What's The Deal with "Sober Curious"?

Sometime near the end of my drinking in 2014, I was riding the T to work in Boston one morning, hungover from both alcohol and self-hatred.

I had The National blasting in my ears as my body swayed with all the other hot, cranky bodies jammed into the Red Line car headed toward the Financial District, and I was typing something into Instagram to try and metabolize the fact that I drank yet again. You know, turn it into a lesson. Strengthen my resolve. Fight this thing that had me by the throat with some words. 

It sounds silly, but words were my little-big army then. Instagram posts, blog posts, notes in my phone app, chapter and essay ideas, and I don’t-even-know-what written out on index cards everywhere. I was fighting a war with all those words, trying to organize and align and comprehend, to gather enough momentum to keep fighting the good fight—the fight to stay sober for good—and hopefully, to win.

My stop came too soon and I wasn’t done writing the caption on my post, so I pulled over and leaned against the tile wall until I finished. By the time I did, another train had pulled in; another herd was exiting. I joined them and we moved en masse up the stairs. When I reached the open air, I had the impulse to scream. A big, long, raging howl. Yes, I was sad and frustrated as hell with myself and so hungover. I had to make it through an entire day at work and then do the mom routine, too. But more than anything, I was pissed.

What I wanted to scream was, WHY AREN’T WE TALKING ABOUT THIS!!!!!??

I’d been going to AA meetings for the better part of a year and had met wonderful people and found a lot of comfort there. I’d met some others online through Instagram and Facebook and the writing I’d started to share on my blog—many who became dear friends I lean on still. I’d read every addiction memoir in the world.

But in my daily life? At work, at home, and inside my closest family and friend circles?

Everyone drank.

It was and had always been the norm. We were children of the ‘80s whose parents hailed from the era of Mad Men. Sobriety was for people with A Problem, and it was handled elsewhere. Quietly. Without ruining the party.

I knew something was really messed up and not just because I couldn’t drink anymore. There was something troubling about the secrecy and shame and other-ness of the whole thing; our widespread, romantic love affair with alcohol was grotesque. It wasn’t just that I had A Problem—which, I did—but we collectively had one, too. As much as I appreciated AA, anonymity seemed ridiculous, at least for me. The lexicon and expectations of what recovery was or wasn’t felt like a too-small box. I could go to a church basement and find proof of life in sobriety, but not elsewhere.

What the fuck. Why not?

Things have changed. 

It’s been a slowly rising tide over the past five years and the wave seems to have broken big time as of late.

In the past couple of months alone, I’ve seen sobriety—or more accurately, sober curiosity—splashed all over major media outlets:

There’s been quite a lot of coverage on the millennial generation being less interested in alcohol overall. “A recent Atlantic article found that while there are limited statistics to quantify the decrease in millennial drinking, there is a developing cultural shift wherein social lives aren’t as alcohol-centric as they once were.” Ruby Warrington’s book, Sober Curious, is causing a big stir, as are groups like Sans Bar started by Chris Marshall.

Brene Brown basically broke the internet in May when she wrote about her 23 year sobriety anniversary. She said, “I celebrated 23 years sober this month – May 12 to be exact. About a year ago, I was talking to a dear friend who was newly sober, and our conversation shifted something in me. For the first time in my life, I realized that my sobriety isn’t a limitation. Sobriety isn’t even a “have to” – it’s a superpower.” When I read that I thought, Why now, after 23 years? I can’t help but think it’s got something to do with far more people talking far more openly and differently about this stuff now. She herself found, "If you put shame in a Petri dish, it needs three things to grow exponentially: secrecy, silence, and judgment. If you put the same amount of shame in a Petri dish and douse it with empathy, it can’t survive.”

What used to be a small, mostly 12-step centered recovery community on Instagram is now much bigger and broader and, well, shinier. The hashtags alone speak for themselves. Some of the top ones are: #soberissexy, #soberaf, #sobermovement, and #sobercurious. There are a bazillion new accounts showing up all the time, tons of podcasts, sobriety programs like Tempest started by my friend Holly, and people actually calling themselves Recovery Influencers, with pride. Who knew that would be a thing.

On the whole, this is good.

More people talking about not drinking means the conversation bar is lowered. Media companies, lifestyle brands, and restaurants and bars getting on board means there’s more social proof of people not drinking as a cool thing, instead of the opposite. (If I never see another Namaste and Rosé yoga class again, or a meme like this, or this, or a shelf stalked with wines like this, it’ll be too soon.)

When I think about the idea that my daughter might grow up in a world where not drinking is as mainstream a choice as eating Paleo or joining CrossFit; if she could go on a date, or out to dinner with her friends, or out to a happy hour with co-workers and not have to explain not ordering alcohol, then halle-fucking-lujah.

I see almost* nothing but good coming from more people questioning drinking, experimenting with not drinking, talking about sobriety, even if only as a curiosity. Because alcohol kills more people in the United States every year than cocaine, meth, and heroin combined. The Opioid Crisis has largely clouded our perception of what drug we’re really in a war against, but if you look at the numbers there’s no question at all.

Alcohol and drugs are of course but a symptom, though. There’s the cultural and societal issue of alcohol itself as a glorified drug and there are the reasons people self-medicate to begin with. The latter is a much bigger mountain to climb. Sobriety becoming a more socially acceptable way to live (or alcohol becoming less cool) might backdoor people into soul-level exploration, or it may just mean there are more restaurants that serve awesome mocktails and fewer people acting like idiots at your 4th of July party. Either way, we’re headed in a better direction.

*Here’s the rub.

For the people who are out there looking at the #sobrietyissexy feed and feeling like they must be doing something wrong because nothing about how they feel is #sexy or #gratefulAF or #blessed, know this:

You’re not doing it wrong.

Getting sober was the hardest thing I have ever done by a million, trillion miles.

For me, it wasn’t a political statement, an act of feminism, a lifestyle choice, or a business opportunity. I was just trying not to die. It was scary and it was raw and it was heartbreaking and humbling and it took a long, long time for me to feel really grateful for it. As in years. Not a couple weeks, or a few months. I was angry, sad as hell, uncomfortable, and frustrated. And it’s still something I have to work at every day. Not the drinking part, but the living part. You guys, I have to do so much work every day just to stay on the better side of middle. And so do most of the other interesting people I know. Because the more awake you are, the more you feel the way life scrapes at you. (And, the more you feel its gobsmacking beauty, too.)

Which is why getting sober is also the BEST thing I’ve ever done by a million, trillion miles.

There is a direct correlation between those two things: the difficulty, and the reward. Nothing worth having ever comes easy, not ever. Remember that if you’re in the shit of things. If that’s where you are: stay. Don’t get to thinking you missed the rainbow or that you should feel more #grateful or #blessed right now.

It’s great more people are talking about this because, frankly, alcohol is stupid. It was time for a change in the dominant paradigm of how we talk about sobriety. But not drinking and a cool IG feed isn’t a light switch to a better life—it takes a hell of a lot more than that.

If it’s hard for you, then good. It’s supposed to be. This is your big invitation and you’re doing the damn thing.

A few people have asked me if I think it’s dangerous that someone who really needs to get sober might see all this talk about “sober curious” and take it as a permission slip to keep experimenting with moderation. My answer: if you’re someone who’s making those kinds of bargains with yourself, you’re already in danger. That’s addiction. And there’s no way to outrun the eventual outcome: you will need to stop if you want to live. So is it dangerous that more people are talking about this stuff? No. The danger was already there. Keep talking. Please, keep talking.

I root for you. I root for us all. Sober curious, sober serious, and everyone in between.


Photo by Emily Morter on Unsplash

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