“It’s not ‘slurring your words,’ it’s ‘talking in cursive,’ and it’s elegant.”
“Wish I could trade my heart in for a second liver, so I could drink more and care less.”
“I told myself to stop drinking, but I’m not about to listen to some drunk who talks to herself.”
The above statements are supposed to be funny. They were shared on social media as memes, part of our cultural habit of playing drunkenness for laughs. But a strange thing happens when you take the text away from the goofy illustrations: these words aren’t lighthearted, they’re heartbreaking.
There are historians who study cartoons and comic strips, and so it’s inevitable that a hundred years from now, there will be some scholar of twenty-first-century internet meme-ology publishing her findings about our society. Looking at the above examples, she’d note that excessive drinking was surging in the United States, especially among young women. Simultaneously, our public health authorities battled a series of drug plagues, each substance ravaging the populace in turn: prescription opioids, followed by heroin, followed by meth. Perhaps historians will even interpret the campaign to legalize marijuana as the capstone on a culture that single-mindedly chased a chemical high.
Yet, just as that relentless trend is reaching its peak, the reaction is already forming. “Sobriety,” that dusty old word that smells of musty church basements, is getting a makeover. It’s big on Instagram and has its own chic bars in Brooklyn. Some parents have even considered it as a baby name (please don’t, though).
So what does it mean to be “sober curious,” as influencers term it these days? And if the memes are starting to seem stale, and the hangovers are wearing you out, could sobriety be something worth trying?
Would life be better without alcohol?
One word that doesn’t define “sober curiosity”? Alcoholism.
“I was definitely afraid to step into sobriety because of the judgment and because of the term “alcoholic,” Jackie Broe told me. She’s a blogger, podcaster, and sobriety coach, who has been drink-free for almost two years. “There are people who don’t necessarily have a problem with alcohol, but they don’t have a healthy relationship with alcohol [either],” she says. Broe explains that alcohol use is a spectrum and even if you’re not on the extreme end, you could still benefit from exploring sobriety.
Ruby Warrington, the author of Sober Curious: The Blissful Sleep, Greater Focus, Limitless Presence, and Deep Connection Awaiting Us All on the Other Side of Alcohol, offers her own definition of sober curiosity. She writes that her decision to stop drinking began with the simple question: could life be better without booze? Would she be happier, healthier, more confident, or even look better? Warrington couldn’t quite accept the alcoholic label—she had some trouble stopping with one glass, but she wasn’t racking up DUIs or cleaning vomit off her clothes every weekend. She was simply curious about how her life might change without alcohol in it.
In our image-conscious society, the cultural portrait behind the word alcoholic—addicted, powerless, out of control—is not an Insta-worthy one. Not surprisingly, most who claim the sober curious mindset are not drawn to Alcoholics Anonymous, what with alcoholic smack in the name of the organization. By and large, they’ve forged their own paths to sobriety, taking advantage of practices like therapy and mindfulness. The sober curious attitude toward AA ranges from indifference to virulent opposition, but most reflect Jackie Broe’s tolerant stance: “Everybody’s journey to sobriety is different. . . . People are realizing, ‘Hey! there are multiple ways to sobriety,’” she told me. “I’m all for what works for you. Do that! AA works for a lot of people, but, it also doesn’t work for some people.”
Perhaps the main message of the sober curious movement is that you don’t need to fit neatly into a category to experiment with the sober lifestyle. “Put a label on yourself or don’t,” Broe says. “What I care about is if you’re sober or not, or even if you’re not sober, knowing whether or not you have a healthy relationship [with alcohol].”
What could be different: your body
So what happens when you get sober curious?
Probably, an improvement in your health. After all, most forms of alcohol, whether fruity mixed drinks or hipster craft brews, come loaded with sugar, gluten, or carbs—the Unholy Trinity of modern health diets. Even red wine, supposedly the preferred beverage of slender, aspirational French women, is proven to pump up a drinker’s appetite—and not in the “I’ll have another kale salad, hold the bleu cheese dressing” sort of way.
