What’s Behind the Elective-Sobriety Trend
Why people are giving up drinking, even when they don’t have a problem
On a warmer-than-average Thursday evening in February, 40 women gathered in Philadelphia’s industrial-chic Front Street Cafe for happy hour — but instead of ordering rosé or craft beer, they sipped artisanal mocktails and locally brewed kombucha. Billed as an event for “sober, sober-sometimes, or sober-curious women,” the first 15 minutes or so were stilted. People were nervous, conversations got stuck in small talk mode, and nobody could order a round of shots to fast-track things to insta-party. But before too long, the room was buzzing with conversation and laughter. And yet, nobody was getting buzzed. “I used to think I lost my social anxiety after I had the first drink,” says Joy Manning, one of the party’s co-hosts. “Now I realize, the first 15 minutes of anything is just awkward. Once I adjust to the environment and start chatting with someone, I relax. And it’s amazing to see that happen across a whole room of people who aren’t drinking. We’ve been giving alcohol a power it doesn’t really have.”
Manning, who is also a writer and the deputy editor of Edible Communities, runs the Instagram feed @betterwithoutbooze and has been sober since embarking on a Dry January experiment in 2017. “I was mostly a picture-perfect moderate drinker before that,” she says. “But I have alcoholism in my family, and I didn’t like how much work it was to stay in the moderate camp. It took a lot of mental energy and deprivation.” She would start obsessing as soon as she got to a restaurant: “If there was a wait for the table, everyone would want to get a drink at the bar. So do I get water at the bar so I can have wine with dinner? Or a cocktail now, but then everyone will think it’s weird if I don’t drink at the table? I didn’t even realize how exhausting that mental chatter was until I stopped.”
When her sister asked her to join her in not drinking for a month, Manning agreed, but saw it mostly as a way to be supportive. Midway through, she went out to dinner with friends, decided she’d shown enough restraint, and ordered two glasses of wine. She woke up in the middle of the night with her mouth dry and her heart pounding. “I thought, this is dumb and I’m never feeling like this again,” Manning recalls. She stayed sober the rest of the month, but it didn’t feel like deprivation. “It was a gift, a relief.” When February 1 arrived, she saw no reason to start drinking again, and more than two years in, she’s stayed the course. “At this point, it just seems much easier not to drink.”
That’s partly because Manning has been able to cultivate a large network of sober friends, both on what’s known as “sober Instagram” and in real life. She began co-hosting Sober Ladies Happy Hours in 2018 with her friend Annie Baum-Stein, owner of Philadelphia’s Milk & Honey Market, who posts her favorite nonalcoholic drink recipes on Instagram at @henstails. They say their events attract “the full spectrum” of nondrinkers. “We definitely have people who strongly identify as alcoholics in recovery and are doing the whole 12-step lifestyle. But there are also people who just want to embrace an alcohol-free life and see that as a positive upgrade,” Manning explains. “And then there are people who do drink, but are just sick of every event revolving around alcohol.”
Around the country, and especially in certain hipster-ish social circles, sobriety is getting rebranded. Ruby Warrington, author of the popular new book Sober Curious, hosts an alcohol-free event series in New York City called Club SÖDA NYC. Daybreaker’s early morning no-booze dance parties now happen in 25 cities around the world. Online, self-styled sobriety coaches including Holly Whitaker of Hip Sobriety and Annie Grace of This Naked Mind offer multi-week programs to help their followers go alcohol-free. Hello Sunday Morning, which calls itself the world’s “largest online movement for alcohol behavior change,” now boasts 110,000 members. And interest in more informal sobriety experiments — Dry January, Sober October, One Year No Beer — has reached a new peak, with Google Trends reporting that the number of searches for “Dry January” in January 2019 was nearly double what it was two years ago. “I think there are more and more people who are saying, ‘Hold on, I’m concerned about my drinking and I would love a way to work on that where I don’t have to explain it all to people,’” says Jessica Lahey, author of The Gift of Failure and a forthcoming book on addiction in kids. “That’s what these sobriety experiments can be.”
“We’re finding a lot of unhealthy patterning buried within that ‘moderate-drinking’ group.”
“Concerned about my drinking” isn’t always code for “alcoholic.” Some 63% of U.S. adults still drink, reports a recent Gallup Poll, a figure that has remained relatively steady over the last two decades. Yet a much smaller percentage have what experts call “alcohol use disorder,” with the latest figures varying between 6.2% and 14% of the population. So, many folks not drinking don’t see themselves as addicted — they’re abstaining for other reasons. And a cottage industry of sobriety gurus has arrived with books, workshops and online courses on offer. Is this just wellness culture in overdrive? Or is the U.S. starting to change its relationship with booze?
