What do we mean when we say "sober" now?

Is your mocktail a sobriety slip?

By Mary Elizabeth Williams

Senior Writer

Published June 9, 2024 12:00PM (EDT)

Various refreshing drinks in glasses (Getty Images/Olga Peshkova)
Various refreshing drinks in glasses (Getty Images/Olga Peshkova)

Nearly 90 years ago, when Bill Wilson and Bob Smith joined forces to create the program that would become known as Alcoholics Anonymous, there was no O'Doul's section in the beverage aisle. There was no word for trading in one’s alcohol consumption for weed, no designation of “California sober.” The first month of the year was not also known as Dryuary. Now, however, we’re consuming less alcohol than our parents and grandparents did, and exploring what it means to be sober curious more. But sobriety isn’t what it used to be. 

“My science-backed view is that alcohol problems are massively heterogeneous, hugely complex, nuanced, and individual,” said Dr. James Morris, Chair of the New Directions in the Study of Alcohol Group at London South Bank University. “But the models, the terms and ideas that we have around them are very limited and categorical, and siphon people into certain stereotypes or ideas like abstinence or rock bottom or only sobriety, etc.”

“I'm by no means anti-abstinence or anti-sobriety," Morris said. "It’s such an important thing, and it's the healthiest choice. But I am against excluding other ways of changing drinking patterns, or allowing people to explore their drinking in ways that don't necessarily siphon them off into these very strongly kind of labeled ideas.” 

Morris has been doing intriguing research into the language we use around sobriety and alcoholism, and the potential positive benefits for some to embrace a more fluid perspective.

“For people that engage with self-identification, my view is that reflects a really strong commitment to recovery,” he said. “That process of recovery involves an identity shift away from protecting and valuing drinking as a positive identity to replacing that with like a recovery identity.”

In contrast, Morris said, “For some groups of heavy drinkers, a continuum model means that they don't really have to engage in that identity shift. They can consider some of the consequences of their alcohol use without having to think about, ‘What does this mean for how I position my identity?’” 

“Just like everything else in culture, people need to understand that sobriety is in a period of flux right now,” said Sarah Hepola, author of the bestselling “Blackout: Remembering the Things I Drank to Forget.” “Bill Wilson gets going with AA, and so the one thing that everyone can agree on is if you don't drink, you can smoke the s**t out of cigarettes. Nicotine is a gnarly drug. And, how are you going to navigate a world if your lines of demarcation for de-escalating your addiction to a substance run along legality lines? Well, you're moving away from cigarettes, which are increasingly banned in spaces, and you're moving toward things like marijuana, psychedelics, all sorts of nootropic gray zone areas. I once listened to a woman give the most riveting share about how she almost tried kombucha. I had to ask my sponsor later, 'What's kombucha?' She said, 'That's that stuff at the store. There's a little bit of alcohol in it.' I'm like, what is happening?"

(Just to show how varied mileage on this is, one recovery program advises that consuming kombucha "can be viewed as a relapse, while another refers to it as a "good alcohol alternative.")

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As Hepola puts it, “AA has a parallel with the Bible in the sense that there is a book, it was written by a person. He's dead now. Everybody that was involved in the process of writing that book is dead now. They don't have any additional materials to add to that book. But that book doesn't include things like antidepressants, the legalization of marijuana, an understanding of mental health, certainly doesn't expand to nonalcoholic drinks. There’s no kombucha. And so what happens when you have a bunch of people that are going to interpret the words of a very wise book by a dead person is that some of them are going to have a generous interpretation, and then you're going to have people that have the strict fundamentalist interpretation.” 

I was reminded of this fundamentalism when actor and podcaster Dax Shephard announced the launch of a nonalcoholic beer brand this past spring, and an older sober friend was swift to express his disdain. “How is that not a slip?” my buddy had wondered. This is a man who won’t touch anything cooked in wine, who’s highly suspicious of pain relievers — and wouldn’t dream of using mouthwash. 

For years, I’ve accepted my friend’s decades-long version of sobriety as the closest thing to authentic as it comes, including that rigorous avoidance of not just alcohol but anything that conjures the feeling of alcohol. Naturally, when a few months ago I told him about Abe Zarate, a sommelier who goes by @sober_somm on his TikTok, and whose wine tasting motto is “I just spit,” my friend was similarly skeptical. For him, even experiences that are alcohol adjacent feel like a slippery slope to cheating, a condition that reminds me of the Whole 30 maxim about avoiding “sex with your pants on.” He may be on to something. A 2023 feature in VeryWellMind warned that for some with alcohol use disorder, the smell of alcohol substitutes can trigger cravings that may lead to relapse. 

"Just like everything else in culture, people need to understand that sobriety is in a period of flux right now."

Or as Hepola said, “The old saying in AA is that if you keep going to the barber, you'll get a haircut.” But, she added, “That saying derives from a time when there really weren't that many options. When I was a year sober, I went to a bar, and asked for seltzer. The bartender was like, ‘What now?’ That's how far we've come. Because since then, there's been the La Croix revolution followed by the Waterloo revolution and the Rambler revolution. Then you've got non-alcoholic brews, and you've got zero-proof cocktails. You've got every single liquor company looking at their bottom line and going in hardcore with nonalcoholic drinks.”

Hepola recalled hearing from some other people in sobriety that “We're not going to get mad about this, but we don't like it. We left that world, and I don't want to participate in it.” And, she said, “That is completely valid. I just refuse to believe it can't be a choice.”

Sobriety is a highly individual concept, one based in behaviors that may adapt and change, within a culture that also has adapted and changed exponentially in just the past few years. There’s no one set way to practice sobriety, and nobody can define anybody else’s version of it. What looks like a slip to one person may well be keeping another one sober, because drinking is never just about drinking. It's also about belonging.

“This is 21st century recovery," said Hepola, "and it needs to reckon with all the many variables. It’s almost 100 years since Bill Wilson fell off his barstool.” 


By Mary Elizabeth Williams

Mary Elizabeth Williams is a senior writer for Salon and author of "A Series of Catastrophes & Miracles."

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