The Difference Between Sobriety and Recovery

When I was newly sober, my thinking was dominated by thoughts such as, “I can’t drink” and “I can’t get high.” It felt like I had an itch that only drugs or alcohol could scratch.

As a Recovery Coach for Feinberg Consulting, I work with people nearly every day who are facing the same struggle I did. I tell them that what they’re feeling is normal. It makes sense for them to focus on “what not to do” in the beginning. First and foremost, they need to learn how to navigate their lives away from drugs and alcohol.

There comes a time, however, when they must aim their focus higher. Instead of saying “no” to drugs and alcohol, they need to start saying “yes” to their life and what they want to create for themselves. Fundamentally, that is the difference between sobriety and recovery.

Before going any further, I first want to clarify that being sober or “abstinent” from drugs or alcohol is an important accomplishment and something to be celebrated. But by definition, sobriety is only the act of “not being intoxicated.” It does not on its own guarantee a fulfilling life.

At Feinberg Consulting, we strive to support individuals and their families in creating lasting recoveries with long-term support that allows for real healing to occur.


In early sobriety, people are generally transitioning from some level of addiction treatment (inpatient, outpatient, sober living, etc.) and back into everyday life. They are also likely working with a support group and a sponsor to help them abstain from drugs or alcohol.

This is the ideal time for newly sober people to begin working with a recovery coach, who will ensure that they follow through with their commitments of attending group meetings and staying in contact with their sponsor.

Another focus of this time is helping newly sober people identify the obstacles, danger zones, and problem areas that could result in them returning to drugs and alcohol. In the beginning, it’s often best that newly sober people separate themselves from triggering situations — at least for a time. Doing so creates a new vantage point where they can talk about past pains, desperation, consequences, triggers, and fears that could once again lead them to alcohol and drug use.

A few months ago, I was working with a newly sober man who was unsure if he should return to his previous job. While this job was familiar and offered him a lucrative income, it was also stressful and demanding.

Through our conversations, he ultimately decided that a different job with less responsibility would be the safer option. I supported him in his decision, but I also stressed that his break should be temporary. Recovery is about getting second chances. In time, he could return to his old job and be even more valuable to his employer, but only when he was ready.


That brings us to the next step in the recovery process, which is helping individuals rebuild their lives and create new possibilities. Using the basic tenets of recovery principles and solutions-based strategies, recovery coaching helps people shift their context from what they don’t want to what they do want.

At this part of the journey, recovery coaches help individuals identify a purpose, principles, and a vision that inspires them to move toward the life they are committed to creating. We also hold them accountable for the different things they’re being prescribed in their recovery plan.

One of my first clients was an adult man who had hopes of pursuing a rather big goal. Years of living in active addiction acted as a constant obstacle, leaving him stagnant and feeling stuck. Once he had a solid foundation for his recovery in place, he felt it was time to start taking committed action to move toward his goal.

We started by taking small steps. As he achieved consistent success toward his goal, we started taking bigger steps. I emphasized to him that the speed at which he was accomplishing his goal was not important; it was his continued progress in the right direction that mattered most. He eventually did achieve his goal, and perhaps more importantly, he cultivated a discipline, confidence, and self-esteem along the way that now serves as valuable assets to his long-term, sustainable recovery.

A New Life

Thirteen years ago, I began my journey of recovery. Had someone asked me what I wanted out of life at that moment, the answer would have been very simple — to stay sober. But as I continued to engage in the recovery process, much more was revealed. I had put in the work to steer my life away from drugs and alcohol, I had acquired the skills and strategies I needed to create something better, something new for myself.

While there is definitely a healthy fear that acts as a point of remembrance of the challenges I faced, I’m not sober today solely because I’m terrified of drinking or doing drugs again. I’m sober today because I love my life and I’m excited about what’s next.

I’m not in recovery because of the pain that’s behind me; I’m in recovery today because of the possibility that’s in front of me.

Thatcher Shivley

Director of Community Relations | Recovery Coach

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