Girl Power Gets Sober

Can Holly Whitaker help women quit drinking better than AA can?

Photo-Illustration: Photo-Illustration: The Cut; Photos: Getty Images
Photo-Illustration: Photo-Illustration: The Cut; Photos: Getty Images

Holly Whitaker, author of the 2019 New York Times best seller Quit Like a Woman, compares the moment she realized that a life without alcohol was possible to entering the Matrix. Whitaker has never been comfortable with the term alcoholic and didn’t necessarily drink to the extent we imagine many alcoholics do. She drank a lot — sometimes more than a bottle of wine a night* — but not enough, she thought, that it was a problem. Sure, she needed to learn how to moderate, but she wasn’t the sort of person for whom abstinence was necessary. “I really never loved alcohol,” she tells me, but “it didn’t even occur to me that I could quit drinking. I just had to control it better.”

If, in reading this now, you decide your drinking isn’t a problem because you drink less than a bottle of wine a night, Whitaker has your number; she did this too. As long as someone, somewhere, was drinking more than she was, Whitaker writes, she could count herself among the normal drinkers. But when she chose to stop, she decided there was no such thing as “normal” drinking. Friends and acquaintances were disappointed and oddly defensive. “I’m not an alcoholic,” writes Whitaker of reactions to that first attempt at sobriety. “I am someone who has broken our social contract.”

Whitaker’s sobriety suffered a few false starts; an office holiday party provided her a good enough reason to try drinking again after two months off. She quit for good on April 14, 2013, and two years later, she launched an online alcohol-counseling program called Hip Sobriety (later renamed Tempest, in part as an homage to the women-led temperance movement) for 13 members who convened on Facebook. The program was designed to help people — especially women — reach the same epiphany that she had: Alcohol is pointless, poisonous, and even anti-feminist. Six years later, Tempest is a small but mighty alternative to traditional recovery models like rehab and Alcoholics Anonymous. According to Whitaker, more than 10,000 people have joined as paying members. Countless more are fans of Quit Like a Woman — including Chrissy Teigen, who credited the book with her decision to get sober, prompting a rash in sales. Whitaker’s book has sold more than 265,000 copies, and that was before it appeared on a recent episode of And Just Like That … (when Miranda drunk-ordered a copy for herself). As Whitaker’s star rises, so too does the burden of proving her central claims: that Tempest helps women especially to stop drinking and that women especially stand to benefit from sobriety. In the meantime, she has found not only an eager following but an untapped market.

Tempest’s design is straightforward and draws primarily from two practices with established psychological benefits: cognitive behavioral therapy and mindfulness. The former seeks to help members rethink their relationship to alcohol, while mindfulness techniques have been used to reduce cravings for drugs and make practitioners less reactive to triggers. Within its overarching structure, Tempest offers members a number of ways to personalize their participation. Lessons are released on a weekly basis and take roughly two hours to complete on average. There are weekly, hour-long support-group calls, which function not unlike AA meetings (except for the expectation that one will introduce oneself as an alcoholic), as well as weekly, hour-long Q&A calls with coaches or clinicians, during which members may ask more specific questions regarding their recovery experience. Ruby Mehta, Tempest’s clinical director, estimates the average member’s time commitment is between three and five hours per week.

Until recently, Tempest offered a four-week intensive course for $399, which 1,000 people completed in 2021. The company decided to scrap the intensive to simplify its offerings and because it seemed to promote a sort of sobriety hierarchy, says Ruth Sun, who became Tempest’s CEO after Whitaker stepped down last year (she remains on the board of directors). “People were like, ‘Are you saying I’m not serious about my sobriety if I don’t take the intensive? Are you telling me that because I don’t wanna pay this big bill, I’m not as important?’” The intensive also, perhaps, gave members the feeling that they had “finished” working on their sobriety, which wasn’t intentional. Tempest conceives of its members as people with a chronic condition, which means membership is indefinite. Or as Queen Muse, the company’s communications director, puts it, “Core membership isn’t designed to be completed.”

