Sunday, December 11, 2011


As a social worker, I have to write things like "Patient is not motivated to maintain sobriety." That word, sobriety, sounds to me like people in gray clothes sitting in uncomfortable chairs. I'm not motivated to "maintain sobriety", so why should my clients be?

As a child in the Episcopal church, I disliked the part in the Book of Common Prayer about living "a godly, righteous, and sober life." I guess "sober" was supposed to mean "not too crazy." Quakers used to be big into sobriety, and the opposite was "gay", "vain", or "immoderate". The 1806 Book of Discipline from Philadelphia advised "that a watchful care be exercised over our youth, to prevent their going to stage-plays, horse-races, music, dancing, or any such vain sports and pastimes." "The sipping and tippling of drams and strong drink", though poetically phrased, was also frowned on. And if any Quaker should "fall into this evil practice, giving or taking strong liquors at vendues, or countenance or promote any noisy gatherings, they should be speedily dealt with as disorderly persons." This speedy dealing-with probably amounted to a concerned talking-to by some people in gray clothes, after which you would be kicked out of meeting if you didn't change your ways.

We're still using the nineteenth-century rhetoric that equates alcohol with frivolity. By the 1920s our culture worshipped frivolity, and what had everyone been taught about it? That it goes hand in hand with alcohol. If you want to be "gay" or "immoderate" (i.e. to have fun), drinking is the way to do it.

The result is that some people have forgotten how to have fun without drinking. Last Christmas when Jeff's boisterous Quaker family was gathered, a cousin's boyfriend marvelled that we seemed to be having such a good time with minimal drinking. He had never seen a family do that before.

When I dispatch my clients to a "sober house", I hope it won't be so very sober there. I hope they'll stay away from alcohol, but maybe there will be a little frivolity and even some noisy gatherings.

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