When Someone Says They’re California Sober
- Title: When Someone Says They’re California Sober
- Authored by Pin Ng PhD
- Edited by Hugh Soames
- Reviewed by Philippa Gold
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- Comments About The Article: Demi Lovato has identified as non-binary and uses they/them pronouns. We have used these in the article but have reverted to ‘Lovato’ at times that respecting the pronouns creates problems with clarity.
Demi Lovato’s openness about their struggles with addiction and mental health have been a hallmark of their career. A child star who came to prominence with a series of Disney Channel roles, they struggled with addiction before entering rehab in California at 18. Even after reaching stardom and purchasing their family a large house on their 18th birthday, Lovato opted to continue living in a sober facility.
Lovato’s addiction hit the headlines again when, in 2018 and a month after the release of Sober, which revealed that after six years of sobriety they had relapsed, they were rushed to hospital following an overdose. Discussing recovery in interviews and the documentary series Dancing with the Devil, Lovato revealed in 2021 that they were ‘California sober’. Although abstaining from other drugs, Lovato was opting to manage recovery by using cannabis and alcohol in moderation. Once again, Lovato’s drug use was headline news.
So what is ‘California Sober’?
Although Lovato might be the highest profile person to promote the concept of ‘California sober’ or ‘Cali sober’, there are plenty who use the term to describe their approach to drugs. Unfortunately, there is no clear definition, this means that almost anyone can describe their approach to drugs as Cali sober. While Lovato referred to it as their way of approaching recovery, others might use it to describe a lifestyle that includes recreational drug use, in some cases referring to very mild use, such as occasional drinking or the rare use of drugs in social situations.
However, the term is more frequently used to describe an approach to drugs that is moderate but also purposeful. Someone who is Cali sober might use small amounts of cannabis regularly because they feel it manages anxiety, or occasionally use psychedelics because it stimulates creativity or revolves mild mental health problems.
For some, this might be following addiction and used as part of their recovery, taking a controlled approach to drugs they consider milder while abstaining from their previous addiction. And this was Lovato’s definition: using cannabis and alcohol as part of their strategy to avoid relapsing into opioid use.
Some have compared the approach to harm reduction, a clinically recognized, but not universally accepted, approach to rehabilitation. In harm reduction, the basic theory is that while abstinence might be the ideal, it is not always easy or immediately possible. An alcoholic, for example, might need to taper their alcohol use to avoid potentially fatal alcohol withdrawal symptoms. Alternatively, an opioid addict might use substitutes like methadone, to help manage and control, their addiction. The principle is to replace the addiction with something that is less likely to cause harm, even if in some cases it is still an addiction.
Although California sober might fall under the broad umbrella of harm reduction, a key difference is that harm reduction tends to be a part of formal treatment plans. In an interview, Lovato suggested they discussed the approach with those involved in their recovery, but did not reveal the response. And with both harm reduction and Cali sober, expert opinion is divided.
Cali sober isn’t really sober…
The abstinence model has been the dominant model of addiction treatment for decades. In large part, this was based on the practical experience of addicts and those treating them. Lack of control is a common symptom of addiction, and control can be lost very quickly. Perhaps the most famous abstinence model is Alcoholic Anonymous’s twelve-step program. This reflected the common experience of alcoholics that ‘just one’ drink is not enough, and once drinking, they were unable to know when to stop.
That approach to addiction treatment has spread into the treatment of other addictions, even those that do not involve drugs, like gambling. This has also resulted in the common rehabilitation model of detox followed by abstinence, a binary model that does not allow for a return to moderation. And this binary approach has many supporters, Lovato’s Cali sober revelation prompted criticism from former addicts, including fellow celebrities, who insisted that there was only sober or not sober, there was not a ‘sober but…’ category.
The current understanding of addiction might give some evidence to their argument. While different addictions work in different ways, they all appear to be formed by the brain’s neural pathways, and specifically those related to pleasure and reward. In this model, the addiction is not so much to the substance or activity, but the response it triggers in the brain. The danger is that those pathways can easily be adapted to respond to another drug, and a Cali sober approach makes that more likely. Indeed, the danger of cross-addiction during recovery is so high that removing anything potentially addictive is common practice in rehabs and treatment centers.