Core Tempest membership begins at $41 a month with an optional coaching add-on ($299 for four individual sessions). Coaches are paid, but they’re peers, not therapists — a model not dissimilar from AA sponsorship, except Tempest coaches aren’t available to members outside of their weekly scheduled 30-minute sessions. Tempest employs seven full-time and five part-time coaches, each of whom is a Tempest member who has achieved at least six months of sobriety and completed a four-to-six-hour training session on techniques like empathetic listening and motivational interviewing.

Tempest also offers select free resources. In 2021 alone, 50,000 people signed up for its free newsletter, bringing the total readership to nearly 100,000. The company recently launched a new, free app called Rethink, which is designed to provide a low-barrier entry point to people who may later decide to join. The app “has self-guided mini-courses and challenges to help people jump-start their journey,” says Sun. “Then, when they’re ready, they have a friendly community they can opt in to through Tempest.”

“We offer a really robust program, whether it’s our group-support calls or our community space or coaching,” says Adriana Pentz, Tempest’s VP of member experience. “There isn’t one specific path that an individual takes as they go through the Tempest experience.” This, she says, is by design: Pentz’s own recovery journey began in AA, which she found “robotic” and rigid. Tempest aims to take a more holistic view, treating not only alcohol addiction but, when possible, the underlying factors that enable it. “I was diagnosed with postpartum depression, and I self-medicated with alcohol,” says Pentz. “A lot of traditional recovery modalities out there want to separate those two things, but I couldn’t heal by trying to separate those issues.”

Although Tempest’s official party line is that it’s not an AA competitor, it’s clear that the company markets and conceives of itself as an attractive alternative — i.e., a competitor. In 2019, Whitaker wrote an op-ed for the New York Times titled “The Patriarchy of Alcoholics Anonymous,” adapted from her book, in which she argued that AA’s foundation as an organization for upper-middle-class white men precludes it from serving women and other marginalized groups with equal efficacy. This is, to an extent, borne out by demographic data: A 2014 membership survey found AA’s membership was 62 percent men and 38 percent women; 89 percent were white. (Tempest’s membership appears to be mostly women, though the company declines to provide specific demographic information. It will say only that 30 percent of paying members belong to at least one of its four identity-group offerings: BIPOC, LGBTQ, people over 50, and parents.)

Holly Whitaker Photo: Courtesy of Holly Whitaker

Particularly damaging, according to Whitaker, is AA’s formulaic humility. “If you’re a woman, you’re most likely not wielding an ego so big it can’t fit through the door or suffering from a pathological lack of humility,” she writes in Quit. “From the outset, AA felt like … the most oppressive thing I could do to my already oppressed spirit.” The first step of AA is to admit powerlessness; for women, Whitaker considers this concession redundant. Raised to question our every move, thought, and feeling, women don’t need to be further broken down. “To a woman or any other oppressed group, being told to renounce power, voice, authority, and desire is just more of the same shit,” she writes. “It’s what made us sick in the first place.”

Unlike AA, Tempest does not ask its members to identify as alcoholics, and in fact encourages them not to, preferring the term alcohol use disorder, or AUD. This is also increasingly preferred by addiction specialists, who find the term alcoholic outdated and marginalizing. “Across every mental-health condition, we’ve moved away from using nomenclature as someone’s identity,” says Ravi Shah, Tempest’s clinical adviser and the chief innovation officer at Columbia University’s department of psychiatry. Just as we no longer say someone “is bipolar” but rather “has bipolar disorder,” so too is it preferred to say someone “has alcohol use disorder.” “I think that’s just a much more inclusive way of speaking,” Shah explains.

