Can Sobriety Be Both a Health Trend and a Matter of Life or Death?

Months ago I innocently tweeted: “I’m all down with the new sobriety/sober movement but please let’s not forget among the mocktails, the trendiness and the tees with cutesy slogans that for many of us, sobriety wasn’t a health trend, lifestyle choice or a socio-political statement but a matter of life and death.”

I got dozens of shares and “Amens!” and an equal amount of people coming after me with flaming pitchforks accusing me of “gatekeeping sobriety” or sarcastically consoling me that “sorry being sober wasn’t punk rock anymore.”

For those of you who aren’t familiar with the “New Sobriety,” it is a new trend to not drink, to be sober but not because you’re alcoholic necessarily. It was born out of “Dry January” and alcohol-free events with the precept of exploring your relationship with alcohol. It’s primarily intended for people in “grey area drinking,” not full blown alcoholics but people who might send some stupid texts, occasionally regret how much they drank, or not be as fully functional as they’d like the morning after.

If you want to take a break from drinking to see if you can be social without liquid courage or not be hung over for your 7 am spin class, I fully support that. And if you can stay stopped because of that, fantastic. I am not at all saying that you need to wrap your car around a pole or have your parents remortgage their house to send you to treatment half a dozen times before you realize that your life is infinitely better without getting loaded.  

But all the coverage of the New Sobriety in Time, New York Times, NPR, etc is missing an important piece of the story: if you CAN NOT do a full month without drinking or if your life gets exponentially better when you stop drinking… you might actually be an alcoholic. And sorry but there ain’t nothing trendy or cool about that. And “alcoholic” and “alcoholism”, the words that really need to be de-stigmatized, are being left out of this conversation and frankly, the whole movement.

I’ll be honest, when you’re an alcoholic this “New Sobriety” feels a bit like people choosing to be gluten-free because it reduces inflammation or whatever when you actually have to thanks to your Celiac disease.

Granted, I’m a recovering black out drunk and IV drug addict so a “Dry January” was pretty implausible unless I was locked up in a rehab or a psych ward. For us alcoholics, the idea of “moderation,” the myth that we can stop or start at will, is an ethereal dream that takes many of us out of recovery and keeps us experimenting over and over again till we hit rock bottom or die. 

I’ll be honest, when you’re an alcoholic this “New Sobriety” feels a bit like people choosing to be gluten-free because it reduces inflammation or whatever when you actually have to thanks to your Celiac disease. And the popularity of this idea that you can just CHOOSE not to drink undermines the current science that for many people there’s a genetic component to their alcoholism, an anomaly in the reward system of the brain that makes that choice…well, pretty much impossible.   

If sobriety being trendy makes 16 year olds think it’s cool to stay sober instead of getting wasted on the weekends, well, awesome. Will sobriety being “trendy” dissuade a real alcoholic in the throes of addiction? Not in my experience. Never in my drinking or using career did I think having a seizure from cocaine on an airplane was “cool” or drinking Four Loko at 9 am was “stylish”. Nor did I care. 

This new sobriety, a casual “checking out not drinking”, is a much easier pill to swallow than the extreme “you’re an alcoholic” with its eternal abstinence that many of us had to choke down.

Sober influencers behind this New Sobriety call not drinking “rebellious” and “radical” in a culture that basically centers around and worships alcohol. However the idea of being sober as a “fuck you” to the establishment is not new.  It has actually been around since the early 80’s when the Straight edge movement, a subculture of abstainers, emerged in the hardcore punk scene.

With this new movement, has come a new verbiage available for problem drinkers that wasn’t available for many of us when we got sober.  This new sobriety, a casual “checking out not drinking”, is a much easier pill to swallow than the extreme “you’re an alcoholic” with its eternal abstinence that many of us had to choke down.  It’s infinitely more appealing and could possibly sober up more people than Alcoholics Anonymous ever will. However I think it’s important that this movement not stigmatize the language and ways that many of us had to embrace in order to pull ourselves out of the mire of…ummm…overconsumption -- despite how wrong or antiquated they might seem to you now.

Chris Marshall, the creator of Sansbar  http://thesansbar.com/, an alcohol-free bar in Austin, with continual pop ups in St. Louis, Kansas City and Western Mass. has been in recovery for 12 years.  The inspiration to create an alcohol-free environment like Sansbar came from his work as an addiction counselor. He noticed clients struggling to find a safe place to socialize in early sobriety without booze aside from 12 step meetings and diners.  He’s thrilled that this new movement has taken off but told me on the phone, “My only gripe is that there are actual risks to abruptly stopping alcohol use and I wish we would talk more about that. Anyone detoxing from alcohol or benzodiazepines should seek medical support. It scares me that I don't see that advice more across the sobriety spectrum.”

Many of us started off as “grey area drinkers” only to find ourselves in the black a few years later

He’s right.  There are only two drugs from which withdrawal can actually kill you and booze is one of them.  If you’re a heavy drinker and you stop suddenly, you can have grand mal seizures and die. But nobody is talking about that.  They’re just talking about how much weight they lost or how much better their skin is or how they don’t go home with strangers anymore. And I get it, trends don’t like to look at the ugly parts and alcoholism is killing 88,000 people a year, a number even higher than the opioid epidemic.

One might argue this movement is not for “alcoholics”.  But many of us started off as “grey area drinkers” only to find ourselves in the black a few years later.  I’d argue that this movement has given us an international platform for discourse on the dangerous glamorization of drinking as well as the chance to smash the stigma surrounding alcohol abuse, addiction, sobriety AND recovery.  Let’s take this opportunity and make it inclusive, discussing the entire spectrum of alcohol use (or alcohol use disorder, as the case may be). As Marshall poignantly told me, “A movement is only as strong as its ability to include us all”.

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Amy Dresner is a journalist, author, and former comedian as well as a recovering addict and alcoholic. She has been a columnist for the addiction/recovery magazine theFix.com since 2012 and has freelanced for Addiction.com, Psychology Today, and many other publications. Her first book, “My Fair Junkie: A Memoir of Getting Dirty and Staying Clean,” was published by Hachette in 2017 to rave reviews from critics and readers alike, and is currently in development for a TV series.