ALL OR NOTHING?
Millennials are reinventing our relationships to alcohol.
By KYLIE ADAIR
I recently went to a wedding and made a conscious decision to have only one drink. I sipped an increasingly warm can of beer all night, danced, wanted to go home a little earlier than the rest of my friends but not by much, and woke up the next morning feeling fresh. And calm. Usually, the morning after a night out involves intense anxiety that lingers through the day. A night out also usually involves more than one drink. I don’t think it’s a coincidence.
I’m not an alcoholic. That’s not denial—it’s just the truth. I’ve never felt a need to drink, I don’t drink by myself and drinking doesn’t affect other parts of my life. But I am part of a growing group of millennials examining and reevaluating the role alcohol (and other substances, too) plays in our lives, whether we feel like ‘alcoholic’ is an accurate self-descriptor or not.
Since research around alcohol use tends to focus on alcoholism and sobriety—two opposite ends of the spectrum—it’s hard to find numbers around millennials who are negotiating healthier relationships to substance in ways that are more nuanced than our parents’ generation, but communities are popping up online. “Sober curious” is the term coined—and the title of a book written—by Ruby Warrington that’s emerged as a descriptor for those who aren’t necessarily interested in going full-on sober (at least immediately), but who recognize that they might have unhealthy, relationships to substance—in the same way we can have unhealthy relationships to food, to our smartphones, to anything, really, that plays a role in our lives.
Hip Sobriety is another manifestation of the sober curious mindset. The Facebook page has more than thirty thousand likes and the profile picture features the community’s founder, Holly Whitaker, in a millennial pink t-shirt that reads, “Feminist Sober Killjoy.” Through Hip Sobriety, Whitaker offers women resources and community around substance abuse and recovery. “What we really want to show people is that there’s no one way to recover,” Kelly Gardiner, who heads marketing for Hip Sobriety, tells me.
Hip Sobriety and Sober Curious both feel like distinctly young approaches, and very different from how we’ve seen drinking and sobriety portrayed in popular media for decades—namely, with Alcoholics Anonymous presented as the dominant, if not only, way to address problem drinking. I wanted to dig deeper into how this cultural shift plays out on a more individual level, so I called Annina Schmid, a counsellor in Toronto who works primarily with millennial women on addiction.
“A lot of my clients don’t know for sure whether they have a ‘problem’ or not,” Schmid said, “but they definitely have a strong sense of, ‘This isn’t working. I’m not doing myself any favours here and I don’t really care if it’s considered a problem or not because I notice that I’m not getting to where I want to be in life or I’m not spending my time the way I want to spend it.’”
I wondered what makes our generation so willing to critically examine our lives in this way, even when, in many cases, nothing is explicitly wrong with how we’re living. It feels like a stark contrast to the narrative of someone who hits rock bottom, perhaps loses their job or severs relationships with family, and is only then forced to reevaluate their relationship to alcohol. For me, anyway, it feels much less extreme than that.
Schmid agreed, and explained that thanks in part to social media, we have more varied and readily available templates for how to live healthier lives than our parents and grandparents did. “We have so many examples and testimonials to what [sobriety or sober curiosity] means. And also because celebrities can’t really hide anything anymore, it comes out sooner or later so that even if you follow somebody who’s quote-unquote perfect, they’re not really—there’s always something going on. I just think we’re moving away from this idea that everybody needs to be flawless all the time.”
But Schmid also said millennials feel a distinct pressure to find some greater purpose for our lives—that does sound familiar—and that, because of this, we’re more aware of the habits that hold us back from finding and living that purpose, and more keen to change them. If drinking is clouding our focus, making us less likely to meet the lofty goals we have for our lives, it’s out.
And the ways we kick drinking are very different, too. While the structured approach of Alcoholics Anonymous was the most common method a generation ago, Schmid says her approach—and many other professionals’—is much more fluid. “One thing that’s different is that my clients self-schedule, so they can have a weekly appointment if they want, but there’s not a time requirement. I really believe that everybody is able to determine what they need and what is helpful to them,” she said.
One of the most interesting—and, personally, shame-squashing—aspects of how millennials are approaching sobriety is that we don’t seem to be tied to an all or nothing model. “I would never tell anyone, ‘Your goal needs to be abstinence,’” Schmid said. “I don’t even go there.” Instead, millennials are embracing the in-between.
“In the past few weeks, I’ve heard from more than 100 Americans in their 20s and 30s who have begun to make... changes in their drinking habits or who are contemplating ways to drink less,” Amanda Mull recently wrote for The Atlantic. “But sobriety, a term that generally refers to the total abstention practiced by people in recovery from substance-abuse problems, doesn’t quite tell the story. What some have been quick to characterize as an interest in being sober might actually be more like a search for moderation in a culture that has long treated alcohol as a dichotomy: Either you drink whenever the opportunity presents itself, or you don’t drink at all. Many Millennials—and especially the urban, college-educated consumers prized by marketers—might just be tired of drinking so much.”
Millennials are, at the end of the day, a generation of people who are willing to critically examine the systems and norms in which we exist. And that willingness to reinvent what doesn’t work for us is turned inward, too.
Overall, said Schmid, “there’s more of an openness and an interest in self-exploration, in exploring the possibilities. It’s not just one-size-fits-all—we’re really moving away from that and I love it. The question is so much bigger than drinking or not drinking.”