For the most part, alcohol addiction experts welcome the sobriety experiment trend. “It can rarely hurt to take a break from anything you do habitually, just to see,” says Lisa DuBreuil, a social worker with a focus on addiction and eating disorder patients at Massachusetts General Hospital in Boston. “Alcohol affects our mood, impacts our cognitive function, and has a big impact on our body. So it can be a very good thing, as long as you’re approaching this with a sense of curiosity and asking, ‘What would I feel like, after a few weeks?’”
Sharon Wilsnack, PhD, a professor of psychiatry at the University of North Dakota who studies substance abuse in women, supports sobriety experiments because they let people assess their relationship with drinking without needing to seek expensive or difficult-to-access treatment. She advises journaling during the month to track your response to sobriety. “If you can be in a situation where you’d regularly drink and maybe you have a fleeting feeling of discomfort, but then you get a soda and it’s not that big a deal, then you probably don’t have a problem,” she says. “But if you’re feeling very, very uncomfortable, to the point where you can’t stay in the situation or you do break down and get the drink, then that’s telling you something different.”
Moderate or low-risk drinking is defined as no more than three drinks in a single day or seven per week for women, and no more than four drinks per day or 14 per week for men, according to the National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism. Sixty-four percent of people keep their drinking to that level, according to the most recent data. But statistics don’t tell the whole story. “We’re finding a lot of unhealthy patterning buried within that ‘moderate-drinking’ group,” says Timothy Naimi, MD, who studies the health impacts of alcohol as a professor at the Boston University Schools of Medicine and Public Health. “Folks are having one drink three days a week and four drinks on two days. Twenty percent of Americans report at least one episode of binge drinking within the past month.” The National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism defines binge drinking as roughly four or more drinks for women and five or more for men, in a two-hour period. Says Naimi: “I think many of us now recognize that alcohol consumption exists on a continuum and a lot of us are consuming alcohol to excess on a regular basis.”
Scientists don’t have a good way to predict who in that “moderate with occasional bingeing” group will develop a full-blown addiction. There is evidence that genetics and biology interplay with environmental factors like socioeconomic status to make some people more prone to alcohol abuse than others. But there is also strong evidence that most of the people who drink that way will not ratchet up to the level of the 13% of Americans who are considered high-risk drinkers, let alone those who meet criteria for an addiction diagnosis.
“I wasn’t saying ‘I can’t have it anymore.’ I was giving myself the opportunity not to have it — because I really didn’t feel like it.”
“There is such a thing as occasional, pleasurable, no-big-deal, not-dependent, just-enjoys-it drinkers,” says Wilsnack. “Sobriety experiments could cause those folks to overthink or even pathologize something that isn’t a problem for them.” On the other hand, she says, you can’t know for sure that you’re in that camp unless you try sobriety and find you can handle it. Wilsnack also notes that some studies on a “controlled drinking” treatment model suggest that even among problem drinkers, there is a minority who may do just as well, if not better, with a moderation approach to alcohol rather than true sobriety.
Those moderate drinkers who are not at risk for addiction may benefit from a sobriety experiment in other ways: “The negative changes in mood and functionality that can come with alcohol arrive incrementally,” DuBreuil says. “It’s like a tide coming in; you don’t notice it until your beach towel is already wet. And sometimes it isn’t until you take that complete break from alcohol that you’re able to see its impact.”
Glenys Oyston, a dietitian in Los Angeles, found that to be true. She and her partner spent last December enjoying a bottle of wine with dinner almost every night and by January 1, she was over it. “I wasn’t saying ‘I can’t have it anymore.’ I was giving myself the opportunity not to have it — because I really didn’t feel like it,” she says. Oyston wasn’t a purist; she had a drink on her birthday and another when a friend invited her out for the night. But she enjoyed the monthlong break because, she says, it reaffirmed that she does find joy in having a glass of wine with a nice dinner. “But I enjoy it much more if it’s just a Friday or Saturday night kind of thing.”
As an addiction therapist who also works with eating disorder patients, DuBreuil does have one big concern about sobriety experiments: that they’re often, actually, diets. When sobriety is part of a cleanse or clean eating plan, the focus tends to shift from how abstaining makes you feel to whether it makes you lose weight. “It gives me pause when people tie their drinking to the size of their bodies,” she says.
Weight loss is indeed a popular motivation for full-on or partial sobriety: John Dicey, CEO of Allen Carr’s Easyway program, which offers seminars and coaching to help people quit alcohol, smoking, and other habits, says that some 30% to 40% of people who sign up for the live seminars are doing it for lifestyle reasons, like getting in shape before their wedding. “We’re definitely seeing the Kate Moss Effect; people are really struck by how different she looks since she stopped drinking and they want a bit of that.”
Erin Shaw Street, a writer and founder of the Tell Better Stories movement, which advocates for changing the conversation around alcohol, particularly in lifestyle media, is concerned about a tendency in the wellness industry to paint sobriety as “sexy” or somehow aesthetically driven. “If you look on Instagram right now, you might think recovery is all about white ladies doing yoga together on a beach somewhere,” she says.
