Alcoholic versus sober-curious: Is there really a difference?

A friend recently shared with me this report from CNN business: People are sick of drinking. Investors are betting on the 'sober curious'. The article raises some interesting points about the perception, marketing, and, erm, widespread thirst for sobriety. Particularly interesting, the author doesn’t focus on people who need to stop. Rather, she focuses on those who would like to stop, and who are looking to industry to make that transition easier.

Among the market solutions described in the article are sober bars, water that looks like beer (see below), and limiting at-work alcohol consumption at tech startups. As I read, it struck me that this article was very much geared towards people in major cities, like New York or San Francisco. For the vast majority of the workforce, I can’t imagine that limiting yourself to four glasses of beer between 9am-5pm would be too disruptive. And I think it will be years before the market in rural Wisconsin can support a “sober bar.”

Despite the differences, the article got me thinking. I often write for people who felt that they needed to stop, rather than those who were simply looking for a way out. And yet, the latter group is fascinating - and perhaps not too different in practice from me.

Without identifying himself as alcoholic, the CEO of the startup Atrium announced that he was getting sober from alcohol. As described in the article, 1,000 people joined his sober online group in just a weekend. Presumably, these weren’t people who would’ve found their way to a twelve-step meeting, nor would they have “needed” it. These are, rather, the “sober curious” - people who simply consider drinking to be unhealthy or unpleasant, physically or psychologically, and who wonder if our current social fabric could support their decision to quit.

As I read this article, I found myself questioning the strength of our social fabric, too. As a self-identified alcoholic, I had a community as soon as I decided to quit. In twelve-step meetings, I found a common language for my experience. It struck me that there isn’t a parallel space for people who do not identify as alcoholic, but who are nonetheless making the fundamentally counter-cultural decision not to drink.

Where do people go who want to try sobriety - without feeling alienated from their peers? Without losing their social environments? And without fielding a hundred questions about why they’re not drinking? (And yes, I can already hear the cries of extroverts, who insist that you should be able to go to a college bar, party, or festival without drinking. To those people: I hear you, I can’t relate to you, and congratulations. You win.)

Now where was I?

Oh, right. I was talking about the folks who are concerned with optimizing their physical and mental health, and who perceive alcohol as a barrier to this. How are they different - or not - from alcoholics? Are the sober-curious really any different from people who quit because they needed too? Maybe it’s a false dichotomy, and we’re all just concerned with optimization.

In some of my writing, I’m afraid I’ve perpetuated this dichotomy, an us-them mentality between alcoholics and non-alcoholics. Dichotomy is how my brain works, but it’s not how my heart works. In actuality, I think our relationships with alcohol are not dichotomous, not categorical, and may not even exist on the same spectrum. Perhaps these relationships are as unique as individuals themselves, and the only common ground that matters is our decision to abstain today.

With this in mind, I must turn the question towards myself: In what way have I wrongly labeled my experience as uniquely “alcoholic?” In what ways am I simply fascinated by sober life? Am I sober-curious?

Yes, I needed sobriety - and I wanted it, too.