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What Does it Mean to be ‘Sober Curious?’

Photo credit: Umit Bulut via Unsplash

“Alcoholic” and “alcoholism” are terms wrought with stigma, which can prevent people from accessing help and marginalize those working through their relationship with alcohol. The scientific community and sober advocates have long embraced terms like alcohol use disorder and substance use disorder to be used instead, but the label ‘Sober Curious’ takes this thinking a step further and in a more relaxed direction. Ruby Warrington, author of Sober Curious: The Blissful Sleep, Greater Focus, Limitless Presence, and Deep Connection Awaiting Us All on the Other Side of Alcohol, coined the term around 2015 to describe her own “uneasy relationship with booze.”

“After many years of privately questioning my drinking,” Warrington said in an email, “I began speaking openly about my conflicted feelings about alcohol.”

In initiating this dialogue, she discovered many people struggled similarly—people who found alcohol problematic for them but didn’t identify as “alcoholics.” The stigma made people afraid to talk about questioning their alcohol use. “…[they] didn’t have an outlet for an open discussion about the problems even “normal” drinkers experience.”

‘Sober Curious’ as an Inclusive Movement

Warrington defines ” sober curious” as “choosing to stop drinking on autopilot” and questioning “every instinct, impulse, invitation, and expectation to drink.” The movement quickly spread because identifying as ‘sober curious’ is more inclusive and relaxed than other polarizing labels. This less definitive sober curiosity trend makes more space for people to find themselves within it. The movement can mean something different to everyone, making it more approachable to those questioning their drinking.

“‘Sober curious’ to me means that you no longer identify as a drinker in the same way but aren’t committed to full-time sobriety,” said Melanie Lockert, author of Dear Debt and host of The Mental Health and Wealth Show podcast. Lockert has identified as ‘sober curious’ since June 2020. “You’re curious about how being sober can help but may not be ready to take on any labels or commitments.”

Chris Marshall, founder of the alcohol-free Sans Bar in Austin, Texas, and former licensed chemical dependency counselor who has been sober for 15 years holds a more philosophical view on the movement. “To me, the ‘sober curious’ lifestyle is all about being mindful about your relationship with all things, not only alcohol, in our lives that are meant to serve as filters that make our true selves less visible in the world.” 

Changing Our Relationship with Alcohol

‘Dry January’—and other dry month pledges—has become increasingly popular since it was officially founded in 2013 in the UK with over 4,300 participants. Since then, the number has ballooned to more than 5 million pledgers in 2017 as more people have recognized the benefits of examining their drinking patterns.

“I recognized in January 2020 that my drinking was causing problems in my life,” said Lockert. “It had for many years, but it was becoming clearer and more frequent. After the pandemic hit, my drinking increased.”

Lockert, too started with a dry month and then reintroduced alcohol in moderation. She did another dry month and then back to moderation. Soon, she went six months without drinking at all and saw her relationship with alcohol change. Eventually, Lockert found drinking one to two times a week to feel like a lot. “So now I’m committed to full-time sobriety in 2022 and hopefully beyond,” she said. “I just hit three months without a drink and feel stronger than I did before. It feels like I was building a muscle and am not as tempted as before.”

When Abstaining Altogether is Easier than Moderate Drinking

Eventually, Lockert made the decision to transition from ‘sober curious’ to ‘sober’ because she found drinking in moderation to be more challenging than abstaining from alcohol.  

“It’s much easier to say “I don’t drink” and move on,” Lockert explained. “When I was [drinking in moderation], I felt tortured by assessing how much I could drink, what type of drink (no shots), how often I would drink, and calculating how it may impact my mental and physical health.”

She found the additional emotional labor of trying to weigh the consequence of having two drinks, for example, to be very taxing. Ultimately, she wanted to free up more space in her brain.

Finding Connection Without Alcohol

Warrington believes that anyone who drinks on a regular basis is a little addicted to alcohol. She formed this theory on the basis of three factors:

  1. Our brains are biologically hardwired to form an attachment to alcohol
  2. Alcohol is one of the five most addictive substances
  3. Alcohol is heavily marketed to all of us from an early age. 

“Most people drink alcohol to feel more confident and relaxed in social situations,” said Warrington. “If we’ve been teaching our brains since, say, age 15 that we “need” alcohol to socialize, the thought of having to “perform” without our trusty liquid crutch can bring up a lot of fear.”

As a solution, she recommends facing your fears by tackling as many “Sober Firsts (staying sober in situations where you would normally drink) as you can.”

Marshall founded Sans Bar to help individuals to do that and beyond. “Alcohol seems like a solution to the problem of connection because it offers the illusion of really big emotions that feel like a fast track for relationship building,” said the entrepreneurial Texan. “[But] alcohol-fueled connections seem to fade after the party, and we are left feeling alone.”

Organizations like Marshall’s and online support communities like Tempest are sprouting up around the world to help people form true connections without facing the bottom of a glass.

Finding a More Authentic Version of Yourself

“You don’t have to be an ‘alcoholic’ to want to change your drinking habits,” says Lockert. “You don’t have to go public with it either. Your choice should come from you and be out of self-love.”Ultimately, being ‘sober curious’ is about examining the role of alcohol in one’s life and whether even moderate drinking has a negative impact. “You just can’t know how wonderful an alcohol-free life can be until you pause drinking for a time,” Marshall concluded. “The goal is not to just stop drinking; the goal is to be a more authentic version of yourself.”

About the Author

Michelle Yang

Michelle Yang, MBA, realized she can’t advocate for herself, or anyone, if she doesn’t first admit her own struggles. As an Asian American immigrant navigating life with bipolar disorder, her determination to fight stigma inspired her to leave a successful career in corporate America to write and fight for the intersection of identity, feminism, and mental health. Michelle's mission is to humanize and normalize the way we talk about mental health and demonstrate that thriving while living with a mental health condition is more than possible. Born ethnic Chinese in South Korea, Michelle is a proud immigrant "takeout kid" who grew up working in her family's Chinese restaurant. Her writing has been featured in NBC News, CNN, InStyle, Reader's Digest, HuffPost, Shondaland, and more. Michelle is also busy at work on her memoir, Phoenix Girl: How a Fat Asian with Bipolar Found Love.

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