The "New Sobriety"

Can it be both a health trend and a matter of life and death?

Posted Jan 27, 2020 | Reviewed by Ekua Hagan

Photo by Kobby Mendez on Unsplash
It's great that sober culture is taking hold but do people really understand the dire nature of alcoholism?
Source: Photo by Kobby Mendez on Unsplash

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 a person with substance use disorder 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 people with full-blown substance use disorder 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 hungover for your 7 a.m. 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 cannot do a full month without drinking or if your life gets exponentially better when you stop drinking… you might actually be a person with substance use disorder. 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.

Granted, I’m a recovering blackout 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 those of us with substance use disorder, 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 a person with a substance use disorder, 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 person with real substance use disorder 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 a.m. was “stylish.” Nor did I care.

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 “f*ck you” to the establishment is not new. It has actually been around since the early '80s 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 a person with substance use disorder” 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, an alcohol-free bar in Austin with continual pop-ups in St. Louis, Kansas City, and western Massachusetts, 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 dinners. 

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.”

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 people with substance use disorder. 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."

This article originally appeared on October 1, 2019 in Workithealth.