…but that doesn’t mean California Sober can’t work
The medical field of addiction is continuing to develop, and the enhanced understanding of how it works also means that some professionals are starting to question the abstinence orthodoxy. One, simple, argument against abstinence is that there are some addictions where abstinence is either impossible or close to impossible. Addictions to things like food, shopping, or sex could fall into this category. Although not everyone agrees these can be defined as addictions, those that do treat as an addiction use a rehabilitation model that focuses on returning to moderation and control.
The argument is simple. If a food addict can be treated, and go on to have a healthy, and non-addictive, diet, then why can’t other addicts? Experts who support this approach suggest that rather than seeing addiction as a binary, on-off, situation, it should be seen as a spectrum, with abstinence at one end and an uncontrollable addiction at the other. Most people are close to abstinent, but will still partake in some drug use, such as alcohol or cannabis. In this situation, recovery should actually be moving addicts to the socially normal range of behavior, and not beyond it to total abstinence.
While abstinence remains the usual model for drugs that are, usually, illegal or controlled, there is a small but growing number who propose a moderation model for alcohol addiction. Part of the argument in favor of this is that alcohol is socially acceptable, commonplace and, for many, an integral part of their normal lives. Given this, insisting on abstinence may be more harmful because of the pressures it puts on the recovering alcoholic, who will often remove themselves from social activities as a result. Research has also backed this up. Suggesting that, when managed and supported, controlled drinking is a viable option.
Research into the medicinal use of other drugs is also giving weight to the arguments that there might be value to a California sober approach. Studies on psychedelics, for example, suggest they may be hugely beneficial in the treatment of some mental health conditions, with a single dose providing a long-term, and possibly even permanent, recovery for some patients suffering with conditions from depression to PTSD. And the medicinal use of cannabis-derived treatments is becoming more and more common, with trials for a variety of physical and mental health conditions1https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/33188563/.
Although this research is taking place under clinical conditions, many practicing a California sober approach may actually be self-medicating. In these cases, whether consciously or not, the Cali sober approach might be addressing symptoms that would otherwise trigger more problematic drug use.
A long-term solution?
There are plenty of people who are advocates for the California sober approach, but Demi Lovato was the highest profile. But no more. Six months after revealing their Cali sober approach, Lovato declared on Instagram that they had abandoned it. “I no longer support my ‘Cali sober’ ways,” Lovato posted. “Sober sober is the only way to be.”
Lovato’s experience provided many positives. Being so public about their addiction and mental health continues to raise awareness. But the episode also highlighted some important points. Although Lovato never discussed whether their treatment team supported their decision, medical support was still provided. Lovato was taking Vivitrol, for example, which helps moderate the effect of alcohol.
And it might have been that California sober was a necessary stage of Lovato’s recovery. Many addiction therapists recognize that abstinence can be incredibly unattractive to a full-blown addict who simply cannot imagine, and does not want to contemplate, a completely sober life. The prospect can even put some off seeking help. In some cases, they suggest, Cali sober might have some benefits, but many will add it is unlikely to be a successful long-term strategy.
If there is any consensus at all, it’s that addiction treatment is personal. Every addict will have a different set of physical and mental health issues and needs. And the best way to address addiction is with the support of an addiction treatment professional. A California sober approach might be a useful strategy to use during rehabilitation and recovery, and it might even be a successful long-term path. But whatever approach an addict takes, it’s much more likely to succeed if, like Lovato, there is professional support along the way.
Frequently Asked Questions about California Sober
What is the meaning of California Sober?
The term ‘Cali Sober’ is used by people who abstain from certain substances such as alcohol yet indulge in other less harmful substances. California Sober is a form of Harm Reduction.
Is California Sober a Thing?
For many people the goal of achieving sobriety is a key part of their personal journey towards greater health and wellness. There are countless resources available to help people achieve and maintain sobriety, including support groups, therapy sessions, and addiction treatment programs.
Is Cali Sober Actually Sober?
There is no one-size-fits-all answer to this question, as the definition of “sober” will vary from person to person. However, generally speaking, being sober means living a lifestyle that is free from alcohol and drug abuse.
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