What is sobriety?

“as much as sobriety is a myth to people like me, there is a good reason to believe it is a myth for everyone. Anyone who is watching television may feel either an excitement from the bright moving images or a boredom because none of the images call out to them. Even the pre-eminent scholar Derrida refers to the written word through the metaphor of the drug. Intoxication is everywhere. No one can completely free themselves of being intoxicated either by the brightness of the sun, by the sound of that street musician or by the smell of dinner roasting. Media and all the sensations of life constantly intoxicate us.”

Stims, Stammers and Winks: A Catalogue of Awkward Gestures

Sobriety is a tricky term, not least because it means different things to different people. Dictionary definitions typically focus on a lack of intoxicating substances, but there’s an intriguing secondary meaning which I find much more useful: Clearheadedness and the ability to make rational decisions. The absence of substances which lower inhibitions, alcohol being the obvious example, is an important part of this. However, mood altering circumstances can be just as debilitating. Someone dealing with a bad breakup isn’t entirely in their right mind, for example, and should follow the same guidelines as anyone in an altered state: avoid making major decisions, stay out of dangerous environments, avoid driving or operating heavy machinery.

This phenomenon makes “sober spaces” problematic: Any place that says something to the effect of “nobody under the influence allowed” implies that one can only be functional / make sound decisions when no drugs are in your system, highlights those of us who need drugs to function as deviant, and reinforces the false dichotomy of medical and recreational use, which in turn reinforces the medical model of disability.

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