Sobriety is kind of having a moment right now. In recent years, the New York Times published a piece about "the new sobriety," declaring that more people are taking a break from alcohol because they believe it's healthier, not just because they have a problem with alcohol.
To be fair, this isn't exactly a brand new concept. In late 2018, author Ruby Warrington came out with a book called Sober Curious. The thesis is to dispel myths about sobriety, as well as serve as a handbook for someone who wants to change their relationship with alcohol. More products have come out in the past year that allow people to wade in the waters of sobriety for the first time — or, at the very least, think about their drinking habits. Booze-free mocktail bars, such as Redemption thrive. Sober Instagram influencers amass thousands of followers. There are even dating apps specifically for sober young people to meet.
Statistically speaking, we might need a sober shift now more than ever. A new report by King's College London published in the Addiction Journal suggests that one in five people in the UK hospital system "uses alcohol harmfully, and one in ten is "alcohol dependent". The review, which looked over 124 studies covering 1,657,614 participants in the UK alone also found that harmful alcohol use is most prevalent in mental health units and alcohol dependence is found most commonly in patients attending accident and emergency departments.
Lead researcher Dr Emmert Roberts from the Institute of Psychiatry, Psychology & Neuroscience at King's College London said, "Many doctors are aware that alcohol-related conditions are common amongst hospital inpatients, but our results suggest the problem is much bigger than anecdotally assumed."
Drinking less, and encouraging people to explore sobriety, is definitely a net positive. But some people in the sober community, such as Holly Glenn Whitaker, founder and CEO of Tempest, an online sobriety school, argue that framing and marketing sobriety as a trend or fancy new product may do more harm than good.
Co-opting the pretty parts of sobriety completely strips it of all meaning.
"Sobriety was not built on a consumerist ideal," Whitaker says. In many ways, sobriety is a rebellious act, because it rejects the mainstream cultural norm that suggests you have to drink alcohol in order to fit in, she adds. For lots of sober individuals or those in recovery, the choice to stop drinking comes at a cost. They may have done so at the risk of losing their jobs, harming their reputations, or affecting their places in society, she says. "Co-opting the pretty parts of sobriety completely strips it of all meaning," she says. On Instagram, Beth Holden, the 21-year-old who runs the blog Sober Bitch, echoed this sentiment. "Sobriety is not a trend, but a way of breaking the trend," she wrote in an Instagram caption responding to the New York Times piece.
To be clear: it's great that people are being more vocal about their sobriety journeys, says Carter Barnhart, Chief Experience Officer at Newport Academy, an adolescent treatment centre for mental health issues, eating disorders, and substance abuse. "People in recovery used to gather in church basements and were secretive about their recovery process and ashamed of what they were going through," she says. An increase of acceptance and normalisation of sobriety helps remove some of the stigma around alcoholism and addiction in general, she says. "And that's very exciting to me," she adds.
That said, there's concern that throwing around the terms "sober curious" blurs the line around what really constitutes things like alcohol use disorder and sobriety, Barnhart says. For context, "alcohol use disorder" is defined in the DSM-5 as "a chronic relapsing brain disease characterised by compulsive alcohol use, loss of control over alcohol intake, and a negative emotional state when not using." When someone is in "recovery," it typically means they're in the process of addressing the root causes that underlie alcohol or drug addiction. "Sobriety" or "being sober" on the other hand, is used to describe the state of not drinking, for a short period of time or as part of someone's lifestyle. So, you can't be in recovery without being sober, but you can be sober without being "in recovery."
Staying sober is not a game or a lark. It's literally their life at stake.
These distinctions are important, especially as more people adopt a sober lifestyle. Some fear that introducing terms like "sober curious" into the mainstream lexicon means "individuals and society may begin to underplay the serious and life-threatening nature of alcohol abuse and alcoholism," Barnhart argues. "Which, for most people in recovery, means that taking even one drink is dangerous." Sanam Hafeez, PsyD, a neuropsychologist in New York City and Columbia University faculty member, is hopeful that this movement won't trivialise alcoholism, but perhaps make it more socially acceptable not to drink, and potentially start a conversation about the realities of the disease. "Staying sober is not a game or a lark," she says. "It's literally their life at stake."
Basically, there needs to be a clearer definition of what the sober curious movement really is, Dr. Hafeez says. Some people understand it as eliminating alcohol for health, sleep, and wellness reasons. Others may interpret it as being sober sometimes, but drinking occasionally. "By being 'sober curious' it gives people a chance to test the waters without feeling the burden of labelling themselves as an alcoholic," she says. MJ Gottlieb, the CEO and founder of Loosid, an app aimed at connecting sober people, argues that anyone who's in recovery has been "sober curious" before. "We need to show people what it looks like on the other side," he says. By taking on an "all or nothing" attitude, however, sober curious people might feel completely boxed out of sobriety, Gottlieb adds. And that obviously is not the goal.
In truth, you don't need to be addicted to alcohol in order to re-examine your relationship to alcohol. But "getting sober" and "drinking less" are two different things that require different approaches. For an individual who is addicted to alcohol, treatment is essential in order to have the best chance of a successful and safe recovery, Barnhart says. And anything that increases the conversation around addiction and alcohol use disorders is positive. That said, being addicted to alcohol and wanting to drink less aren't the same thing, and the two shouldn't be held in the same regard.
If you are struggling with substance abuse, please call the Alcohol & Drug Support line on 1800 198 024 or (08) 9442 5000 for confidential advice. Lines are open 24 hours a day.