"Sober Curious" or Literally Dying: When Saving Your Life Becomes Trendy

By Sean Mahoney 07/22/19

It’s not my intention to minimize what sober curious folks are doing, but let’s not lose sight of actual alcoholism or addiction either.

Woman drinking non-alcoholic cocktail, sober curious
I didn't get sober to be cool, I just got sober to stop dying. Photo by Stephany Lorena on Unsplash

Somewhere in the drunken mess of 2002, I was curious to try the combination of vodka and Klonopin. Ditto, I was a curious little kitten when it came to what could possibly happen if I took acid and ecstasy at the same time! I was curiouser and curiouser about everything, from trying heroin to trying to buy cocaine instead of paying my rent. That’s the sort of curious that kept me in trouble for the better part of two decades, but curious to quit drinking because I just needed a break from partying and how it was affecting my life? Uh, not so much.

Trendy, Cool, and Not Dying

If you don’t know what the “sober curious” movement is, you haven’t been paying attention to “sober influencers.” Those phrases actually cause my eyes to deeply roll and my head to shake like a bitchy old neighbor watching you try to parallel park. Look, I don’t know anything about being an influencer unless we’re talking about the fellow teenagers I influenced to take drugs and come to the mall with me in the 80’s. I also don’t know about sobriety being trendy. I didn’t get sober to be cool, I just got sober to stop dying. But I do know that this sober curious movement is an actual thing.

We (and by that I mean people like me who write about recovery) like to latch our collective wagons to sobriety buzzwords and trends. This summer, the world cannot stop talking about “sober curious.” The term, taken from author Ruby Warrington’s book by the name same, has popped up on every media outlet over the last few months.

“Sober curious,” for the uninitiated, describes:

  • Folks who don’t need to get sober but who can see the benefits of cutting down or cutting out alcohol completely.
  • Mainly younger people who want to relieve the pressure to drink heavily at social occasions.
  • Folks who are concerned with hangovers and how drinking is affecting their social and professional lives.
  • Whimsical nymphs who want to hang out with their friends but not get loaded.

In short, the sober curious ain’t me.

When Alcohol Is Mildly Inconvenient

See, these folks can take or leave drugs or alcohol. They don’t identify as having a problem. Alcohol is mildly inconvenient for them; it’s like your aunt Linda who eats chicken vindaloo but forgets it gives her heartburn. Fundamentally, I do not understand this way of thinking. The way I’m wired, I like to do substances in amounts that will numb me out completely. I didn’t care if work was going to be hard the next day or if my health was going to be affected. Hell, I needed tequila and cocaine just to get through six-hour shifts waiting tables.

I mean, why casually use drugs or drink alcohol when you can implode your whole existence? This is a level of insanity that probably isn’t familiar to the “sober curious.” Nevertheless, they’ve decided to rally together and say “We’re just going to stop drinking and it’s okay if you do too!” It’s more like giving up carbs for a trendy diet than, say, being placed on dietary restrictions because otherwise your diabetes will kill you.

As a movement in and of itself, it’s harmless. I see no problem with people whose brains are very much not like my own who can say, “Maybe I should cool it with the booze for a while.” The fewer people stumbling around, barfing in Ubers, and screaming at each other in Taco Bell at 3 a.m. can only be a good thing for society. The annoying trendiness notwithstanding, sober curious has at the very least made people examine their relationship with alcohol.

However, I don’t see a lot of “sober curious” folks in the ER or ICU.

At my day job as a recovery mentor on an addiction medicine team at a busy urban hospital, I see far more people brought in because of the effects drinking has had on their lives than nearly anything else. As devastating as the opioid crisis continues to be, there is a continuous influx of people with alcohol-related health problems. Sure, sure, the emergency room sees a handful of bachelorette party attendees who drank too much and fell down a flight of stairs who show up needing TLC for a busted ankle. But mainly, I witness patients who are way beyond curious.

They come in broken, in desperate need of medical and psychosocial attention due to their relationships with alcohol. Despite winding up in the hospital, sometimes in terrible condition, many of them think it's not that bad or that they can just cut down. I certainly identify with this thinking. For decades, I fooled myself into thinking I could outrun it, or that the handful of people I knew who were heavier drinkers meant I couldn’t possibly be that bad.

This is where the Alcohol Use Disorder (AUD) diagnosis comes in handy. Used in our hospital (and around the country), the diagnosis quickly separates the sober curious from people literally dying. Some NIH assessment questions for AUD include: “Have you continued to drink even though it was causing trouble with your family or friends?” and “Have you experienced craving — a strong need, or urge, to drink?” This sounds wildly different than the interns at the office who decided to cut back on Rosé because it was making them feel icky. It’s not my intention to minimize what sober curious folks are doing, but let’s not lose sight of actual alcoholism or addiction either. Marginalization, ignoring, and minimizing have never done substance use disorders any good.

If You Drink Again, You Will Die

For the people I see in hospital beds and for people like me, it’s a matter of life and death.

Beyond that, this idea that younger people are drinking less and buying less alcohol doesn’t jibe with bigger, more staggering statistics of alcohol-related deaths among millennials. A study from earlier this summer found that folks between the ages of 23 and 38 were dying the most of “deaths of despair”, meaning suicide, overdose, and alcohol-related deaths. Furthermore, additional data shows that from 2009 to 2016 there was a significant increase in cirrhosis-related deaths among millennials, which researchers say was driven by alcohol-related liver disease.

Over the last year, I have personally worked with a handful of patients under 30 who have the kind of alcoholic liver damage usually only seen in people twice their age. From my position at their bedsides, it certainly doesn’t look like a generation that has this booze thing all figured out. It looks like a group of people being killed even faster than the generation before them. This is a story not buzzword-worthy or even really noticed. About a month ago, I had the honor of sitting with a 28-year-old while he processed the news that if he ever drank again, he’d die. Heavy news for a kid whose friends are all still happy hour-hopping and swilling the latest craft beers. This young man didn’t have the option of being sober curious.

Yet, as different as Ruby Warrington and I are regarding alcohol, we’re doing the same thing: We’re talking about how much we drink. What if someone reads my stuff and says, “Well at least I don’t drink like that guy!” Likewise, the plethora of sober curious articles might make a reverse light bulb go on for someone. They might seek help after reading about this new trendy health craze and think: “sober curious, that ain’t me.”

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Sean Paul Mahoney is the author of the new collection of essays Now That You’ve Stopped Dying and the co-host of the LGBTQ recovery podcast Queer Mental Condition.