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Reid K Hester Ph.D.

The New Sober Is a Lot Like the Original Sober

The original meaning of sober has been hijacked for some time. That’s changing.

Ash Pollard/Shutterstock
Source: Ash Pollard/Shutterstock

A recent article in the New York Times discusses the “new sobriety” that many young people are pursuing. No, this is not the sobriety that AA talks about — lifelong abstinence even if one day at a time.

No, it’s becoming chic. And celebrated. How’s that for a bit of good news? The “New Abstainers” are open about it and celebrate being free from hooch. What is liberating is that these folks see alcohol problems on a spectrum rather than as a yes/no question. And that’s actually an accurate reflection of reality. Alcohol problems lie on a continuum like hypertension. You can have a little high blood pressure, or you can have high blood pressure that kills you or results in a stroke.

The shift to seeing alcohol problems on a spectrum has numerous good things going for it. It makes it easier for folks who are experiencing a few consequences — hangovers, sleep disruption — to acknowledge them and decide to make a change. And any change that results in having fewer alcohol-related problems is a decision to be celebrated. It moves away from the judgmental position that results in the question, Do you have a problem (or not)?

And the new sobriety can include drinking a little, just without intoxication. Which is the original definition of sobriety or being sober: the lack of intoxication. (Google it if you don’t believe me.)

This does not mean that people who’ve had serious issues with alcohol can or even should consider drinking moderately. Years of clinical research clearly shows that the more significant a person’s drinking problem has been, the less likely he or she is to be successful with drinking but not to intoxication, which happens to be the definition of moderate drinking. If you’ve had significant alcohol problems in your life and you’ve become sober, in the AA definition of the term, this new sobriety remains something to celebrate even while you yourself continue to not drink at all.

Expanding the opportunities for people to get together and enjoy themselves and each other’s company is a win-win for everyone.


The New Sobriety Everyone’s sober now. Even if … they drink a little?


About the Author

Reid K. Hester, Ph.D., is the Director of Research at CheckUp & Choices, a digital health company that helps reduce alcohol and drug misuse, and a professor of psychology at the University of New Mexico.