For women, perhaps the most troubling health effect of booze is how it messes with our hormones. Heavy drinking can cause a woman to have abnormal menstrual cycles, skip ovulating, or experience early menopause. Alcohol even makes it harder for her body to naturally generate melatonin, the hormone that helps her drift off to restful, restorative sleep. In one study, evening drinking reduced melatonin levels by almost 20 percent. That’s not good news for women, who already suffer higher rates of insomnia than men—about one in four of us struggle to fall asleep. Tellingly, researchers have found such hormone problems in women who are merely “social drinkers,” not just the stereotyped, frazzled alcoholics.
Keep in mind, too, that our bodies are already bathed, daily, in synthetic hormones. All across the United States, men and women alike literally shower and wash their hands using water supplies contaminated with hormones from the Pill and other forms of chemical contraception. Further bewildering my endocrine system with alcohol seems like self-sabotage.
This may be the single biggest obstacle preventing you from trying a sober lifestyle: sobriety will inevitably impact your relationships. What if your friends, or even your partner, reject the new drink-free you? If you regularly use alcohol to grease your social gears, it can be scary to consider going without.
“That’s one of the reasons it took me so long to get sober,” Broe told me. She was dating her husband at the time, Broe said, “and I was definitely terrified that he wouldn’t want to be with me any more. And I have a good group of girlfriends, and I was terrified they wouldn’t want to hang out with me as well—that they’d think I was boring.”
This concern is so common that there are many efforts underway to meet the socializing needs of nondrinkers, including Club SODA NYC, the sober event series founded by Ruby Warrington. Sober dating apps are also a thing. But even if you don’t go out and find a new non-boozy crew, the relationship clarity offered by sobriety is hard to pass up. Painful, but priceless.
“I had to set boundaries for sure. . . . I’ve definitely lost some ‘friends,’ but in the end they’re not my friends,” Broe says. “In the moment it felt like a loss, but it ended up being a win-win situation for me, because you really do find out who’s there for you and who supports you.” As a system for identifying and ditching your frenemies and men who undermine you, sober curiosity can be summed up in one word: efficient.
Perhaps the most life-changing side effect of trying out sobriety is the chance to discover who you really are without booze getting in the way. If you’ve been on alcohol for a long time—for many people, it’s been since adolescence—you may wonder if your non-drinking personality is different from the one you know.
“It’s funny because I thought I was an extrovert because I was always partying,” says Broe. “Once I got sober, I realized how much of an introvert I am. . . . There’s a quote that goes around, ‘You find out who you are when you drink,’ but for me, when I drank alcohol, I was a different person.”
This goes deeper than discovering that you are a morning person, after all.
“Some of the things I said and did, I never would have done in a sober state. So that stigma that when you’re drunk that’s who you really are, for me that’s completely false and opposite of what I’ve learned throughout sobriety,” Broe told me. “I had really no sense of who I was before I got sober. Sobriety helps with that, therapy definitely helps with that, but I wouldn’t know myself if I had not been sober. Getting sober helped lead me to my true self.”
Your true self: she’s somebody worth getting to know, and the world needs her.
Getting sober, going wrong
Sober curiousness can help improve your physical well-being, sharpen your sense of self, and de-grease your relationships. Where’s the catch?
Your body feels so light without the post-beer bloat; your brain feels so energetic and creative without the constant inflow of our culture’s favorite nervous system depressant. It can be hard to resist feeling a little bit superior to the still-inebriated, still-unenlightened masses. And soon, you may get the urge to tell those big drunk throngs all about it.
“You may experience what is referred to in recovery circles as ‘the evangelical phase,’” warns Ruby Warrington in Sober Curious. “You’ll know this has kicked in when you begin seeing it as your mission to show all your old drinking buddies the error of their ways. After all, you feel so great, why wouldn’t you want to spread the love?!”
