You’d be forgiven for thinking these non-drinking females are hiding in the outback. News headlines report on Australia’s binge-drink culture and show women out-drinking the average bucks party. And yet, while a report from the Australian Institute of Health and Welfare (AIHW) found 18- to 24-year-olds are the most likely to binge, they’re also more likely to abstain from alcohol altogether. Initiatives like Hello Sunday Morning are growing in popularity, where people take a break from alcohol and often end up abstaining or seriously curbing their habits. The UK is now home to dry bars, where you can enjoy grog-free nights out, while lots of Aussie venues now proudly tout non-alcoholic menus. In short, we’ve moved on from the days where being teetotal was akin to announcing you have leprosy.
The bigger picture
For journalist Ruby Warrington, author of Sober Curious (HarperCollins Australia, $32.99), the choice to (mainly) stop drinking was not merely physical, psychological or social; it was about creating harmony between all three. A self confessed party girl, Warrington spent much of the 1990s and 2000s tipsy, wasted or hungover – inspired, in part, by ads and TV shows (Sex and the City and the like) that glamorised alcohol.
“It’s very easy to get into the habit of drinking without considering whether you even want to,” she says. “But if you’re not connecting to your feelings, you constantly override the messages your body is giving you such as fear, anxiety and discomfort. These feelings are telling you to stop and change the situation – be it to move jobs or have a difficult conversation. And the longer you ignore these messages, the longer you battle negative patterns, and the harder it is to make decisions that would serve you better.”
Warrington is referring to ‘oblivion drinking’, coined by psychoanalyst and author of Alcoholism and Women Jan Bauer. It refers to the sort of boozing that, instead of ending up with you face down in a wheelie bin, simply numbs the emotional, physical and psychological realities of life. It is in the middle of the current environmental, political, economic and emotional uncertainty that the sober curious movement is taking hold. The reasons for this shift away from the cycle of regular, heavy or binge drinking are, of course, complicated. The rise of social media and the consequent possibility of ‘public shaming’ has made many young women scared to lose control. And the choice of non-alcoholic beers and other drinks has made teetotalism a tastier prospect, too. You no longer have to be an addict to see yourself as a problem drinker; you no longer have to be in recovery to go dry.
“Once you start taking a vested interest in a holistic idea of wellness, you can’t help but question the fact that you are choosing to drink a highly addictive poison,” says Warrington, who, following many failed attempts at reducing her alcohol intake, decided the only option was to pretty much abstain – a challenge aided by a career change and move to NYC, where she says alcohol isn’t a social focal point. “I’ve realised how potent a drug it is,” she says. “And emotional addiction to alcohol will last a lot longer than any physical addiction.”
A pressure cooker
We all know alcohol can be detrimental to our health, but cut down on it significantly and you may be surprised, argues Warrington – not only by the visible effects, such as better skin, weight loss and more energy, but also by the added motivation in thought and action. “I can trust myself to really be in the moment – saying what needs to be said and doing what needs to be done,” she says of her new predominantly non-drinking social, professional and emotional life. Warrington is a self-confessed perfectionist; and cutting back the amount she drinks (down to four or five occasions a year) has reduced self-criticism. “Women have high standards of perfectionism placed on them by society and themselves, and alcohol is actually an escape from that for a lot of people; a way to relax and get away from very rigid ideas of how we should and shouldn’t behave,” she says. “But drinking to escape made it harder for me to live up to those standards. If I still drank, I wouldn’t have had this much self confidence or the energy to launch a business, write a book and put work out that I feel truly proud of.”
Fact: a 2010 study in the Journal of Counseling Psychology found maladaptive perfectionists – people who strive to reach unattainable goals and condemn themselves for failing – reported higher levels of stress and drinking than adaptive perfectionists (those who don’t beat themselves up when things don’t go to plan) and non-perfectionists. We drink because we feel like failures, even though OTT drinking threatens success. So it’s not surprising that alcohol can also prove a heady mixer in the cocktail of anxiety. Many women drink to numb social stress, only for that worry, self consciousness and self-criticism to roar up tenfold the morning after.
Is it for you?
Thinking of joining the movement? There are a couple of pieces of advice, says Warrington. “One is to meet people in situations where you wouldn’t necessarily be drinking (I switched a lot of socialising to Sunday brunches), but also don’t make a big deal of it. Remember it’s your choice and it’s not about judging anyone else. Everyone has a different path. You might experience alcohol as a source of unhappiness but your friend might not.” The choice isn’t between total sobriety or total saturation. Being sober curious isn’t admitting to a drinking problem, and drinking less isn’t a criticism of those who drink more. It’s simply a personal decision – and one that we are finally free to make away from the furtive stomach glances of those around us.
“What being sober curious means to me”Rebecca Gillam, 27, is a freelance journalist
“A few weekends ago, I was reminded how crap it feels to be hungover. An unavoidable stream of lunches, pub-based catchups, birthdays and engagement brunches meant too many G&Ts and glasses of prosecco, and the consequent hazy brain and post-drinking angst. Did I make an idiot of myself? Or say something I shouldn’t have? It’s the reason why, about a year ago, I decided to reduce the amount of alcohol I drink. Not because I drank any more than the average woman my age, but because I’d started to hate the way alcohol made me feel and was curious to see what life would be like without it. The turning point was a wedding where I’d been sick and spent days fretting that the bride’s radio silence was not because she was enjoying her honeymoon but because she was angry at my drunken antics. I vowed to be more mindful. My next night out was interesting – and surprisingly fun. I enjoyed one glass of wine, then watched as everyone else got drunk, and I suffered no embarrassment or sore head the next day; I even had the energy to be productive. I tried it again, with the same positive results. Now, instead of accidentally having too much to drink, I keep tabs on what I’m having. I overdo it now and then – who’s perfect? – but those occasions are becoming fewer. When it feels so much better to live semi-sober, why would I choose not to?”