A recent influx of sobriety coverage from mainstream media including, The New York Times, NPR, VOX, and more, have sparked conversations in the recovery world about how sobriety should be portrayed in the news — and whether or not recent stories should be celebrated, criticized, or both.
Most agree the media’s recognition of more people choosing to abstain from alcohol is a huge win. There’s the old adage that says, “all press is good press,” and — for the most part — this rings true for the recent sobriety coverage. With the more public acknowledgment that people are giving up alcohol or have a desire to drink less, the bar is lowered and, ideally, there is less stigma and secrecy surrounding the choice to be alcohol-free.
Although much of the sober community, who are vocal online, have welcomed and encouraged the recent press, many have expressed concern about sobriety being positioned as “trendy,” especially those who are in recovery and fought for years to get sober.
With the more public acknowledgment that people are giving up alcohol and/or have a desire to drink less, the bar is lowered and, ideally, there is less stigma and secrecy surrounds the choice to be alcohol-free.
“It’s great more people are talking about this because, frankly, alcohol is stupid,” says Laura McKowen, teacher, speaker, and writer who recently wrote a blog post on this topic titled, “What’s the Deal with Sober Curious?” “It was time for a change in the dominant paradigm of how we talk about sobriety. But not drinking and a cool IG feed isn’t a light switch to a better life — it takes a hell of a lot more than that.”
Stories like The New York Times piece, which focused heavily on what the writer deemed “the new sobriety” and cited pop-up events, pricey mocktails, and fancy Instagram feeds, missed the mark by glossing over the hard work that goes into getting sober, no matter where you are on the drinking spectrum. Sobriety isn’t generally something you can dip in and out of with ease, and blurring the voices of recovery and those who still “drink a little” is dangerous, especially for people looking for a way to keep their booze — even if it is costing them their lives.
“Co-opting the pretty parts of sobriety completely strips it of all meaning.”
“Co-opting the pretty parts of sobriety completely strips it of all meaning,” Holly Glenn Whitaker, Founder and CEO of Tempest*, told Refinery29. For many, sobriety is a part of their healing process — how they recover from the trauma and substance abuse that had been destroying their lives. It is not, as Holly posted recently on Instagram, about consumerism. “[Healing] is moving from a spark of awareness around what is wrong, what is stuck, what is falling apart, what is unbearable, what is potentially murdering us — to confrontation, to undoing, to in between, to beyond.”
So here are a few things sobriety is not. Sobriety is not a passing fad. It is not “in” only to be “out,” like the hit summer song or the new wellness scheme. It is not a quick fix to get “bikini ready” or a detox only to “retox.” Above all, sobriety is not something you can buy or “something that is perfectly Instagrammable,” as Holly wrote. Sobriety is something you have to work to achieve. Removing alcohol from your life while undertaking the process of building a life you don’t want to escape from is much more than a filtered Instagram photo of a $15 matcha latte with adaptogens.
Removing alcohol from your life while undertaking the process of building a life you don’t want to escape from is much more than a filtered Instagram photo of a $15 matcha latte with adaptogens.
Ruby Warrington, author of the recent book, Sober Curious: The Blissful Sleep, Laser Focus, Limitless Presence, and Deep Connection Awaiting Us All on the Other Side of Alcohol, does not identify as in recovery. However, she does recognize the differences between “sober curious” and “in recovery” and urges the news to pay better attention to the distinction between the two.
“Overall, there has not been enough care taken in differentiating the ‘sober curious’ approach, and who this is for, from recovery from alcohol addiction,” says Warrington. “I think The Guardian did the best job with this. I would also like to see more reporting on WHY people are questioning their drinking, younger generations in particular, and what this says about our changing values as a society.”
Many other voices in recovery who have used Instagram to share their stories agree that achieving sobriety is more difficult than is being conveyed by some of the media.
“Sobriety is something to be incredibly proud of, but it’s a hard-won fight. And there is much more to the story than just pretty pictures, books, retreats, [alcohol-free] products and [alcohol-free] bars,” says Lara Frazier, a writer known on Instagram as @sillylara. “I think we should be more compassionate around this and recognize that sobriety is a monumental achievement, not some passing trend.”
“There is much more to the [sobriety] story than just pretty pictures, books, retreats, [alcohol-free] products and [alcohol-free] bars.”
An additional focal point for much of the coverage has been “sober influencers,” a term met with mixed reactions from the sober community online, especially from those being pointed to as such. For some, the term “influencer” has a negative connotation associated with people looking to monetize their audience for their own financial gain, rather than help others in a meaningful, potentially life-saving way.
“I think the term influencer is limiting. It reminds me of people who create accounts to sell products and/or post other brands’ products to make money. It is not what I’m about,” says Frazier. “I’m fiercely protective of my audience because a large majority of them have experienced mental health or substance issues.”
Beth Holden, on the other hand, known on Instagram as @sober__bitch, welcomes the term as she sees it as part of the evolution of sobriety conversations.
“The term ‘influencer’ is just a part of our society currently,” says Holden. “Anyone with a large following of people on social media, no matter the content they’re sharing, is now deemed an ‘influencer’. The sober community is not immune to this. The emergence of the term, ‘sober influencer’ is showing us the conversation around sobriety has grown large enough that society needed to name it. Whether we like the name or not, this is an important milestone we shouldn’t overlook.”
“The emergence of the term, ‘sober influencer’ is showing us the conversation around sobriety has grown large enough that society needed to name it.”
In the end, if this high-profile coverage inspires more people to examine their drinking habits, then it is objectively a good thing. The hope is that we see more stories in the mainstream media that bring visibility to the people who risked so much to speak up and the resources they created, such as programs like Tempest Sobriety School (founded by our parent company, Tempest), books like This Naked Mind: Control Alcohol, Find Freedom, Discover Happiness & Change Your Life by Annie Grace, and recovery podcasts like Recovery Happy Hour. Digging into these types of resources is what saved my life, so I think in order for coverage to actually help people, it has to dig deeper and prompt investigation into concrete tools that support a life of recovery.
Conversations around the issues these stories have brought up are important and something we should keep having. Those in recovery have a right to speak up about how sobriety is being portrayed because they are the ones in the field, inspiring the media coverage, and staying alcohol-free in a world that pushes booze on us from all angles every single day.
So, for the writers who choose to take on this weighty subject matter and especially those who’ve never struggled with substance abuse, please do your homework before filing what you call “the new sobriety” as just another trend in the Sunday Styles section. We need your voices, just like you need ours.
*Tempest is the parent company of The Temper. Founded by Holly Whitaker, Tempest Sobriety School is an 8-week course that includes weekly lectures, live Q+A calls, and can also include a coaching program.