However old-fashioned and inflexible, though, AA is also free. Tempest’s inclusive approach is therefore commercial as well as political. By targeting people who “struggle with drinking” or want to “reevaluate their relationship with alcohol,” Tempest casts a much wider (and more profitable) net than many traditional recovery programs do. And, perhaps, so it should. There are far more people who drink too much than will ever attend an AA meeting, and alcohol consumption continues to rise: According to the Journal of the American Medical Association, women’s heavy drinking rose by 41 percent during the pandemic.

The CDC’s standard for “excessive drinking” is likely lower than most Americans realize (or want to acknowledge): eight or more drinks per week for women, 15 or more for men. For women, this averages out to 1.14 drinks per day, a figure many of my women friends and acquaintances copped to meeting (if not exceeding) throughout the pandemic’s darkest months. Having a glass or two of wine a night is, as Whitaker writes, seen as normal, an appropriate way for adults to unwind before bed. But women who drink even that much incur significant health risks, including a 5-to-9 percent increased risk of breast cancer. Alcohol’s ability to cause cancer was established by the World Health Organization in 1988, yet less than half of Americans know it is a carcinogen. The alcohol industry is inclined to keep it that way, and the myth that “moderate” drinking is healthy persists.

It’s a tired millennial joke that everything causes cancer so some level of risk-taking is necessarily accepted as part of living an enjoyable life. Cancer happens later, and we want to relax and have fun now. But health problems among moderate drinkers (defined by the CDC as up to one drink per day for women) can set in much sooner: Alcoholic liver disease has experienced “off the charts” growth in recent years, particularly among people between 25 and 34 years of age. And these are the risks incurred by the drinker herself; harder to quantify are the interpersonal effects that drinking too much can have on the people around her. As Whitaker points out, there is no widely recognized term for the alcohol equivalent of secondhand smoke, though external consequences (among them increased intimate-partner violence, sexual assault, and drunk driving) are incontrovertible.

We tend to think of drinkers in binary terms: those who have a problem, and those whose drinking is normal. With Tempest, Whitaker wants members to ask themselves what, if anything, is so “normal” about drinking at all. “At the core basis of my belief system is that people, when given the right information and the right support systems, can make the best choices for themselves,” she tells me. “I think that extends to what drugs they put in their bodies.”

At times, Tempest’s free-spirited ethos can feel like a modern Moderation Management, a secular AA alternative created in 1994 to enable “non-problematic drinkers” to simply reduce their drinking, rather than stop completely. Whitaker says the Tempest goal is neither to teach people how to drink less nor to force them to stop. “We look at ourselves as a harm-reduction model but not an explicit harm-reduction model,” she says. “When they walk in the door, we’re not confiscating their drugs and giving them a pee cup and saying ‘Now it’s over.’ We start with the basis that it’s about you and how you feel and how your life is working.” Allen Carr’s The Easy Way to Stop Drinking was central to Whitaker’s recovery, and the Tempest approach, like his, aims to remove the wool from drinkers’ eyes — to help them see why they don’t want to drink and don’t have to.

It is, of course, not that simple for everyone; not all drinking results from a lack of information about its consequences. People suffering from severe physical dependence on alcohol may scoff at some of Whitaker’s sharp, if occasionally simplistic, proselytizing. Alcohol use disorder is a spectrum, and people on the severe end can experience withdrawal symptoms in as little as eight hours without a drink. In these cases, clinical intervention — which Tempest is not — may be necessary. That could include a prescription for one of three FDA-approved medications for alcohol use disorder, along with psychosocial treatments like therapy, support groups, and case management, says Edwin Salsitz, an addiction-medicine specialist and associate clinical professor of psychiatry at Mount Sinai. Tempest can’t help everyone with AUD, but it doesn’t have to. Or, as Salsitz puts it to me, “All treatments work for some people; no one treatment works for everyone.” Excessive alcohol use is so common and so damaging that anything aiming to reduce it is welcome to try. The real challenge, of course, is proving it works.

