When I first stopped drinking, I studiously avoided discussing my sobriety at work or at social events.
Quitting alcohol has been fantastic for me – but I avoided telling people, for fear of being thought boring. I was scared that I wouldn’t be able to dance anymore, to have sex with the lights on, or do any number of the little things that make life worth living. Friends have expressed similar reservations. Many want to change their relationship to alcohol, but they recoil at the prospect of self-flagellating, before submitting to a joyless life.
When AA was founded in 1935 there was no provision for women, let alone women of colour. The universal efficacy of methods drawn from the experiences of white men, with limited scientific backing, have long been called into question, but until recently alternatives have been hard to find.
The AA vision of sobriety couldn’t have been further from the truth for me. Sobriety isn’t about sacrifice – the lucidity I’m able to bring to my important moments now intensifies their brightness and hue. I discovered sobriety because I found something that was too important to do while numb.
That choice has radiated out – steering me into alignment with the things I care about the most; my politics, health and work. When I finally started discussing my choice not to drink I realised I was far from alone. An increasing variety of people are looking to sobriety as a tool for both personal and social transformation. It’s no coincidence that a lot of the exciting change around the language of alcohol consumption is coming from people embedded in broader liberation movements. They’re young, queer, feminist, disabled, Indigenous and absolutely anything but boring.
Often, discussions of alcohol misuse focus on the dire consequences of addiction, and that’s understandable. The number of women in the US dying from alcohol-related causes has risen 85% in the past 20 years. While alcohol addiction is real and profoundly harmful, the “rock bottom” narrative that often accompanies these stories didn’t resonate with me.
It was nothing short of electrifying to realise that I wasn’t alone in struggling with alcohol, but not feeling “sick enough” to get help. For generations, we’ve been forced to either keep drinking, even though we’re no longer comfortable with it, tough it out alone, or seek treatment that labels us as pathologically dysfunctional.
Thankfully the conversation has evolved and we understand that you can be successful, functional and burdened by addiction – and that for others, not drinking is not about “I can’t”, but “I prefer not to” or sometimes, “I prefer something else”.
Sobriety doesn’t have to mean dwelling in shame and grief. Instead, it can be part of challenging any social norm that does not serve a person, or their community.
Last year, I joined Tempest, a group that focuses on the stressors that prompt drinking. In an interview with The Guardian, its founder Holly Whitaker explained they “assume our clients need to be built up, that they need love over punishment, that they need to learn how to exist within their bodies and feel safe within this world. It’s a feminine-centric system, but men do very well in our programme.”
Whitaker’s work stresses the links between alcohol and patriarchy, and treats the things that might drive women and those from marginalised groups to drink as a societal problem, not as a “you” problem.
Tempest is one of many groups offering refreshingly different approaches. Tellingly, these collectives are not just for the sober, but the “sober curious” – they are open to people who are still drinking, and emphasise the importance of agency and choice.
I’m now a member of Served Up Sober too, a support group for women of colour. The group’s founder, Shari Hampton, created Served Up Sober because she saw that alternative therapies had become increasingly prominent in treating narcotics addiction and were demonstrated to be highly effective, spreading into the field of alcohol treatment too.
Hampton explains that she was a beneficiary of that process. “A family friend that was a retired psychiatrist healed me using all forms of healing modalities,” she says. “I’m very aware that had I not had the connection to Dr Grier I wouldn’t have had access to those types of opportunities.” She started the group to address that gap in approach – she wanted to make those holistic tools more available to women of colour who are “sober or sober curious”.
Australian organisation Hello Sunday Morning takes a similarly flexible approach. Spokesman Roger Falconer-Flint explains: “We don’t think there’s one size fits all … people need to find their own sweet spot for their relationship with alcohol and pursue that.” Their Daybreak app uses health coaches and peer support to promote behavioural change. Though the majority of the app’s users are working on sobriety, a significant number are there to work on moderation. All are welcome and supported in their community.
These days, social justice is mentioned as frequently as wellness when friends contact me to talk through their reservations about the role alcohol plays in their lives. That has also been the case for Clinton Schultz, a proud Gamilaroi man and psychologist. He tells me he stopped drinking after it became impossible to reconcile with his values.
But, he faced challenges. “I didn’t really appreciate being treated like a child when I requested a non-alcoholic beverage,” he says. So, he co-founded a non-alcoholic craft beer company, Sobah. He couldn’t understand why skipping alcohol had to mean missing out on the joys of sharing a beer with friends and explains that “Sobah is leading a conversation surrounding Australian societal issues with alcohol consumption and breaking down the stigma of socialising sober.”
The company is a social enterprise that funds programs providing culturally responsive services to community. On 26 July they’ll be part of the first Flow Festival, an alcohol-free virtual beer festival. For Clinton the outlook is overwhelmingly positive. “The whole non-alcoholic sector is growing exponentially at the moment. There’s more options for anybody choosing to not drink, at any time for any reason, which was always our mission, so that’s great.”
For some non-drinkers, those options don’t just extend to craft beer festivals. When California legalised recreational marijuana in 2016 it gave rise to the ‘Cali-sober’ movement: those who avoid alcohol but still wish for the occasional high.
Brandon Andrew loved alcohol, and says “I have stories for days, whether or not I’m proud of them …” That ended when he was diagnosed with eye cancer. His life-saving treatment came with strict orders to avoid alcohol. He became Cali-sober and co-founded a stylish alcohol-free, THC infused drink company, Calexo. The popularity of the movement has shown that for some, sobriety doesn’t mean staying “sober” in the traditional sense of the word.
Choosing sobriety has become an accessible form of liberation for me, and it has become an important stepping stone to others. Hampton puts it well: “Instead of being powerless they can be powerful. That’s a new approach to sobriety, it’s the powerful piece of you. The bigness of you, not the smallness.”