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In Defense of "Pulling a Geographic"
It's time to rethink this classic sobriety warning.
There’s an expression that I learned early in my recovery that has always rubbed me the wrong way: “Pulling a Geographic.”
It’s a derisive phrase, used to describe when someone moves to a new city in hopes of escaping their addiction. An addict who “pulls a geographic” hopes that by moving to a new place, they can get a fresh start on life—without their addiction in tow.
In the recovery world, the conventional wisdom is that “pulling a geographic” is a fool’s attempt at sobriety. You can’t outrun your problems. Even if you move to an entirely new city, you’ll still be the same person. Your addiction stays with you no matter where you go.
Therefore, “pulling a geographic” is just a way to avoid addressing the real issues. Addicts who move to a new city are just looking for an easy way to escape addiction instead of putting in the work.
I couldn’t disagree more. In today’s newsletter, I’m going to share one of my most controversial opinions about sobriety: I believe that moving to a new city can be an incredibly helpful step in overcoming addiction.
Moving and Moving Again
I lived in Chicago during the peak years of my alcoholism. I was already a daily drinker when I moved there, and I continued to drink daily for the five years that I called Chicago home.
I tried to quit drinking many times throughout those years, but I never had much luck. As best as I can remember, I never made it more than a week or two without a drink.
There were many reasons for my failure to get sober, most of which were internal. I was anxious, stressed, depressed, and lonely. Each time I tried to quit drinking, I was overwhelmed by negative emotions, and sometimes even panic attacks.
However, there were also external factors that pushed me toward rapid relapse. Nearly all of my friends in town were drinkers. I was attending a law school with a heavy drinking culture. Chicago itself is a city that tends to celebrate alcohol.
I left Chicago to take a job in Florida almost immediately after graduating from law school. I didn’t move to escape my drinking habit, but I was certainly hoping that the move might make sobriety easier. Sure enough, it did.
I quit drinking, for good, shortly after taking the bar exam. I had only been in Florida for a few months.
To this day—over six and a half years later—I still haven’t had a drink. I believe that one of the reasons I was finally able to find success with sobriety was because I got sober in a new city.
In Florida, I was no longer exposed to everything in Chicago that I had associated with drinking. I had a new job, a new daily routine, new stores, new people—the only thing that wasn’t new was myself. However, that clean break from my past helped me to reinvent myself.
It’s not as if the move made sobriety easy, but it helped a lot. It provided a shock to my system, that helped me snap out of my addiction. I still had to do the work to overcome my alcoholism, but moving to a new city helped me to avoid a relapse.
I moved again about a year after that. Although I had managed to stay sober, I was still having a hard time with my mental health, so I decided to move back to my hometown in North Carolina.
The downside of Florida was that I didn’t know many people there. In North Carolina, I had my parents, my best friend, and much of my extended family. I thought that having such a strong support system would help, and I was right.
My second move helped even more than the first. I didn’t make the move because I wanted to run away from my problems. I made the move because I wanted to move toward a solution.
Being around my friends and family made a huge difference in my mental health, which, in turn, helped me to stick with sobriety.
“Pulling a Geographic”
When I hear people criticize “pulling a geographic,” I think that they’re normally attacking a straw man. The behavior that they’re making fun of is an oversimplified take on what people are actually doing.
I’ll concede that moving to a new location isn’t enough, on its own, to get someone sober. A new city won’t magically transform you into someone new.
However, I still believe that moving to a new city can be an incredibly important step toward sobriety. It helps us to break with old patterns and gives us an opportunity to build a new, healthy life.
I don’t think that people who “pull a geographic” are really expecting the move to magically transform their entire lives. We understand that we still have to put in the work. However, that work can go a lot further when we are in a location that is conducive to a healthy mind, body, and spirit.
I believe that addictions are driven by a complex combination of factors—both internal and external. Moving cities—twice—helped me to escape the external factors fueling my addiction, which then allowed me to focus on the internal factors.
I’m not arguing that every addict needs to “pull a geographic.” There are plenty of people who manage to get sober without moving to a new city, and there are plenty of people who move to a new city but still can’t overcome their addiction.
However, in some cases, including my own, I think that living somewhere new can be an immense help. If I hadn’t moved to Florida—and then to North Carolina—I’m not sure whether I’d be sober today.
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