For decades, AA’s reputation relied largely on good faith and anecdotes. Not until relatively recently was there solid evidence that it worked at all. “It took a long time to accumulate proof, including intervention by the Institute of Medicine and the National Academy of Sciences to get some rigorous controlled trials done,” says John Kelly, a professor of psychiatry in addiction medicine at Harvard Medical School. “In the last 30 years, there’ve been dozens. There’s very strong evidence now that AA is an effective recovery support structure.”

Whether Tempest wants to be known as an AA competitor or not, AA’s efficacy is one standard against which Tempest will be measured. Because the company was founded just six years ago, many more years may pass before anyone can say with any real rigor that it works. In 2018, in partnership with the University of Buffalo and Syracuse University, Tempest conducted its first efficacy study, from which it prominently highlights the following findings in its marketing: Subjects who completed the eight-week program designed for the study reported a 50 percent reduction in alcohol cravings, 66 percent fewer drinks consumed on a typical drinking day, and a 25 percent reduction in anxiety and depression. These are impressive figures but are considerably diluted by the study’s design as well as the bias inherent in research done by a company with a product to sell. While the study’s initial sample size was 541 people, only 72 completed a full year’s worth of follow-up assessments, and there was no control group against which Tempest was measured. The study’s authors judiciously enumerate these limitations, noting that “observational research cannot discern causality.” There is no way to know that Tempest was responsible for the reductions in drinking, anxiety, and depression. Similar fluctuations might have occurred in any group observed over a year with no intervention at all. Furthermore, the sample is highly homogenous; the vast majority of subjects were highly educated white women with low average levels of alcohol use.

Shah, Tempest’s clinical adviser, has a different take on the study. “I thought it was a fantastic start,” he tells me. “If you look at much larger mental-health companies out there, they have very little if anything in the way of randomized control evidence.” That Tempest has done this kind of research at all, Shah says, is a sign the company is invested in proving what works and learning from what doesn’t.

It’s true, too, that Tempest can’t be faulted for what doesn’t yet exist; long-term conclusions can’t be expected from such a young company. Short-term conclusions can, however, be overstated, and with all addictions, there is a sizable caveat to short-term success. “It’s relatively easy, no matter what treatment you choose to undergo, to do well in the near term to either stop drinking or to reduce drinking or drink more safely,” says Salsitz. “The problem with AA is that people stop going, and relapse rates are very high over the long term. Relapse rates are fairly high in the long term in all addictions.”

Here, I expect Whitaker may balk at the perceived pessimism. One of the things she dislikes most about AA folklore, she writes, is that “admitting a drinking problem meant alcoholism, and alcoholism meant a life sentence.” It’s not that Whitaker doesn’t believe certain individuals are more vulnerable to alcohol addiction (she does, and she considers herself one of them); it’s just that alcohol is addictive for everyone, and if we start there, no sober-curious individual need consider herself uniquely predestined to fall off the wagon.

For Whitaker, this approach offered a much-needed alternative, and it has worked for her. “You could not have gotten me to go to a Twelve Step meeting, and even though I was making six figures a year, I could not afford the time or the expense of rehab,” she says. “When it comes to addiction, it’s not that we’re so flooded with options. We don’t have any.”

Addiction experts are inclined to agree with this assessment. Even if there’s more evidence that other methods are effective, says Kelly, they’re far from capturing the full range of heavy drinkers. Tempest may be especially attractive, and therefore useful, to people who, like Whitaker, are turned off by AA or unable to afford the time and financial costs that can come with rehab (which can amount to tens of thousands of dollars). “I think the key thing is not to get stuck on one form of treatment,” says Salsitz. “If one form is not working well, move to another form.”

