British journalist Ruby Warrington began to suspect she was ‘kind-of-just-a-little-bit-addicted-to-booze’ around the time she and a friend drank several vodka sodas, squeezed themselves into opposing legs of an adult onesie, and took a face plant. Warrington’s head was ‘bashed bloody’, but instead of asking to be taken to the ER, she insisted the best medicine would be a chunky slug of single malt whiskey.
This is exactly the type of harrowing anecdote you’d expect to read in an article about why people quit drinking. While usually written in the spirit of public service, articles like this have an unintended side effect: they reinforce the impression that nobody gives up drinking from a quiet place. Abstinence is presented, not as a viable life choice in itself, but as the last refuge of the damned. If someone stops drinking, we automatically assume it’s because they have a ‘problem’ with alcohol.
“Whether we’re at home, at work or on a hot date, a glass of wine or a cold one is the universal code for let’s connect. There’s a conditioned distrust of people who opt out of the dominant drinking culture. Not drinking is like not being on social media; you’re seen as a weird loner who doesn’t like people,” says Warrington, who, after the onesie incident, went on to write Sober Curious: The Blissful Sleep, Greater Focus, Limitless Presence and Deep Connection Awaiting Us All of the Other Side of Alcohol. Part memoir, part how-to guide, the book makes the case for a life without alcohol, whether you are kind-of-just-a-little-bit-addicted or not.
Unlike Alcoholics Anonymous, an addiction recovery program where the goal is to never drink again, Sober Curious is a wellness-oriented mindset in which you opt to get curious about your relationship with alcohol, consciously choosing to examine every instinct, invitation and expectation to drink. By asking yourself questions like how will this drink make me feel and will it enhance or detract from the situation, a Sober Curious person begins to zero-in on the emotional, social and physical factors that trigger the impulse to imbibe. “Think of Sober Curious as a social experiment that gives you the freedom to assess whether or how much to consume, on a case-by-case basis, without having to label yourself as a non-drinker or having the pressure to be perfect,” says Warrington. She notes that although no two Sober Curious journeys are alike, each revolves around the same central question: would my life be better without alcohol?
The concept of treating drinking as a mindful decision versus a knee-jerk reaction driven by habit, social anxiety or FOMO is being explored world-over by social clubs that offer all the trappings of a night out with none of the morning after-math. Organizations like Club SÖDA NYC (Sober or Debating Abstinence) and Hello Sunday Morning in Australia help members develop healthier and more intentional relationships with alcohol through booze-free meet-ups, workshops and events. Warrington (who co-founded Club SÖDA NYC) notes that although only about fifty per cent of the club’s members are non-drinkers, many are drawn to Sober Curious as a logical evolution of their wellness lifestyle. “When you invest enough time, energy and money into your health, fitness and self-care practices, the idea of being hung-over can start to feel counter-productive,” she says.
As civilized as a socializing sober may sound, what happens when you’re the only one at the club, party or wedding not drinking? Warrington admits getting comfortable in these situations is a process, and there’s no getting around the hump of your Sober First, a.k.a. the first time you partake in a key social event sober. But if you can get past your initial fears and anxieties – what if people think I have a drinking problem? How will I talk to anyone new? Will I come across as judge-y? What if everything feels boring? – you may be rewarded with some unexpected insights and realizations. “Certain relationships may appear in a new light, as the veil of fake chemistry and fast intimacy created by alcohol lifts, and you start seeing people and situations as they really are,” Warrington says. In other words, topics like ‘if we’re both still single at 39, should we get married?’ and ’how far are we from Singularity?’ could lose their lustre.
Which brings us to the truly moderate drinker. What, if anything, does the Sober Curious have to offer the person for whom two drinks seldom turn into three and who has never once googled can you die from a hangover? Potentially nothing, but Warrington suggests giving it a try anyway just to see how it feels – and to know you can. “What started off as a social experiment has, for me, become an endlessly fascinating and empowering challenge where the longer I go without drinking, the deeper the connection I feel to myself and others,” she says. Although Warrington can’t think of any reason or occasion in which she herself would crave a drink, toppling the dominant drinking culture or judging the consumption habits of others isn’t what Sober Curious is about. The mission is simply to create a world where it is as normal to refuse a cocktail as it is to enjoy one: to make alcohol a choice, just like any other.
My thanks to longtime friend and colleague, Katherine Gougeon – creator of culturally relevant brands and content – for this article. For more unique and insightful commentary on culture, connect with Katherine on Linkedin or Twitter @kgougeon