I heard a gal tell a judge in court she was clean and sober, and he said she was clean but not sober. What does that mean? What is the difference between clean and/or clean and sober?

We are clean when the drugs (including alcohol, which is just another drug) are no longer in our system.  But there is a whole lot more to sobriety than simply being drug-free.  I sometimes tell people that I’ve been clean for over twenty years, but sober for only about eight or ten.  That’s sort of a joke, but the thought behind it relates exactly to your question.

There are many issues involved in recovery, and only a few of them are directly related to whether or not we have drugs in our bodies.  To understand this, you have to understand that addiction occurs because semi-permanent (sometimes permanent) physical changes occur in our brains that cause us to believe, on a level below that of conscious thought, that we must have our drugs or our very being is threatened.

This imperative changes our lives:

  • The way we relate to situations (Can I use?);
  • Time (When can I use?);
  • People (Will they try to keep me from using?);
  • Society (Using is more important than participating);
  • Money (How can I get more drug(s)?);
  • Ethics and morals (What do I have to do to keep myself supplied?)
  • Religion and spirituality (I’m a bad person; God doesn’t love me, how could He?)
  • …and life itself (If I don’t get my drugs, life is not worth living).

By the time we have lived under those conditions for a while, our entire way of thinking and outlook is seriously skewed.  Add to that the terrible physical and emotional traumas to which we are prone while using, and we may well suffer from post-traumatic stress and other emotional disorders as well.

There are three aspects to sobriety:

  • Physical sobriety, where we are abstinent for a long enough time for our brains to begin to recover so that we can think more clearly and make decisions based on reality instead of confusion and fear;
  • Emotional and spiritual sobriety, where we come to terms with who we are, what we have done, and what we must do to right the wrongs we have perpetrated (to the extent possible), learn to re-connect with other people, and begin to get comfortable in our own skins; and
  • Social sobriety, where we re-enter the world by actually making things right with others, and develop socially so that we are re-integrated with the world outside the recovery community.

These things take time.  Physical recovery alone can take a couple of years, depending on the damage we’ve inflicted on ourselves, and sometimes it takes months before we can even begin to think straight.  We may need help from friends, counselors, even physicians, in order to get our neurological system and lives back in order.  We need to be working on our attitude toward life and toward ourselves and the things we have done. (This is where the support groups like AA, NA and the others can be of profound importance.)  And we need to become employed, make amends for the past, renew our relationships and grieve those that are not, for one reason or another, renewable; to remember — or perhaps learn for the first time — how non-addicts live and relate to each other, their jobs, their spirituality and the world at large.

As you can see, looked at this way, there is a HUGE difference between “clean” and “sober.”  Sobriety is a continuum, that begins the moment we decide that we can no longer live the life of an addict and continues to where we are again a part of society.  It doesn’t happen overnight, and it isn’t easy.  It isn’t even especially simple — but it is possible.  Millions of us have gotten sober in the past, and millions of us will in the future — as long as we stick with the process until it is finished.  If we forget our goals, or fail to continue to reach for them, we are soon on the way down the slippery slope of addict thinking that leads to that first drink or drug.  It is frequently a one-way slide.

The judge knew that, and that is what he meant.

Thanks for a great question!

2 thoughts on “I heard a gal tell a judge in court she was clean and sober, and he said she was clean but not sober. What does that mean? What is the difference between clean and/or clean and sober?

  1. Kristin H.

    An excellent explanation at length of a very important issue (the clean/sober differential.) What I tell newcomers is that “clean” is physiological. “Sober” is a state of mind (emotional and spiritual included.)

    Your explanation will be bookmarked for my future reference. Thank you.


  2. Bill G

    Your answer to the question is excellent and reveals a lot of truth about sobriety, but I doubt that that was what the judge meant. It is highly unlikely that the judge was as philosophical about sobriety as you. He probably meant that he believed that the person was off of drugs but doubted that she had quit drinking. We can only hope for a time when judges are as well educated about sobriety as you are.

    My experience with judges in this part of the country (extending over a career as a police officer, among other things) is that most of them who deal with DUI, drug cases, and similar offenses are quite aware of the difference. As one of them put it to me once, “Junkie is as junkie does.” I gave the writer credit for having the sense to understand, in context, if he meant something as simple as not having stopped drinking. In any case, it was a great opening.


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