Valentine, a 33-year-old Tempest member and former volunteer, tried so many alcohol recovery methods they’re now launching a podcast about it called Recovery Disco. “I was in AA for five years, in and out of homelessness, and it didn’t work,” they tell me. Meditation and Buddhism finally helped them get sober, but they struggled to find a community that could provide continuous, meaningful support — until they came to Tempest. “I was tired of running into so much sexism and homophobia and transphobia in the recovery communities I’ve been in,” they tell me. By providing an inclusive atmosphere and an alternate approach, Tempest enabled Valentine to envision long-term sobriety for the first time. That atmosphere has proven supportive in unexpected ways, too. “I didn’t start transitioning outwardly until I was in Tempest because I was in a community of women, and I was able to really honor that part of myself and my feminine gender,” Valentine explains, adding that they completed the Tempest intensive more than ten times (nine of them for free in exchange for volunteering).

A 46-year-old member named Olga rediscovered Tempest during the pandemic, when she found herself drinking to cope with the stresses of lockdown and remote schooling her two children. She had mentally bookmarked Tempest years earlier, back when it was called Hip Sobriety, but only recently decided she wanted to use it to stop drinking for good. She signed up in late June of last year, had a “last hurrah” for the Fourth of July, and then began the now-defunct intensive course; she has remained a core member. Olga was drawn to Tempest not only because it’s geared toward women but because it seemed to have a lower bar for entry, so to speak. “I don’t want to rag on AA because I know it really helps a lot of people, but for me it’s a last resort,” she says. “Tempest advertised itself as, We’re not for those who are in a health crisis when it comes to drinking; we don’t do detox. This is more for a lifestyle change.”

Whitaker’s marriage of feminism and alcohol abstinence is effective insofar as she has created a community in which women and queer people who feel unwelcome or unsafe at AA can explore a different road to sobriety. Less convincing are those parts of her book in which she veers into The Secret territory, imbuing the act of not drinking with values and powers I’m not sure it has. In a Rachel Hollis–esque chapter called “Working With Our Core Beliefs,” Whitaker performs a white feminist rite of passage: invoking not really comparable public figures of color. She writes that real power, like that acquired via questioning one’s relationship with alcohol, is “the kind of power that people like Nelson Mandela and Mahatma Gandhi and Martin Luther King Jr. and Rosa Parks and the Dalai Lama all had or have — a quality within unaffected by outer circumstances, an eternal flame that cannot be touched.”

It’s simply much healthier for women (like everyone) not to drink than to drink, but this fact alone can’t fill a best-selling book or launch a for-profit recovery program or, perhaps, convince as many people to stop. The belief that we can radically change our own lives for the better, as the direct result of some “new” philosophy or financial investment or weight-loss regimen, is essential to the self-help genre, and in that respect, Quit Like a Woman is no different. But where other gurus may encourage readers to spend money on what amounts to empty promises, Whitaker’s pitch — that your life will improve if you stop drinking or even drink less — is hard to object to, given alcohol’s many harms. Still, it’s unclear how, exactly, sobriety may confer the sort of sociopolitical influence Whitaker seems to envision (“What if we all rejected the poison — then what? I’ll tell you what: world domination, bitches”), particularly for women who aren’t already advantaged, as so many Tempest members are.

Sobriety is measured in ever-expanding increments of time: days, then weeks, then months, and then years. Getting good long-term data takes decades, as success tends to be defined by the absence of relapse; just because someone has stopped drinking for a month or a year doesn’t necessarily mean she won’t drink again. Overall rates of alcohol relapse are high but unevenly distributed, says Salsitz. People with homes, jobs, money, and support systems — people like most of Tempest’s members — are much more likely to have better outcomes than people without. And while it’s too soon to say how many of Tempest’s 10,000 (and counting) paying members have stopped drinking for good, its adherents are effusive, and that’s not nothing. What that number clearly indicates is a real need for support. Albeit prone to the occasional girlboss flourish, Tempest aims to provide it. Does it matter how exactly one’s sobriety is accomplished as long as one accomplishes it? As Salsitz so succinctly puts it, “It’s whatever works.”

*Correction: This story has been updated to more accurately depict Whitaker’s prior relationship with alcohol.

When Girl Power Meets Sobriety