Sobriety vs. Abstinence

by Bill Brenner on February 8, 2010

Whenever I share my experiences with OCD and the related binge-eating disorder [See: The Most Uncool Addiction], there’s a word I always refrain from using if I’m outside the safe confines of my OA group: Abstinence.

I don’t hate the word. But I don’t like it much, either.

All anyone ever thinks about when it’s uttered is refraining from sex or studying for the Catholic priesthood. (Not that there’s anything wrong with that. I am a devout Catholic, after all.)

Nevertheless, it’s a word I can’t get around any longer, so let’s talk about it.

In the world of a recovering food addict, abstinence means to abstain from eating compulsively. It’s the exact same thing as the word sobriety in the world of a recovering alcoholic.

Think of OA and AA as essentially the same thing, only OA folks are addicted to compulsive overeating to the point where they walk around dazed like zombies, unable to manage their lives. Ailments boil over and friends and family suffer with you.

I’m abstinent from binge eating, which means I eat nothing with flour and sugar in it and most meals are portioned out on a small scale. I’m sober, too. I used to drink a lot of alcohol when traveling. This weekend I spent a security conference sober. [See: ShmooCon and Snowmageddon and The Engine in Hyperdrive]

This weekend was challenging to be sure. It wasn’t always easy drinking club soda while everyone else drank wine, beer, etc. And while I kept it together with the food plan, being away from the normal routine makes it challenging¬† to keep all the portions straight. I probably could have done it better, but I think things worked out pretty well on balance.

It was challenging at Christmas, too. In fact, that was probably the closest I’ve come to a relapse. Not helping matters is my tendency to come down with depression around the holidays, partly due to the lack of daylight. Thankfully, I managed to hit the breaks in time to avoid that.

Of course, other, smaller addictions try to reassert themselves [See: How to Play Your Addictions Like a Piano]. One of them is spending. I have a weakness for collecting political and historical knickknacks, especially when I’m in Washington D.C. That weakness is evident to anyone visiting my work space. [See: Someone to Watch Over Me (A.K.A.: Desk Junk] This time, I held back.

I also like a good cigar when traveling, and probably enjoy it more than I should. I’m going to abstain from the stogies during Lent, which starts next week. We’ll see what happens after that.

The Internet is an addiction, too, but it’s a hazard of my profession. Staying away would be like a miner trying to do his job without stepping into the mine. But I stay away from the porn sites and Facebook applications, which are as dangerous as they are dumb, in my opinion.

I drink a lot of coffee, but I’m not giving that up right now.

All in all, I have a lot to be grateful for.

For someone who lived at the bottom of the Dumpster inhaling the stench for as long as I did, abstinence and sobriety is the gift of all gifts.

But it will always be a work in progress, with good days and not-quite-as-good days; always with room for improvement.

That’s OK, though. It is a journey, after all. A journey that you have to take one day at a time.

{ 8 comments… read them below or add one }

Ellen Willison April 27, 2010 at 2:20 pm

….just wanting to ‘stay in the loop,’ as I happened upon your site. I have a story I would like to share…but have never utilized the web…to do so.


billbrenner1970 April 28, 2010 at 1:44 am

Hi, Ellen. Sure thing. Fire away. If you’re more comfortable using e-mail, I’m at

Lori J June 13, 2010 at 8:30 am

You are a comfort and your ability to express yourself amazes me. My OCD is under control, or just not so out of control right now. June 30, 2000 I got sober and two weeks ago saw my son get married. There is hope for all of us. Thank you for giving your insight and perspective and you go down your road with it’s bumps and bits.

Ellen Willison December 7, 2011 at 12:55 pm


I have just about completed my certifications in both Addiction Counseling and Victim Services. I have found that many of my clients whom have suffered from a history of abuse, seem to have serious dependency issues. What are your’ thoughts and experiences regarding, history of abuse and dependency?


billbrenner1970 December 8, 2011 at 1:08 am

Hi, Ellen. When we suffer abuse, we tend to run for the nearest comfort. I think that’s how we become dependent on drugs, booze, smoking, relationships, etc. That was certainly the case for me. There was abuse in my childhood and I tried to eat it away, drink it away and so on. It doesn’t take long before you can’t live without those comforts. The problem is that the comforts are a lie that sucks you in and destroys you.

Ellen April 3, 2013 at 2:58 pm

It appears that people that have suffered at the hands of another take the abuse as though they were “not good enough to love.” Harboring feelings of low self-worth and low self-esteem to the point of self destruction. This is where it is so important to surround yourself with people that truly care for you. If that means disassociating oneself from those friends and family members that make you feel bad about your’ healthy decisions–then so be it.

Ellen Willison June 2, 2015 at 10:27 pm

Goals, Determination and, Self-commitment is what it took for me to beat a challenge. Addiction, of any kind, was seen as a weakness. Many believe that “Addiction belongs to the Unworthy.” I am powerful, I was determined and, I have been successful for now four years. …There is hope, people care and, keep sharing your thoughts.

Ellen Willison March 13, 2016 at 1:05 am

Endorphins are a powerful replacement for unhealthy alternatives. …Through exercise there is a ‘high connection’ to our pleasure (neurons) center–allowing for positive mood changes.

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