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Building a Fence Around Sobriety
What does it take to protect ourselves from relapsing?
A Brief Lesson in Religion
In Judaism, we have a concept called “making a fence around the Torah.” Although I know most of you who are reading this are not Jewish, I wanted to share this idea with you in today’s newsletter, because I’ve always believed that it provides a great model for how to approach sobriety.
Let me start by explaining what this phrase means. Torah is the word that Jews use for the first five books of the Hebrew bible. To Christians, these books might be better known as the Pentateuch or the Five Books of Moses.
The Torah tells the story of how Judaism came about, and it also contains the core set of laws that Jews are commanded to follow. According to tradition, these laws were given directly from God to Moses.
To the ancient rabbis (and many modern Jews), these laws were so important that they didn’t want to leave any possible chance of breaking them. So, to safeguard the laws, the rabbis created additional restrictions—they “made fences.”
For example, during the Jewish holiday of Passover, there’s a law in the Torah against eating bread. To ensure that there was no chance of breaking this law by mistake, the rabbis added another rule: not to eat any rice or corn. The idea was that these can appear so similar to bread, that a Jew might accidentally eat bread, thinking that they were eating something made from rice or corn. [Source: CoffeeShopRabbi.]
Judaism is filled with these secondary rules. By being more restrictive than the original laws, they make it so that the original laws are less likely to be broken. The secondary rules form a “fence” that protects the laws in the Torah.
Applying the Lesson to Sobriety
The truth is that I’m not the most religious Jew. Despite a strong Jewish upbringing, I don’t strictly follow the laws of the Torah, let alone all of the rabbinic rules.
Despite this, I’ve always found the underlying logic of “building a fence” extremely compelling. If there’s a rule in our life that we want (or need) to follow, why not err on the side of caution?
When it comes to sobriety, I’ve found this concept incredibly useful.
If we break it down to its simplest form, there’s only one rule that we have to follow to quit drinking: Don’t drink.
Unfortunately, any addict who has tried to quit drinking knows that it isn’t nearly as simple as it sounds.
To follow that main rule—not to drink alcohol—I had to create a lot of additional rules for myself. Just like the rabbis built a fence around the Torah, I had to build a fence around my sobriety.
For example, early on in my sobriety, I realized that grocery store trips were nearly impossible for me. I used to go to a Publix with a massive alcohol aisle in the middle of the store. I couldn’t go shopping without having all of my favorite beers right in my face.
Grocery shopping was a miserable experience that caused some of my strongest alcohol cravings. I began to understand that my trips to the grocery store were putting my sobriety at risk. Sooner or later, I was going to give in and buy a six-pack.
To protect my sobriety, I needed to switch grocery stores. Even though it was far less convenient, I started going to a grocery store without such a prominent alcohol aisle. I was able to do my shopping without seeing a huge beer display every time, and I stopped getting terrible cravings every time I went to the store.
This experience led to a more general rule for my sobriety: Avoid the sight of alcohol.
Even though my actual goal was simply not to drink alcohol, I learned that the best way of doing that was to avoid seeing alcohol altogether. This was a more restrictive rule that I placed on myself because my main goal was too important to take any chances with.
Avoiding the sight of alcohol was a “fence” around my sobriety. It added another layer of protection that I desperately needed.
The most interesting thing about this fence was that it made my sobriety easier. You might think that adding more and more rules would complicate things and make it impossible to stick with sobriety. However, when the rules are carefully chosen, they have exactly the opposite effect.
During my first year sober, I went to great lengths to avoid seeing any alcohol. I skipped work events that had booze, I went to a different grocery store, and I even avoided movies and TV shows that had characters drinking.
However, all of this was much easier than putting myself near alcohol and forcing myself to get through the cravings. Ultimately, even though I was following more rules, the mental struggle was far, far less difficult.
I truly believe that these “fences” were a key factor in my success in staying sober, especially during the first year. I had such a difficult time dealing with cravings that year, and by avoiding alcohol altogether, I was able to make that part of sobriety significantly easier.
“Fences” don’t necessarily need to be permanent restrictions, and I’m also not suggesting that everyone needs the exact same rules. However, I certainly think that every recovering addict should take the time to consider whether “building a fence” might protect their sobriety.
Before managing to stay sober long-term, I learned the hard way just how easy it is to fall into a relapse. I’m glad that this time, I had fences in the way.
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