Introducing Fancy Another? – a weeklong series of what young women's drinking culture in the UK looks like in 2022, with zero percent judgement.
Half a decade ago, when Rachel Brady went out drinking with her friends, she had no idea if she’d stop after one drink or if "it would lead to a blackout". More often than she liked, Rachel experienced the latter – she drank copiously to "numb" the pain of past traumas and to assuage her social anxiety. "For a long time, even though I knew that drinking was not great for my life, it felt like that was the only way to unwind or just kind of escape," the 29-year-old writer says over the phone from her Cambridge home. Towards the end, she didn’t even find drinking fun. "You don’t enjoy it – it almost feels as though you have no other choice."
Rachel has been sober for three and a half years now and sharing recovery content on her Instagram account ShotsToShakes since 2016. In November 2019 she downloaded a new app on a "midnight whim" and created a TikTok account "at that weird point where it was still sort of cringe". Since then, she’s accumulated more than 95,000 followers and 3.2 million likes on her account, which shares the same name as her Instagram. While the latter features brightly coloured infographics with titles like "gentle reminder", Rachel uses TikTok to share skits about sobriety which are soundtracked by everything from SpongeBob SquarePants clips to Kesha songs.
@shotstoshakes Aaaaaand that’s how I ended up getting help 😬 #recovery #sober #fyp #foryoupage #mentalhealthawareness #wintersports ♬ original sound - Rebecca Wilhoit
The hashtags #sober and #sobriety have 2.2 billion and 886 million views on TikTok respectively. The most popular videos range from candid flashbacks of the most difficult time in an addicted person’s life to the sketches, dances and lip-syncs popular under any hashtag on the app. Comment sections reveal that TikTok is a powerful space for the discussion of sobriety and alcoholism, providing a place for people to share and seek support.
"I saw a TikTok on relapse dreams, just a funny little thing about it, and all the comments were like, 'Oh my God, I thought I was the only one that had these, thank you for normalising this'," says Rachel.
In comparison to Instagram, Rachel says TikTok is "more spontaneous", allowing her to "incorporate some more humour and more personality" into her sobriety content. "Finding the humour in it is really important because recovery can be really serious and solemn… Being able to laugh at yourself is super important if you want to have long-term sustainability." Because videos on TikTok can rapidly go viral, Rachel says some people who find her content aren’t seeking out sobriety videos at all, meaning the app can potentially change attitudes to alcohol more broadly. "I think a lot of people, especially in the younger generation, are starting to realise that they can decide [whether they really want to drink]," she adds.
Finding the humour in it is really important because recovery can be really serious and solemn.
According to a 2018 report by academics at the University of Sheffield, there was a "sharp decline" in youth drinking in England between 2002 and 2016, while a 2018 survey from Berenberg Research found that Gen Z Americans drink less than the generations before them. TikTok might not have caused this turn to sobriety but it can reinforce it by normalising not drinking and destroying stereotypes of what alcoholism looks like. Crissy Rodriguez, a 32-year-old from Texas who works in sales, has 75,000 TikTok followers on her account dedicated to sobriety. "We’ve always painted this picture in our heads that this is what addiction looks like, that it’s black and white," says Crissy, whose grandfather died of alcoholism. TikTok, she says, helps show "it’s really not" that simple.
Crissy has been sober for just over a year. She did Dry January in 2021 after noticing that she was drinking "a bottle or two" of wine every single night to cope with the stresses of work. "My relationship with alcohol was like a constant debt I couldn’t pay back. I was anxious and depressed all the time so I’d get drunk but then the next day I’d have all these hangover feelings that make me more anxious and more depressed," she says. Like many people, she hoped she could "figure a way out of it and still drink". She extended her Dry January month by month but wasn’t sure she’d stay sober forever. Then she started sharing TikToks about sobriety in the summer, a move that reinforced her decision to stay away from alcohol.
@imcrissyrodriguez “When you numb the good, you numb the bad too” -Brené Brown #sober #sobertiktok #sobriety #sobrietytiktok #soberlife #sobertok #sobermom #fyp #soberaf ♬ tbtrack - Maylene
"Once the posts started going viral, it instantly became this community of people," Crissy says. In her day-to-day life, if she tried to relate to others about her problems with drinking, they’d say: "That doesn’t happen to me." Online, she was suddenly surrounded by like-minded people. She describes TikTok as "interactive" as she is able to make videos responding to specific comments that people leave; she has a conversational, educational tone. In one video with a million views posted in June, she explains the function of the liver in 59 seconds. The comment section is full of requests for further videos, from "I’ve been feeling so anxious after I drink lately can you do a video about that plz" to "Do you know how alcohol affects the brain? Like long term of if you drink too much."