This phenomenon isn’t limited to the newly-alcohol free, of course. It can also happen to people who discover a new diet, spiritual devotion, or workout that makes them feel healthy, connected, and whole. Half the pleasure of good news derives from sharing it with others. Nevertheless, it’s important not to confuse “sharing” with “smugly wearing down the opposition.”
I confess, I felt superior during my sober periods, namely in college where I scrupulously observed my state’s drinking age laws. I viewed the binge drinkers at my party school as out of control (I had SO much control!), unambitious (I had too much to accomplish to waste time getting wasted), or dependent babies (perhaps the drunks had parents who would bail them out of jail or hire a lawyer for them if they got busted. Mine wouldn’t or couldn’t take care of me that way, and that meant I was adulting at a higher level). Even now that I drink occasionally, it’s hard to avoid a sense of superiority toward people who drink enough to actually get drunk. As I go over in my mind how foolish that seems, I sense myself turning into a snooty villainess from Jane Austen.
Making a positive lifestyle change like sobriety can also lend itself to extreme thinking, a problem that people with addictive personalities may already be susceptible to. Ruby Warrington emphasizes, “Alcohol itself is not the bad guy. It’s the reasons we choose booze and the ways in which we use it that can become problematic.” But alcohol is an easy target to demonize—“Demon Rum,” indeed. On sobriety guru Holly Whitaker’s blog, she posted about a gruesome conversation she had with her mother about the dying process of an elderly cousin, Beth, who had abused alcohol:
Of course she is rotting, is all I can think. Of course her throat has come apart and her skin is falling off. I repeat this thought out loud, head shaking, overwhelmed by how absurdly obvious it is that alcohol is poison. “She drank ethanol, mom. She drank what we fuel cars with.” I imagine Beth at a Shell station putting a gas nozzle to her mouth for forty years.
Zeal for sobriety can turn the suffering of loved ones into just another anecdote, just more fuel for fanatical, black-and-white thinking about alcohol. The post is titled “Grape Flavored Gasoline” and illustrated with an image of a happy group raising their glasses for a toast, while a gas pump refills their cups.
Whitaker also discusses the rotting cousin incident in Quit Like A Woman: The Radical Choice to Not Drink in a Culture Obsessed with Alcohol, a book which usefully demonstrates some of the ways the sober curiosity movement can generate conflict and drama of its own.
Whitaker’s well-argued thesis is that women and other minorities are driven to drink at least partly because of the sexist, racist, capitalist, and other oppressive systems that dominate our society. Marketing promotes alcohol as a symbol of women’s liberation, while it functions as a date rape drug. The war on drugs incarcerates minorities at a breathtaking rate, while looking the other way as white people profit from a drinkable drug as addictive as cocaine. In the name of the free market, corporations treat consumers themselves as consumables, working so that their harmful products can devour ever more territory inside communities with the least power to fight them off.
Whitaker goes astray, though, when she trains her guns inside the recovery circle. The primary target: Alcoholics Anonymous. Whitaker has subsequently softened her opposition to the biggest player on the sobriety scene, saying, “I don’t want to see it dismantled or discourage anyone from trying it out.” But she doesn’t hold back in her book, calling AA “absolutely oppressive,” and “like having my head held under water.” According to Whitaker, AA was created “by the oppressing party, for the oppressing party,” and the famous 12 steps are merely designed to break down the egos of bourgeois white Protestant males who are drunk (literally) on their privilege. Women, as a result of their second class status in our patriarchal society, don’t have such ego problems, and the steps are pointless self-punishment for them.
