Running a sober house in Thailand, and having run rehabs in Chiang Mai for the last 10 years, I have seen a fair amount of sober people pass out of my doors. But how do we define living sober? What does it take to get there? And how do we maintain it?

Sober is one of those words that has multiple meanings. If you look in a dictionary you might see one of three likely definitions;

  1. Marked by sedate or earnest character or demeanor
  2. Not drunk or affected by alcohol
  3. Not having had an alcoholic drink for a period of time

These days when we say sober we are usually referring to the last one. Someone who is in recovery from addiction and who is sober from alcohol. But recovery programs like Narcotics Anonymous and rehabs also use the word ‘clean’. Clean means drug free. So “I am clean and sober” means I am abstinent from all drugs and alcohol.




This might seem like a strange question but there are certain times when people are more likely to get clean and sober than others. For example, people tend to get sober when they are in a lot of pain. A classic example might be when someone’s drinking or drug use has caused their marriage to breakdown. When their partner leaves them, this causes an emotional shift which enables the addicted individual to see that something is not right. At this point, change is more likely.




One technique of counselling called Motivational Interviewing (MI) uses a model called ‘The Stages of Change’ to explain how this works. The six stages of change are as follows;


As you can see. Pre-contemplation comes first. People who are unprepared to get sober simply don’t think about it. Eventually something happens. Probably something painful. Then they ‘move’ into the contemplation (or thinking) stage. So now they are ‘thinking about getting sober’.

Eventually the pain begins to outweigh the joy of using drugs or drinking alcohol. At this point the person probably makes a decision like, ”I’m going to rehab”. When the person actually goes into some kind of recovery programme or rehab then we could say they are in the action stage.

But it doesn’t end there. Because addiction is a chronically relapsing condition, recovery must be maintained. Usually this means seeing a programme through to completion. If you are in a residential rehab or sober house then you should see it through to the end. When you leave, maintenance of your recovery means going to supports groups like NA and AA. The last stage, relapse is not inevitable. It is what happens if you don’t maintain your recovery.




However, it’s not just hitting bottom that makes people change. Sometimes people get forced into treatment. They are either mandated by a court, or their family forces them to go (or face certain consequences). You might think that this type of intervention is ineffective. After all, it doesn’t involve a decision on the part of the individual. They are doing it against their will. But that’s not the case.

According to the National Institute on Drug Abuse (NIDA) “treatment doesn’t have to be voluntary to be effective”. Sometimes we are so pre-contemplative that we need others to step in for us when we are unable to make a decision which may change our lives.

Quite often, someone who has been forced into treatment by their family manages to enter the contemplation stage when they are in rehab or sober living. In this way they can eventually begin to ‘own’ the decision to become sober. After leaving treatment they can then attend 12 step fellowships or other support groups like SMART recovery and Refuge Recovery, and maintain their progress.




Ultimately, staying sober is a life-long job. It will involve a continual input of different personal growth techniques across multiple life areas. Those life areas, roughly speaking, might be;

Spiritual; (e.g. your recovery, but also including other kinds of service work and forms of meditation or other spiritual practice)

Social; (your relationships)

Work/vocational; (not just financial recovery but also creating increasing purpose and meaning in what you do)

Health; (not just physical health, but also mental and emotional)


After a time, we see that recovery is about more than staying sober. It’s about increasing the breadth, depth and quality of our recovery. We begin to see that we were lucky to have been left with no choice but to abstain from unhealthy behaviours.

In summary then, what it takes to get sober, is often nothing much more than the following equation;

being in so much pain that stopping is preferable

Then we begin to realize that sobriety is the springboard which takes us to a new life. That new life is not defined by sobriety alone, but by personal and spiritual growth.


For more information about sober living in Thailand contact us here.