Not sober curious, just sober

An article covering the “Sober Curious Movement” was published in the Chicago Tribune a few weeks ago. My brother shared it with me, and I’m still thinking about it. The article discusses a “sober curious” movement in America and interviews a number of people in Chicago that have chosen to quit drinking. Apparently because they quit drinking for different reasons than alcoholism or binge drinking, they are “sober curious” instead of simply “sober”. (It’s a book too).

My brother sent it to me because I don’t drink either, which can feel like an oddity in your twenties. I quit drinking at concerts when I was 22, after I went to a concert, had one drink, and ended up fainting in between the opener and the headliner. Thinking it was just a fluke of that night, I tried again at another show a few months later, and spent the headlining set sitting down in the back of the venue to avoid fainting a second time. After that I realized that it wasn’t worth it, and never drank at a concert again.

It took longer for me to quit drinking overall, and I’d make exceptions at time for special occasions when it just felt too awkward to not drink—weddings, parties, first dates—but after awhile I decided to stop making the exceptions. It was part personal challenge, and part health-conscious decision. My body had never responded well to alcohol, what with lightheadedness or nausea following anything more than a couple drinks. By the time I was 22 I had a short list of “okay alcohols” and quantities, and by the time I was 26 I’d grown tired of bothering.

My life had shifted to involve fun activities beyond drinking, and my friends weren’t drinking-focused either. I’d be going to concerts or to the gym/the soccer pitch every other day, and drinking just didn’t fit anywhere. I’d spent time in college not drinking at various parties, where I knew I had to be fresh for studying the next day, so I knew I could still have fun without drinking. Choosing to quit drinking overall felt like a natural progression.

So where does that leave me now, and why am I still so peeved at that article? For one, it only quotes women. I like to see women quoted by journalists, but by only quoting women, the choice to be sober felt somewhat trivialized. In addition, the women’s comments were contextualized with talk of mindfulness and yoga, as though this is a choice being made by a particular type and class of woman, and no others. It also perpetuates the notion that having fun without drinking is some strange novelty. There are a lot of people out there that have fun without drinking. Indeed, as one of the women in the article points out—it’s a challenge to your confidence to go out and be all of yourself, without alcohol. But it can be that much more invigorating in that way. You get to challenge your social anxiety and actively build confidence, rather than relying on alcohol and wondering if you can talk to strangers without it at all.

I think there’s also harm in talking about sobriety distinct from alcoholism. A lot of quitting drinking is about realizing that you don’t like who you are when you drink (or after you drink). The recent essay about the Joe Beef restaurateurs makes this clear. Some people have the lifestyles, genetic predisposition, or experienced traumas that escalate their alcohol consumption to recognizable alcoholism. Others have a dependence on it that they dislike, even if others don’t see it as an issue (as one of the women interviewed in the Chicago Tribune article mentions). It’s more than okay to share that common understanding, rather than separate ourselves into different groups, “the sober curious” and “the fully sober due to addiction”. That’s harmful. Indeed, the sober curious meetup in Chicago also includes “young women in recovery”. They get it.

Often, quitting drinking feels like a social choice more than a personal choice. It feels that way largely due to the fact that there often aren’t that many sober social activities out there. It’s hard to stay out late with friends sober when the only places open late are bars. It’s harder to choose yourself over alcohol, when it can often mean isolating yourself from friends. So while I struggle with the rhetoric and the patronizing presentation of the “sober curious” movement, I absolutely support it as an overall societal direction. Here’s to more late-night diners, pastry places like Mission Pie, and sober pop-ups like Brillig Dry Bar that help us sober people stay up late and out with friends.