Sobriety is not Superiority

“You’re not drinking?” Jimbo said.


“Since when?”

“Ten years. Give or take.”

I didn’t go into a long explanation. I didn’t want to list all the reasons that drinking—along with smoking and gambling and most other vices—had lost its appeal after I left Publicans. I didn’t want to tell Jimbo that sobering up  had  felt  like  growing up,  and  vice  versa…

But the main reason I didn’t say anything to Jimbo was that I didn’t want to profane Publicans.

J.R. Moehringer, “The Tender Bar: A Memoir”, Page 443


After much insistence from my wife, I finally read J.R. Moehringer’s 2005 memoir, “The Tender Bar.” I’ve never come across a more genuine and respectful account of alcohol use within a pub setting. In my sobriety, I’ve read numerous stories set in local watering holes, often foundational to literature within twelve-step programs. When I still drank, I frequented a few neighborhood bars myself. They weren’t conducive to my well-being, but that doesn’t diminish their potential meaning and purpose for others.

Sobriety and recovery were something I found through twelve-step meetings and literature. Structurally speaking, the formal elements of twelve-step fellowships (including the writing and the ideas shared at meetings) are purposefully simple, vague, rigid, general, neutral, superficial, and unfortunately, vapid at times. Twelve-step culture is not an academic or artistic pursuit, and rightfully so. This is why reading the memoir of J.R. Moehringer, a Yale and Harvard-educated writer from the poor blue-collar Long Island hamlet of Manhasset, has provided me with a refreshing perspective on the culture that surrounds alcohol. As the title suggests, his book is a tender account of his neighborhood bar.

This has gotten me thinking: what happened to the people at my bars of yesteryear, and do I still look down at them? The sense of superiority that over a decade of sobriety has given me is something that I am working to slowly shed, piece by piece. Upon reflection, I’ve found that the principles of sobriety—like acceptance, humility, patience, and honesty—deeply encourage me to see recovery as a lateral connection with humanity rather than a hierarchical one. Simply put, when someone gets clean and sober, they still share the same earth with people who drink. My awareness of the need to coexist has been the challenging aspect.

I began this article with a quote about J.R. returning to his neighborhood bar in New York after being sober for ten years. J.R. mentions that he doesn’t want to profane the neighborhood bar, Publicans, where his uncle, father figures, friends, and numerous relatives drank, smoked, and gambled until they were in debt. Moehringer’s entire memoir tells his story of growing up in this bar and how Publicans seemed to possess a gravitational pull on him over the course of decades. J.R. always ended up back at Publicans. When he speaks of the regulars, characters, comrades, and barflies, there is never any malice in the written word. The descriptions are terse, gentle, and as believable as a cherished heirloom photograph. I’ve never thought about a neighborhood bar like this before.

The literature that accompanies twelve-step programs is different. Not bad, just different. It serves a purpose. For me, the literature of twelve-step programs has a very vital function in my life. I use twelve-step literature as a tool. When I need to be centered spiritually in my recovery and reminded of how I got sober, I read the literature. If I am working on the numerous challenges that crop up in my life as a recovering addict with bipolar type 1, I turn to the literature with the guidance of a sponsor. Meaningful, relevant, and useful discussions at twelve-step meetings are often inspired and prompted by the literature. These are all good things, but a byproduct has been a sense of superiority that I have had to confront in my own life. 

Abstinence from all substances has been the central component of my treatment path and recovery plan. This does not make me superior to others. Seth, at one, three, five, seven, and even now at thirteen years of abstinence, has fallen into the superiority trap. Insecurity lies at the core of my struggle. This leads to pompous attitudes towards those who use any mind or mood-altering substance. When I’m smug about sobriety at home, my wife lets me know. I’m grateful for my wife’s teetotaling nature; her lifelong disinterest in alcohol and drugs enables her to patiently listen to my rants, gently reminding me to relax, not take myself too seriously, and stop acting like a narc. Closed-minded thinking has often clouded my opinions concerning relapse, new medicinal applications of certain drugs, and recreational use. A lack of compassion and empathy shapes my assumptions about current occurrences at bars, dispensaries, nightclubs, parties, concerts, ‘experimental’ university medical drug trials, and music festivals. What works for the patrons and participants in the aforementioned places does not work for me. I have proven that to myself time and time again. I owe my existence today to the guidance of my doctor, psychiatrist, and abstinence-based recovery peers. It is my sense of superiority regarding the practices of others that needs to change.