Whittaker hangs this theory mostly on the fact that AA was founded on June 10, 1935 by two middle class, Protestant white men, Bill Wilson and Dr. Bob Smith. She doesn’t address the role of a poor white woman, Bridget Della Mary Gavin, in the development of AA’s culture. Gavin, also known as Sister Ignatia, was a Roman Catholic nun in charge of admissions at St. Thomas Hospital in Akron, Ohio. She worked with “Dr. Bob,” who had hospital privileges there, to officially admit the first alcoholic patient to medical treatment—a revolutionary act at the time that other healthcare experts eventually copied across the United States. No longer would problem drinkers be warehoused in mental asylums or, at best, secretly admitted with a different diagnosis to covertly get access to healthcare.
Gavin is responsible for the tradition of sobriety coins in AA. She gave each patient who graduated from her ward a medal representing the Sacred Heart of Jesus, a devotional token used in Roman Catholic tradition. She instructed the graduates to return the medallion beforehand if they ever decided to drink again. Her work with AA was recognized by the Kennedy Administration, and her funeral was attended by Bill Wilson and about 3,000 other mourners.
I also have to point out that Whitaker’s main project, Tempest, is somewhat at odds with her overall message of resistance in Quit Like A Woman. It’s a “sobriety school,” an 8-week online self-help program for people with concerns about their drinking. Far from fleeing the chilly embrace of Wall Street, Whitaker writes that she doggedly pursued venture capitalist money, collecting millions of dollars from investors. Her evidence-based model offers a middle ground between exorbitantly expensive in-patient rehab and the church-basement recovery world where the price of admission is snacks. As of March 2020, you could pursue sobriety with Tempest for $547. (Note: In May, Tempest is switching to a membership model which may have different price points.) In the FAQ section on the program’s website, one of the objections raised against joining is: “I don't have the money to do this.” The brusque response is to spend the money you would have otherwise spent on booze to pay for the class.
To be fair, there is an “Equity Scholarship” provided to many students that reduces the price to $197 for those from “communities disproportionately affected by addiction who have typically been less represented within traditional recovery spaces.” Still, that means a woman working at the federal minimum wage would need to turn over most of a week’s paycheck to access Tempest.
And this is perhaps the trickiest part of sober curiosity. Like all aspects of modern wellness culture, it is frequently for sale. The woman exploring life without alcohol has to carefully evaluate the qualifications and value of all these resources—the cleanses! The functional medicine practitioners! The mentors-for-hire! The schools! The yoga experiences! The Lululemon!—and do so while she may still be drinking. Alcoholics Anonymous may be a relic from a man’s world. However, it’s also always been free, which is the ultimate gesture of inclusivity in the land of the almighty dollar.
Is it really so terrible if your personal journey to sobriety becomes someone else’s profit center? Maybe not, if they can help you change your life. But it’s a question worth asking.
Close to home
I live in a sleepy Ohio suburb. So I immediately noticed when a new business popped up in a nearby strip mall, next to the Thai food place. The bright green and yellow sign said simply: NADA Bar. My husband theorized that the name meant “Not A Bar,” and that it only served coffee. Others I talked to say it stood for “No Alcohol or Drugs Allowed.” In any case, it was a place to go and not get drunk. Its business model caused quite a stir in the community’s Facebook group, with many neighbors expressing doubt that such a place could make any money in a blue collar town. One who didn’t: Emily Christyson.
“When I first quit drinking, a group of friends and I went out to a bar in downtown [Cleveland], and I asked if they had non-alcoholic beer—the bartender scoffed and asked why I would want NA beer in a bar,” Emily told me. “I asked for a soda water with a ‘load of limes’ and a splash of grenadine, and you would have thought I asked for her firstborn child. Needless to say we left and haven’t gone back since.”
When a trend reaches us here in the Midwest, that means it’s real, but the naysayers weren’t entirely wrong. NADA Bar vanished one day, its spot in the strip mall now occupied by a place called “Swinging Door Bar & Grill” that offers ample beer selections. But the sober curious movement is not going anywhere. NADA Bar was merely ahead of its time.
Have you ever asked yourself if life could be better without alcohol? Maybe it’s time to find out.