, not for other people. It may make being a better person to others easier, but that is its own challenge — and one that you’re ill-equipped for if you’re just emerging from the fog of addiction.
Be a better person because you want to be a better person. That starts with stopping lying — both to others and to yourself. Trump is sober and he still lies like he’s being paid by the fib. That fact alone should dissuade anyone from thinking that abstinence alone will fix all your personality defects. But also be kind and compassionate to yourself. Few — if any — of us set out to be habitual liars. That’s baked into us, usually by modelling and by oppressive situations — typically the same forces that drove us to addiction in the first place. And in that sense, yes, there are external forces. Everything in life is driven by forces outside ourselves. But the courageous person takes stock of their reality and surroundings, makes an honest appraisal of them, and moves forward in the best way they are able to.
That, in principle, is the best any of us can manage.
Post-script: I am by no means an exemplar at any of this. I am just another ex-drunk, trying my best to pick up the pieces and become a better person. One essayistic self-autopsy at a time. See below for more of my addiction-related writings.