Here is one example of how I’ve changed. I now understand that condemning those involved in experimental medical trials (CBD, ketamine therapy, microdosing) that deviate from my treatment path is not an appropriate personal reaction. I’ve come to realize that I’ve erected an artificial barrier in my recovery that provides me with no benefit. What genuinely works for me is abstinence—a method tailored uniquely to my life—and I am committed to it daily, taking it one day at a time. I have my experience, core practices, and opinions guiding me. I may not comprehend the practices of others concerning substance use or therapy, but I must be careful not to dismiss the lives and experiences of others as pedestrian or misinformed. A caveat and disclaimer: this is not a free pass or an endorsement for those personally, legally or medically advised to pursue abstinence-based treatment or twelve-step programs to abruptly abandon ship.

Us twelve steppers can frequently boil our past actions and the actions of others down to stupidity. In recovery, I’ve admitted that I was stupid or thought that others’ actions are stupid. Dismissive attitudes like this don’t take one primary spiritual concept into account— the process of living is sacred. Regardless of whether you’re abstinent, enjoy a nightly scotch leading to blackouts, indulge in a spritzer solely on vacation, engage in meth use and the pawning of copper wire, find value in ketamine therapy sessions, have no inclination towards alcohol or drugs, practice microdosing of psilocybin, benefit from CBD treatments, or even if daily opioid use is managed in harm reduction facilities to maintain a livable life—each individual’s approach to substances varies greatly. These are all personal choices that are none of my business to judge. Labeling any path that isn’t abstinence as inherently rooted in stupidity dishonors the unique journey each soul traverses on this earth. I got sober to honor myself. That was the path that worked for me. Now the the divine is teaching me to honor others. 

However, I am a pastor. I work with people. In a professional capacity if someone’s using, drinking or behavior alerts me I will carefully offer help or referral. This is the only exception in my life. This doesn’t mean that everyone who walks through the doors of a church has to be stone cold sober. I have been trained to determine if people are a harm to themselves or others. A church should always be a place where characters of all types and all walks can gather with grace at the core of the experience. Interestingly enough, some neighborhood bars serve that function too.  

When I think about my neighborhood bar from my drinking years, I often think about the characters that could be found there. The process of reading “The Tender Bar” has allowed me to reconsider the narrative I held onto in sobriety. I used to believe that I escaped that bar. If I continue to believe that I escaped, then that would mean that people are still trapped there. There is more to life than simplified and polarizing narratives of one’s past. God paints stories in so many shades and styles, and because of this, I know that a bar is not a prison. A bar is bondage for me but not necessarily for others. Chapters, poems, verses, songs, and opuses of various characters, who are multidimensional souls, continue to be proclaimed when I left that bar for the last time and checked myself into the psych ward never to drink again. I left their story, but the tale is still being told after my departure. Yes, two people I knew from that bar died young due to alcohol-related complications, but this cannot justify extolling myself as superior. If I truly believe that I have found a suitable way of living without the use of drugs and alcohol, I should be secure and comfortable enough to understand that people derive deep meaning from all sorts of cultural institutions, bars included.

I love being abstinent from alcohol and all drugs. I don’t go to bars because there is nothing there for me. Sobriety is a personal decision not the right decision for anyone who ever raised a glass. In my early sobriety, I thought that abstinence-based recovery was the best and only path for anyone who I thought was an alcoholic. So much has changed. The more I live, the less I know. If my ears and eyes are open to someone else’s experiences, I can add their perspective to my contextual array. It’s time to wander this world and welcome people into a collection of sacred viewpoints instead of tossing them away into my own personal pale of profanity. However, I’m relatively certain our paths won’t cross at the neighborhood bar.   

Thank you and Amen

Don’t forget to comment with your own perspective.

Seth Perry

Seth Perry

ELCA Pastor -Devotional Blogger- Mental Health Recovery Educator-Living Well with Bipolar Type 1


6 Responses

  1. Very interesting. Yes, I see abstinence simply as a lateral move for folks. I neither condemn nor celebrate it as such. I do celebrate the person and whatever their choice is however. A couple of my friends abstain as a choice and that does not affect me. None of my friends use or drink very much. I don’t know if that is simply an accident or by choice. I generally avoid negative people.

  2. Great perspective! I often feel superiority in any fashion on my life is usually rooted in my own insecurities. Many times in my life (prior to recovery) I have been angry, rigid, and simply not fun to be around, for the mere fact of keeping people at arms distance. For me, not only does that occur when I’m angry but also when I feel superior or that ‘my way or the highway’ viewpoint. I believe God have humans an array of emotions to be open minded and remain teachable. For me, I lose sight of God’s gifts the more I separate myself from others. Always appreciate your vulnerability Pastor Seth! God bless!

    1. Thank you Christian.

      I like how you state how dangerous it is to separate oneself from others. One of the best aspects of sobriety for me is the connections that I have been able to make with others.

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I selfishly held onto the belief that sobriety was not only my path but the best and only path. However, this perception of superiority ended up causing me significant harm in the long run. I urge you to explore this article, as it delves into alternative perspectives and ways of thinking.