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What is White-Knuckling Sobriety?

You may have heard the expression “White Knuckling.” But what does it mean? In most contexts, you’ve heard it said with a bad connotation, as though the white knuckler isn’t doing something right.

We’ll look at what it means. Boiled down, it’s someone who has stopped drinking and is gritting their teeth through the challenging parts of sobriety. This state is in contrast to someone who has found the tools of recovery that ease them in their daily lives, such as a sober network, the practices of spirituality, and a routine of meetings and contact. These activities keep them balanced through the highs and lows of sobriety.

White Knuckling is Staying Sober without Changing Behavior

As suggested, a white knuckler isn’t practicing what they learn in 12 step meetings. They may only be attending meetings, hoping this is enough. This could also mean they have forgone getting a sponsor.

However, they haven’t changed their daily activities too much at the base. They stay sober but usually suffer the emotional roller coasters of early sobriety, unpleasant and downright painful. They aren’t reaching out to others in sobriety for help or emotional support.

With a sponsor and a sober network, someone in early sobriety learns the actions they need to take to tackle daily problems sober and gracefully. They aren’t running off their thinking, which is usually the thinking that they had while drinking and got them into trouble in the first place.

White Knuckling is the Hard Way

Twelve-step programs aren’t just about getting you sober. They are focused on making sober life comfortable for alcoholics. Alcoholics have trouble staying stopped. They can usually sober up for a time, but life feels more painful sober.

The 12 steps, along with building the recovery tools, are designed to help the alcoholic stay stopped happily. The white knuckler doesn’t take hold of these tools or the 12 steps to their detriment.

A newcomer may feel that all they need to do is attend meetings and stay sober. But they don’t realize that their whole lifestyle and ways of handling life are incompatible with peaceful sobriety. It takes a drastic rearrangement of personality to appreciate recovery more than drinking.

The personality change takes time for most people. It’s not an overnight matter. The recovery practices feel like a struggle at first, but they are essential to bringing about the personality change and improved perception that make long-term sobriety possible.

There’s no good reason that you have to be unhappy sober. That’s not what true recovery looks like. You don’t have to be in constant conflict with yourself and others. You don’t have to feel that sobriety is a punishment. The 12 steps can make sobriety the most miraculous experience in your life.

Long Term White Knuckling is Miserable

Another expression for a white knuckler is a dry drunk. Being a dry drink means the person is probably miserable sober, and their behavior, especially in relationships, reflects that fact. They are often irritable, impatient, and downright mean to everyone they encounter.

Many who had relationships with the dry drunk alcoholic may think the alcoholic was more enjoyable when they drank. This is because the alcoholic finds relief from their emotions when drinking and seemingly is a more bearable person to be around.

Remember, alcohol is the solution for an alcoholic, not the root problem. The root problem centers in the alcoholic’s mind, perception of reality, and inability to live life comfortably sober. They cannot be very happy sober without a complete change in behavior and outlook.

White Knuckling Doesn’t Last as a Way to Long-Term Sobriety.

Let’s face it. No one can remain miserable for long. Though they may rack up months or years of sobriety, they may eventually drink again as the only relief from constant pain.

Those in early sobriety may need to white knuckle past the initial cravings and obsession to drink, but this should be temporary. They will eventually learn the skills that make real sobriety possible. Over time, we begin to tackle life’s problems with more skillfulness and ease. We start enjoying waking up sober, without a hangover and look with anticipation with what the day will bring. That’s the personality change taking hold.

The change is because we have stayed close to the 12 step program and the recovered people who guide us along the way. We have reached out daily to them as a way to check-in and share our problems, seeking their own experience of how they made it through.

It’s not easy, especially if we were more introverted before. However, it is worth it. And the good news is that most people in the program want only the best for us and have extensive experience to help us solve problems. This stands in contrast to most people out there in the real world, who may be jealous of what we have and get enjoyment to see us stumble.

The white knuckler doesn’t get to experience the benefits of doing this work.

White Knuckling Makes Switching Addictions More Enticing

When you’re unhappy sober, you start to substitute drinking with other addictions to fill the void. It’s easy to switch to other problem behaviors, such as overeating, gambling, or promiscuity.

Switching addictions is a natural reaction when you don’t have a program to guide you. When you’re stuck with yourself in misery, you desperately want an escape.

However, when you fill your day with what you learn from your 12 step program, there’s relief from the many free hours you gain once you get sober.

It’s often insidious as well. You may get relief at first from the first times of trying the behavior. But white-knuckling puts you in a vulnerable place, to the point that the behavior can get out of hand in a short time.

White Knuckling is Optional

When I speak to people who do the minimum to stay sober, I sense fear about really diving in. They usually fear opening up to someone honestly, often because they’ve never done so in their entire lives. They prefer to keep to themselves and believe they can take care of their problems independently.

Even reading over the 12 steps can be daunting. They ask you to tell your whole story to someone, trust a higher power, and make amends for past wrongs. These actions seem impossible or require more courage than they’re willing to muster for many.

The easier way is to sit through meetings and hope to pick up sobriety through a sort of osmosis. Perhaps that can work for some. But even slow progress to finding trusted friends and small routine changes can have significant results and open the way to diving in more. The 12 step programs don’t require us to do anything, but they offer suggestions for maintaining sobriety. It’s rare to find someone willing to jump right in from day 1.

It’s usually when the discomfort becomes so deep that someone might take advantage of the program’s other tools that they ignored before. It doesn’t have to get to that point. You can begin to learn the tools from the outset and apply them in your life, so you don’t have to put up with the pain of early sobriety.

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