Ruby Warrington plays to this market in Sober Curious: “Perhaps you’ve been experimenting with your diet; have gone periods without gluten, or dairy, and are contemplating (vegan ice cream not included) doing the same with sugar […] perhaps the disconnect between the way you feel after your Thursday night vinyasa yoga class and your Friday night session on the vino has become more and more apparent.” She also hypes many benefits of a sober lifestyle such as “orgasmic sleep” and “joy,” italics very much hers. (Later in the book, she lists yoga, spin class, and “cacao smoothies” as examples of Sober Curious-approved “highs.”)
Holly Whitaker, of Hip Sobriety, is more blunt. In her 2017 blog post “Yes, Alcohol Is Making You Look Like Pretty Big Shit,” she challenged the wellness industry to embrace sobriety: “There is a very big part of me that is sick of seeing us run to sites like Goop and Well + Good which tell us that we need to use colonics, steam our vaginas, drink clay, shun gluten/dairy/nightshades/tap water/sugar, eat all 1,092 super foods in every single meal, make our own (everything), and then incorporate booze into the narrative as if it’s a chia seed,” she wrote.
But sobriety plans offered by gurus lacking medical credentials and claiming they’ve discovered the very best way to achieve a long list of benefits can start to feel like a crash diet — if not a cult. It’s worth noting that unlike AA, many of the newer, trendier sobriety programs cost money. It’s $28 for Warrington’s book; $295 plus room and board for the Sober Curious workshops she offers through the Kripalu Center; and $797 for Holly Whitaker’s eight-week Hip Sobriety School.
One potential benefit of this “no labels” approach is that it may encourage folks at risk for substance abuse issues to seek help before they meet official diagnostic criteria for alcohol abuse or dependence — much less reach any kind of “end stage” with their drinking, when the problem becomes far more intractable. “I knew, deep down somewhere, for a long time that the best way forward for me would be to get sober and go to meetings,” says author Jessica Lahey, who quit drinking six years ago. “But before I was ready to admit that, I would give it up for a month or six months and then ease back in. I don’t see those as failed attempts at sobriety; I see those as times when I was starting to really look at my relationship with alcohol.” Still, Lahey says that durable sobriety only happened after she took the first step of AA’s famous 12-step program: admitting she was powerless over alcohol.
I thought of all the times I’ve ordered a drink I didn’t particularly want to avoid the social awkwardness of not holding one.
A notable feature of lifestyle-driven sobriety experiments is that they often directly challenge that idea of powerlessness, preaching instead, a gospel of empowerment. “You are strong and powerful,” Whitaker writes in the Hip Sobriety manifesto. “It’s kryptonite to our method to describe yourself as powerless,” says Dicey of Allen Carr Easyway.
Wilsnack is struck by this distinction. “Many of these programs are designed to make you feel that you’re in charge,” she says, noting that while she’s not aware of any research demonstrating the efficacy of AA’s first step, it’s embraced as essential by many in the recovery community. But for those who, as Wilsnack puts it, “misuse alcohol, or use it in unhealthy ways, but aren’t necessarily addicted,” the label-free approach to sobriety may be a better fit, even long-term.
In reporting this story, I thought often of all the times I’ve ordered a drink I didn’t particularly want to avoid the social awkwardness of not holding one; of how many friends’ pregnancies I’ve sussed out because it’s so noteworthy when they suddenly switch to seltzer. We’ve made alcohol a de facto part of ending the workday, eating brunch, celebrating birthdays, and so many other mundane moments of daily life; it is embedded in what it means to be a sophisticated adult, eating amazing food, wearing great clothes, and generally living the good life. “The dominant cultural message is that alcohol is a lifestyle accessory,” says Shaw Street, of the Tell Better Stories movement. The decision to step back from that can feel controversial, if not downright antisocial.
But this is where our culture was with smoking 30 to 40 years ago, when smoking still seemed normal, and even cool. And that changed, through an increased public awareness of health risks — but even more so, through good marketing. “We saw ads where the guy doesn’t want to kiss a girl who smells like smoke,” Wilsnack recalls. To have nondrinking feel just as socially valid as nonsmoking would be unequivocally good for drinkers all along the spectrum of consumption. As Joy Manning plans her next sober happy hour, she believes the tide is turning. “I think we’re already seeing alcohol lose its health halo,” she says. “Next, the assumption that alcohol is essential to a good, sophisticated life will fade.” That was the misconception that Manning operated under for years. “In the past, whenever I took a break from drinking, I went on a kind of social lockdown.” She wouldn’t go to restaurants, parties, or any other place where she felt hardwired to want a drink as soon as she walked in the door.
But when she undertook Dry January in 2017, she resolved to keep living her life. “It was uncomfortable to go to a restaurant and not drink, but I was determined to endure that discomfort in order to break those connections,” she says. Because it’s only once alcohol stopped being a foregone conclusion that she finally felt free to decide whether or not to have a drink.