In less than half a year, Crissy went from having a few thousand TikTok followers to the near 100,000 she has today. "Everyone drinks, so when you talk about sobriety you don’t really think anyone wants to listen," she says – but her rapid growth showed that sobriety "very clearly was something that people were interested in".
Still, not everyone’s ready for this kind of content. One commenter on the liver video simply wrote: "Thanks now I feel like an alcoholic." While #sober has 2.2 billion views on TikTok, #alcohol has 6.2 billion. Although it’s not as simple as all of the former videos being anti-alcohol and all of the latter being pro (some tongue-in-cheek content about drinking can be found under #sober), the celebration of alcohol is nowhere close to disappearing.
Both Rachel and Crissy say they have dealt with hateful, negative comments on their TikTok accounts. "People will say: 'You’re sober now so you just want to make other people’s lives miserable,'" says Crissy – she’s even been accused of making up some of the facts she shares about how alcohol affects the body. Rachel says she has to be "resilient" and her block list is "a mile long" in order to protect both herself and her followers from people who claim that addiction is a choice or that sobriety shouldn’t be shared publicly.
Despite this negativity, both creators believe that the stigma around sobriety and alcoholism is shifting, thanks to TikTok. "You can just interact with people really well, and if I’m struggling, I have no shame in being able to tell [TikTok] that," Crissy says. Rachel says she was less nervous sharing her sobriety journey with strangers than with people she knows in real life. "There is something almost cathartic about being vulnerable online, with faith that it’ll reach the people it will resonate with… One important lesson I’ve learned throughout recovery is that authenticity is the antidote to shame."
Victoria Burns is an assistant professor of social work at the University of Calgary who has been nicknamed The Sober Professor thanks to her research in this area as well as her own nine-year sobriety. Victoria says the internet has greatly reduced the stigma around being sober. Ten years ago, sobriety "influencers" were "largely people we met 'underground' in face-to-face recovery spaces, and authors of addiction books we hid on our bookshelves".
Victoria says the introduction of concepts such as "sober curious" has also broadened the conversation around addiction and given people "permission" to explore "grey area" drinking. She also notes that the internet has provided more equitable access to resources: minus the cost of getting online in the first place, much of what can be found in the sober space is free.
We have a culture around drinking that sets people up for failure. I feel like we are giving people the freedom and the space to say: 'Nope, I just want to be sober.'
"We know from the research that having sober role models helps reduce stigma," Victoria says. "Having more people come out of the 'closet' and speak openly has helped create safety to open up the space for many to come forward and seek help. This is important because openness leads to greater understandings of addiction and recovery, thus helping to combat stigma, shame and secrecy, which drives problematic substance use."
Of course, the TikTok sobriety space isn’t some kind of panacea. Victoria notes that recovery influencers are predominantly white and that marginalised people may struggle to find role models to relate to. She also says that clickbait posts featuring extreme before and after photos can potentially hinder recovery. "A 2011 study from the University of Illinois found that shows such as Intervention and Celebrity Rehab, that show extreme cases, may deter some viewers from seeking help," she explains. "We can say to ourselves: 'I’m not that bad, I don’t look as bad as that person, I must not have a problem.'" She notes that people can and should seek out multiple sources of information – as well as TikTok videos, podcasts can provide longer form, nuanced information about addiction and recovery.
Sober TikTokers themselves have also spotted troubling trends. Crissy worries when people state their opinion as fact or act like there’s a one-size-fits-all version of sobriety. Rachel sometimes needs to take a step back from creating videos and keep parts of her journey private but still feels a "pressure to share everything". She worries that some people may feel the need to overshare in order to remain relevant and is concerned about certain creators being put on a pedestal, meaning followers forget they’re human beings too.
"It’s not a clean before and after, there are so many messy middles," Rachel says of recovery. This, at least, is something TikTok helps to show, in video after video, time after time. Crissy is motivated to continue making videos to further reduce the shame around alcoholism, and shift attitudes to drink in general. "I feel like it’s something that a lot of people are starting to notice, that we have a culture around drinking in a way that sets people up for failure," she says. "I feel like we are giving people the freedom and the space to say: 'Nope, I just want to be sober.'"