My last drink occurred just like my first. In a crowded room, surrounded by people I wanted to be like and be liked by.
Last April, I went to a party in the West Village. Surrounded by beautiful, shiny people, I felt dull and alone. Nursing a drink like everyone else, I just wanted to go home. That night I realized something I had ignored for a long time: Social drinking did not make me social. It made me want to crawl in a hole.
The next day I decided to see how long I could go without drinking. Setting a time period for my experiment seemed arbitrary. Instead, I’d stop drinking until I missed it enough to start again. Since then, I haven’t had another drink.
But I still don’t know how to talk about it.
Of all the things I anticipated might happen when I stopped drinking, I never expected to need talking points. After my umpteenth time stumbling through an explanation of why I wasn’t drinking, I prepared answers. Scribbled in my Notes app, I carried around my bullet points like a security blanket.
My friends were incredibly supportive, but others were less so. When I said I didn’t drink, I often got a pitying look or a raised eyebrow. I’d find myself justifying the decision, recounting my drinking history to a stranger. Some people outright asked me, “Are you an alcoholic?”
Not only is this an extremely personal question; it can also be stigmatizing. Alcohol-use disorder (AUD), what is colloquially referred to as “alcoholism,” is a medical condition that ranges in severity and affects more than 14 million American adults. The reach of AUD is likely even wider than this number reflects given historic underreporting.
Associating sobriety with severe dependence discourages people across the spectrum of alcohol use from examining their relationship to it. The CDC estimates that one in six U.S. adults binge-drink, a behavior defined as consuming four or more alcoholic drinks on the same occasion for women and five or more drinks on the same occasion for men. Binge-drinking is culturally normalized but can be detrimental to physical and mental health. If we continue to proliferate the belief that only people who hit a “rock bottom” are those that stop drinking, we prevent people from seeking the help they need.
Which is why we need better words. It’s encouraging to see that the vocabulary around sobriety is changing, updated in recent years with terms like “sober curious” and “nondrinker.” But to fully change the conversation, we need to discard the antiquated assumptions. Despite the progress, one sentence still defines the narrative.
“Hi, I’m —, and I’m an alcoholic.”
This greeting in Alcoholics Anonymous is familiar, prominently featured in movies and books. AA is well known for good reason. It’s accessible, available, and free. With more than 2 million members worldwide, AA is the recovery program for alcohol-use disorder used by nearly every mental-health practitioner, hospital, rehab, and prison. I know countless people whose lives have been saved by 12-step programs.
But for as many people who have found help, I wonder how many people this phrase has kept from seeking it. Because I didn’t see myself in the cultural representation of what an “alcoholic” looks like, for a long time I didn’t imagine I’d stop drinking completely, or think I should.
In those early months of sobriety, I seriously considered going to AA. I was desperate for a community of nondrinkers, but felt an even stronger aversion to introducing myself in this way. It felt counterintuitive. Here I was, not drinking a sip of alcohol, and now I was supposed to take on this label? I looked up meeting times, and even held it on my work calendar. But I couldn’t get past the phrase. I had stopped drinking because I didn’t want to be defined by my relationship to alcohol. Saying the greeting felt like moving backward, further anchoring who I am to the person I was. In the end, I didn’t go.
I kept looking for the right words to explain my relationship to alcohol and couldn’t find them. Had I stopped drinking long enough to call myself “sober”? I wasn’t sure. “Sober curious” worked in the beginning, but not when I became certain that I was done drinking for good. “Nondrinker” was then the most accurate term, but it felt silly to define myself by what I’m not. I wanted a word that expressed the budding sense of pride I was feeling, one that conveyed all that I was able to do now that I didn’t drink, instead of centering around the one thing I no longer did.
I know I’m not the only one having this conversation.
The numbers show that sober curiosity is on the rise. In 2021, nonalcoholic beverage sales reached $331 million, an increase of 33 percent from the year before. Nearly every day I see a new, sexy, nonalcoholic brand on my Instagram feed. At least five nonalcoholic liquor stores have opened in New York in the last several years, according to the New York Times. Alcohol-free cocktails are appearing on restaurant and bar menus. As a nondrinker, it’s exciting to have more options. But I wonder if the momentum will have a lasting impact on societal norms.
Growing up, we’re socialized through rom-coms, popular culture, and the $1.5 trillion alcoholic-beverage-marketing industry to believe that drinking is essential to being social. In college, I drank the way you were expected to (regularly, excessively). When I moved to New York after graduation, I worked in finance and was out nearly every weeknight. On the weekend, I played catch up in my social life over drinks and wine-filled dinners. I was drinking as much as my peers did, maybe even less, but I had the gut feeling that something was wrong.
My friends laughed off their drunken escapades. I couldn’t. Drinking made me really sad. When I brought this up, I was told to try a different type of alcohol. Things happened when I drank that also made me really sad. Fights with partners, miscommunications with friends, dangerous situations that I never would have put myself in sober. I was told to moderate my drinking. Just drink less. Control yourself better. No one suggested I stop. I didn’t think it was an option.
I kept drinking because I was afraid of what people would believe if I stopped, myself included. Everyone else drank, why couldn’t I? To stop drinking completely would be to admit that there was something wrong with me.
Timing was in my favor. I began to question my relationship with alcohol at precisely the moment that sobriety entered the mainstream discourse in a new way, catalyzed by the discussion around increased drinking during quarantine. Working with my therapist, I began to figure out how to make a life without alcohol work for me. One of my best friends had also stopped drinking six months before I did. She helped light the path forward. With this help, I found my way.
Even with a support system, it was not easy. I cried all the time. I grieved the idea of the life in New York that I’d never have because I stopped drinking. I wouldn’t glamorously sip a martini with my girlfriends or sit in a bar with a book and a glass of wine. How was I going to bump into my soul mate at a party if I was drinking water?
My fears turned out to be unfounded. I still get invited to parties and asked on dates. I write more. I run more. I am the person I always wanted to be, all the time. I’ve found new ways to socialize, like running clubs and creative workshops that keep my hands busy, so there’s no pressure to drink. If I’m uncomfortable at a social event, my old signal to start drinking, I leave instead. I no longer put myself in situations that I have to numb myself to endure.
While the tide is turning, we need to examine what we assume when someone says they aren’t drinking and hold our impulse to ask why. Hopefully one day, whether or not you drink alcohol will be no one’s business but your own. Until then, we need new language.
When I talk about my life without alcohol, I talk about clarity, growth, and freedom. As the broader conversation around sobriety continues to evolve, I hope our words do, too. I’m eager for language that has less connotation with restriction and defect and more association with transformation and courage.
My life did not end when I stopped drinking. In many ways, it started. Now I just want the words to talk about it.
Sarah Wood writes about sobriety, relationships, and mental health. You can find her on Twitter and Instagram.