When it comes to alcohol, being sober means being free from intoxication. But does this mean that a sober lifestyle requires continuous abstinence from alcohol? According to the standard medical definition of sobriety, as well as popular recovery programs such as Alcoholics Anonymous, the answer is yes. In a treatment setting, sobriety is the achieved goal of independence from alcohol consumption, and sustained abstinence is a prerequisite for it. At the start of abstinence, the residual effects of drinking alcohol can prevent sobriety.
These effects are known as post-acute withdrawal syndrome (PAWS). Someone who abstains but still has a latent desire to resume drinking is called a dry drunk and is not considered truly sober. A person may abstain from alcohol for various reasons, such as medical or legal concerns, but still have an unconscious motivation to consume it. The word “sober” is often used in different ways in different contexts.
Many 12-step programs suggest that sobriety means total abstinence and never using the substance again. However, for most people, being sober simply means not being under the influence of a substance. In recovery, however, sobriety has a much fuller definition. It's not just about abstaining from drugs and alcohol; it's about striving for complete physical, emotional, mental and spiritual health.
Sobriety actually means not being intoxicated. It doesn't mean abstinence in the way Alcoholics Anonymous understands it. In fact, the DSM psychiatric handbook does not contain any abstinence criteria for recovery (also known as remission). Addiction and remission have to do with having no problems using or not using a substance.