Forget rhubarb gin and #roseallday; come January, it seems like all the cool kids are sober.
On the face of it, sobriety slots in neatly alongside other wellness trends, like meditation apps, reiki and eating raw foods for breakfast. People write books about it that aren’t “addiction memoirs” based on horror stories of blackouts and absconding from rehab. Sober Instagram influencers boast thousands of followers, including regular drinkers and the “sober curious.” Alcohol-free bars, like Listen Bar in NYC and Sans Bar in Texas, are popping up all over the place (and hipsters are hanging out there).
Nobody can deny that giving up (or at least cutting down on) booze is a major positive. It boosts your immune system, improves cardiovascular and liver health, decreases your risk of cancer and even helps your brain work better. So the more sobriety is talked about, the more people take the plunge and switch cocktails for mocktails, the more good it’s doing on a large scale.
“A lot of people quit drinking for periods of time when they pursue wellness,” says psychotherapist Jean M. Campbell, LCSW, who has worked with women with alcoholism for over 20 years. “For some, it’s a choice to be healthier and if they make a decision to practice abstinence, and they’re not actually an alcoholic, then it most likely won’t be a difficult decision, nor will it be difficult to follow through it. They might not even miss drinking.”
But by describing sobriety as a wellness trend, there’s a danger of making light of the reality faced by many sober people who identify as alcoholic or having an alcohol use disorder, or who simply recognize that their relationship with alcohol was becoming a negative force in their lives.
“Some people choose periodic abstinence because they’re concerned they’ve been drinking too much. If that person is an alcoholic, then remaining abstinent will likely be very difficult,” explains Campbell. “Two of the common symptoms of an alcohol use disorder, based on the criteria in the DSM-V, are that you ended up drinking more – or for longer periods – than you planned, and that you tried to stop drinking or cut down on how much you were drinking, but were unsuccessful. That’s not difficulty following through on wellness; that’s addiction.”
In my case, I quit drinking in 2017 after discovering I was officially a binge drinker – defined as drinking four or more alcoholic drinks (it’s five for men) on at least one day in the past month or a pattern of drinking that brings blood alcohol concentration (BAC) levels to 0.08 g/dL.
Personally, I didn’t consider myself to be someone who drank too much. My drinking habits were normal among my family and my social circle – it was those who didn’t drink at all who were considered strange. It wasn’t until I was in my late 30s that I actually considered the possibility that a sober life could be a happier life. But it wasn’t an easy “this could be fun, let’s give it a go” decision, like switching cow’s milk for oat milk or booking a yoga retreat. It was a major life change that became way more than a choice (I wasn’t physically addicted to alcohol, but it was an emotional crutch for me) and quitting booze had massive repercussions for my social life, family relationships and friendships. To reap the benefits of sobriety, I had to dig deep and do the hard stuff. By comparison, taking a yoga class twice a week and starting the day with a green juice is a cinch.
In fact, if we’re debating the legitimacy of sobriety as a trend, I’d like to throw this in the mix: it’s the opposite of a trend. It’s a way of breaking the trend. Or, as the case may be, the habits of a lifetime: using alcohol to celebrate good times, to drown sorrows, to feel more comfortable and interesting at parties, to cope with the end of a relationship, the end of a job, the end of a hard day.
“To label sobriety as the newest wellness trend is misleading,” agrees therapist Emily Eckstein, executive director at Beach House Treatment Center.” When we discuss a trend we’re often referring to a popular and quickly shifting idea or belief that has gained popularity usually within social media, yet for many, the movement towards sobriety is based on unyielding facts. ‘My liver is no longer functioning at its full capacity due to my drinking’ or ‘I am no longer able to hold down a job or maintain my relationships due to my cocaine use.’ These are real, quantifiable concerns that lead individuals to sobriety and, more so, highlight the recent conversation around getting sober.”
When I first stopped drinking, it was after a particularly boozy vacation that left me feeling miserable. Anxious and surer than ever that I needed to ditch that particular toxin for good, I was overwhelmed by loneliness. I knew one sober person in real life. All my friends and relatives drank alcohol to celebrate, commiserate, feel less anxious or simply avoid feeling anything at all.
It was through the online sober community that I found my support network. Whether they have enough followers to be considered influencers or not doesn’t matter – they’re people from all walks of life who’ve been there and done the sober thing (and sometimes the sober thing then the drinking thing then the sober thing again, because it’s not an easy road to follow). They’re there because at some point in the past they also needed to find a community, and they’re paying it forward. It wasn’t about setting or jumping on a trend; it was about carving out a different kind of life when the world (and popular culture) just wants you to open another bottle of rose and quit questioning why we live in a society that actively promotes an addictive substance as being a positive part of life – a necessity, even.
“You’re so healthy,” one friend remarked when I revealed that I’d been alcohol-free for 60 days. But I wasn’t doing it for my health – at least, not in the way she saw it. I wasn’t trying to lose weight or have clearer skin or look less in need of a heavy-handed Instagram filter (although those are all some of the many welcome, unexpected benefits of sobriety). I was doing it for my physical, mental and emotional wellbeing, and it was something I took very seriously.
“Saying that sobriety is a wellness trend for an alcoholic is like saying taking insulin is a wellness trend for a diabetic,” says Campbell. “Some people have the luxury of pursuing wellness: alcoholics and diabetics have to treat their disease or they will suffer horrific consequences and eventually die. Sobriety isn’t a trend: it’s a commitment to one’s emotional, physical and emotional health that allows for a daily reprieve from a disease that, if left untreated, could kill you.”
That’s not to say that wellness isn’t a part of recovery. “It definitely is,” says Campbell. “But alcoholics don’t have the luxury of pursuing wellness just because they want to feel better. Their very lives depend upon it.”
A version of this story was published September 2019.
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