How does the decision to go sober change our sense of identity?
by Robin Babb
When does something you do become a part of who you are? Am I a writer because I write every day, or because I get paid to do it? Or is it simply because I call myself a writer?
Alternately, when does something you abstain from doing become a part of who you are?
I have a lot of friends who are sober. I’m not sober myself, but after reading Kylie Adair’s “All or Nothing?” article about the growing number of young people who are “sober curious,” I decided to spend some time reexamining how I use (or abuse) alcohol. I typically drink a few times a week and think I have a fairly healthy relationship with alcohol, but I also think there’s merit to the argument that the only healthy relationship with alcohol is not drinking it at all. It is, after all, a depressant—which is why it’s definitely not a good idea to drink when you’re already feeling low.
Drinkers, even those who don’t necessarily have a drinking problem, tend to get defensive when questioned about the healthiness of their drinking. When you went in for that last physical at the doctor’s office, how did you react to those clinical questions: “On average, how many times do you drink per week? And how many drinks do you have?” It always makes me feel a little nervous, and I often stretch the truth a bit in my answer, even though I don’t think I have a problem.
I can understand making the lifestyle decision to become sober even when you don’t have a drinking problem or addiction. There are undeniable health benefits to sobriety in both the short- and long-term—drinking has been linked to increased cancer risk, liver damage, high blood pressure, and a host of other health concerns. And alcohol has been partly responsible for a lot of awful behavior throughout history, with drunk driving and violence against women as just two obvious examples. Several people I know made the decision to become sober—or, in some cases, to never even start drinking—not because they had a problem, but more because of conscientious objection to the culture and negative side effects around drinking. Some consider sobriety a part of their political identity.
“Being sober fits into my self-understanding of practicing decolonization of my body and mind,” says Lazarus Letcher, a grad student and musician of colour in Albuquerque. “My dad never drank because he sees alcohol as a tool used to control people of colour and destroy our communities. Choosing to be fully present with my feelings and my people is part of my political practice.” In Indigenous communities as well, a growing number of young people are choosing to become or remain sober for similar political reasons. Growing up on Native American reservations yields ample evidence that alcohol is a particularly targeted colonial tool against Indigenous people. Bordertown bars and liquor stores placed conveniently just outside the borders of Native reservations lure people—largely men—out of the reservation to drink. Not coincidentally, the number of drunk driving accidents and fatalities is astronomical in these areas.
Some see sobriety as a way for them to be accountable for their words and actions. “My sobriety now is partly just habit, but mostly I’m really disgusted with drinking culture. I especially feel the responsibility as a man to stay in control of my actions,” says Garrett Corbin, a musician in Albuquerque. This accountability can take the form of a sort of pact with one’s self, an expression of self love, even. “I trust myself more [now that I’m sober] and know that I am worth more than others’ value judgements,” says Kri Van Sloun, who works with mental health patients and substance users in Northern Kentucky. Addiction and repeatedly being in impaired mental states had brought Kri’s self-image and mental health low (as mentioned before, alcohol is a depressant), and sobriety has helped them reclaim a vision of themself that they like much more. “I am more accountable and expect those who want to be in my life to [also practice] accountability and taking care of themselves.”
Sobriety inevitably changes the way people think about themselves, and it usually changes the way other people think about them, too—but not always for the better. “People feel they have to explain their drinking/drug use to you [when you’re sober]. Addiction and misery love company, so you get treated as though you’re being "better than" others by being sober,” says Christine Rehme, who works at several restaurants in Albuquerque. There are all sorts of negative stereotypes and connotations with sobriety, the most obvious being that people typically assume there’s a dark backstory to why you’re sober. “My parents and family thought it was strange at first. Going sober at 23 seems very young to people, but I think I drank enough in 5 years to last a lifetime. Now that’s it’s been 3 years people still ask questions but more out of curiosity than judgment,” says Allyson Stone, an AmeriCorps member serving in Antonito, Colorado.
The word sober means different things to each person who uses it. For some it means strict abstinence from all kinds of brain chemistry-altering substances, including alcohol, cannabis, and even caffeine. Some use the word “sober” just to signify that they’re no longer using the substance that was a problem for them—when an alcoholic quits drinking, they may continue smoking weed, but still consider themselves sober.
Everyone I spoke to for this story had a different definition of the word, and it was usually related strongly to their personal experience. For Allyson, it was “Thinking clearly about my actions and knowing that I can be myself and not put on a mask that alcohol allows.” For Lazarus, it “started off just as abstaining from alcohol, but it’s expanded to include other behavioural patterns. It’s a dedication to continual growth and self reflection.” One thing that was common with everyone’s definitions was that they all expand beyond the obvious—merely abstaining from whatever substance(s). It seems that an element of self-reflection or accountability is usually a part of sobriety, too. Which might be one of the reasons why so many sober people wear that identity with pride.
As of writing this, I haven’t had a drink for about two weeks. I don’t intend to refrain from drinking forever, but taking even this short reset has highlighted for me the different reasons that people don’t drink. Being the person out at the bar who’s not drinking makes me feel safe for others; like I’d be more capable of helping a woman out of a potentially dangerous situation with a drunk guy. Unsurprisingly, I’ve also felt pretty good in my body this whole time I haven’t been drinking—I’ve started running in the mornings again, and I’ve had more energy during the day. I texted a friend who’s been sober for most of his life to say, “Been taking a break from drinking for a while and I feel great lately. Is this how you feel all of the time?”
“Yes,” he said.
Robin Babb is the Food and Drink Editor at Weekly Alibi in Albuquerque, New Mexico. She writes about the intersections of food, wellness, and environmental and social issues. She spends her free time hiking in the Sandia Mountains and scrutinizing expensive health trends.