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Cali Sober: What Does It Mean & How Does It Impact Your Recovery

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You may have seen singer Demi Lovato in the headlines recently after an interview with CBS Sunday Morning. In this interview Demi Lovato candidly referred to themselves as “California sober.” This has caused quite the stir within recovery communities, with some going as far as invalidating their recovery and claiming that they are threatening the lives of others. 

So, what is “Cali sober” and why is the recovery community getting so fired up about it?

Demi Lovato: What Does California Sober Mean?

In this recent interview, Lovato reflected on their recovery and their near-fatal overdose in July 2018. They described that time as “miserable,” and said that even though they had six years in recovery, they didn’t have any control over their life. Today, however, is a very different story. 

In this frank interview, Lovato said that they have never felt more joy in their life. Lovato credits the process of growing up and taking control of their life for the complete shift in perspective and happiness. However, their recovery doesn’t look like what some traditionalists deem as “sober.” 

California sober means that Lovato hasn’t completely given up drugs and alcohol in their recovery. Just like all other pathways of recovery, California sober looks different for everyone.  For some, it might mean stopping drinking harmfully and smoking cannabis. For others, it might mean stopping taking opiates, and moderately drinking. 

Linda explains her viewpoint of recovery in a similar fashion. “I recognize that just because I have a problem with alcohol does not mean I have a problem with every possibly addictive substance or behavior, and I didn’t need to hyper monitor it all to fit into some pious definition of sober or recovery,” she says. 

Linda goes on to explain, “I have absolutely zero qualms about taking my antidepressants or anxiety meds, pain meds when I need them, and even recreational substances when I feel like it. Alcohol is off the table, and with it goes some other things, too. But, good lord, the myth of the addict of one thing as also the addict of all things can die a cold hard death because it has affected my recovery in detrimental ways.”

Geoff Vasile, a social worker, and peer support specialist states that he knows many who define their recovery this way, as they feel alienated from traditional recovery paradigms. He says, “All of them state that their quality of life improved, and they all say they have left the use of substances that were physically and mentally much more harmful for them. Do I have opinions on how cannabis is impacting their life currently? Not in a meaningful way that would outweigh my own need to mind my own business.”

Unfortunately, not all people are of the same accepting viewpoint. Lovato’s recent declaration has received quite some backlash within the recovery community and within the addiction treatment industry. Some critics claim that “Cali sober” isn’t sobriety, and have formed the extreme view that by publicizing their brand of recovery, Lovato is leading people to their deaths.

The Executive Director of Recovery Mountain, Karen Bownes, mocked the term California sober and cautioned “maybe it’s only for people who have never had an issue with substance abuse or addiction.” Founder and CEO of Isaiah House Inc Treatment Centers, Mark Lapalme, commenting in the same thread, stated that Lovato “should be shamed for leading many to their inevitable death.” Self-described family interventionist Richard J. T. Ryan went as far as catastrophizing that Cali sober is “a train wreck waiting to happen” and that “sobriety in recovery is abstinence.”

The interesting point of distinction here is not that people are sharing their stories of recovery, but rather critics are invalidating Lovato’s recovery because it doesn’t meet their threshold of total abstinence. Which these critics also happened to define as “the truth.” To these particular treatment folks, abstinence is the only measure of recovery. One could question the motivation behind these perspectives. What do they all have in common? It could be argued that they are motivated to get people into treatment and insist that patients abide only by their definition of recovery: abstinence. 

However, not everyone agrees with this narrow viewpoint. Dr. Richard Elmore, states, “There are a lot of people in non-abstinence-based recovery,” and encourages others to stop shaming Lovato for sharing her truth. Dr. Kristine De Jesus reminded critics that abstinence is not included within the definition of recovery outlined by SAMHSA: “A process of change through which individuals improve their health and wellness, live a self-directed life, and strive to reach their full potential.” She goes on to explain that “not all people in recovery are abstinence-based, and that doesn’t make their recovery any less life-changing or valid.” 

Activist Timothy Harrington argues that the issue is not as binary as considering whether someone abstinent or not to qualify them for recovery. He argues that the issue runs much deeper. “Factually many many many people who’ve experienced addiction can use alcohol and other drugs in moderation. Why? Because drugs have never and will never be the problem. In fact, addiction isn’t even defined solely by drugs. Behaviors can also be related to addiction.” He goes on to say, “These are the inconvenient truths for many in the addiction treatment community who only subscribe to abstinence as being the ‘real’ recovery.

In a similar vein, researcher Austin Brown encourages us to consider our comprehension of drug use and what it means. He believes that there is a tendency among clinicians and the recovery community to jump to conclusions about drug use and, therefore, the type of recovery required. “I don’t necessarily believe that a person who at one time found themselves physically dependent on opioids means much beyond that. Any human body will become dependent on the substance itself due to bioaffinity. Doesn’t necessarily mean they need rigorous recovery,” he says.

“I think we commonly assume that someone who once had an issue with heroin or opioids that was out of control, that they are the same as most of us. This is an erroneous jump to specific conclusions. We hear words like ‘heroin’ and ‘overdose’ and we automatically assume this person is a specific type. And for some reason, we always seem to do this with opioids, probably due to a mix of ongoing discourses.”

De Jesus also encourages a change in perspectives among treatment professionals, and says those in the recovery space “need to look beyond their own lived experiences, especially when they come from white, cishet, patriarchal perspectives.” She argues that we should be “looking to the expertise of researchers and those who are most marginalized for solutions.”

What Does Cali Sober Mean For You?

Lovato and others rightly point out that recovery is an individual decision and pursuit. While we do seek community support in recovery, it is very much for each person to define what recovery means to them and how they wish to achieve it. 

Co-Founder of SHE RECOVERS, Dawn Nickel, is also of the viewpoint that we each get to own and direct our recoveries. “I think it’s her own business, her own recovery pathway. We are in recovery when we say we are.”

Lovato echoes this sentiment by saying that they “don’t feel comfortable explaining the parameters of my recovery to people because I don’t want anyone to look at my parameters of safety and think that’s what works for them.” 

Cali sober means very little for your recovery, in my opinion. This is just one perspective of a person’s recovery. It doesn’t invalidate your recovery or make your recovery goal any more or less valuable. There is no gold standard in recovery: we are all working towards reducing harm. You could achieve that aim through abstinence or through moderation. Only you can define what that means to you and what works for you. When we start encroaching on validating others’ recovery, we lose the opportunity to strengthen our own.

In December 2021, Lovato posted on their Instagram that they no longer support their “California sober” way. 


Olivia Pennelle (Liv) has a masters in clinical social work from Portland State University. She is a mental health therapist, writer, and human activist. Her writing has appeared in STAT News, Insider, Filter Magazine, Ravishly, The Temper, and Shondaland. She is the founder of Liv’s Recovery Kitchen, Life After 12-Step Recovery, and Tera Collaborations. She lives near Portland, Oregon. Follow her on Instagram @Livwritesrecovery and @teracollaborations

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