She couldn’t have been younger than 65. Fit, trim, close-cropped silver hair, loading her third case of wine into her Costco cart. The man next to her laughed and said, “You’re going to ride this out in style, eh?”
She smiled. It was just days before Colorado Governor Jared Polis issued stay-at-home orders.
It seems that she was not alone. Health officials issued warnings about drinking during quarantine, citing the 55 percent increase in alcohol sales in the week ending on March 21. Other reports indicate that online alcohol sales jumped more than 243 percent during the pandemic. Coronavirus-induced drinking memes swept across the internet, showcasing a nation’s coping mechanism for times of crisis.
But the pandemic has also coincided with a growing number of Americans rethinking their relationship with alcohol. Though far less meme-worthy, the “sober curious” movement has taken off recently, prompting people to make intentional choices about what, why, and how often they drink.
Named after the book Sober Curious by Ruby Warrington, it’s gaining popularity among young millennials and older Gen Zers who are looking for a healthier lifestyle. There are now “nonalcoholic spirits” that are soaring in sales, thousands joining groups to promote “sobriety as a lifestyle,” and even bars that offer a wide range of mocktails or cater specifically to people who are sober curious or in recovery.
No longer is sobriety seen as just the last resort for people whose lives are falling apart. Many in the sober curious set would not label themselves as traditional alcoholics, but they do wonder if their drinking is a problem and recognize the benefits of ditching the booze.
Over the years, I’d asked myself the same kinds of questions. When my children were toddlers, and the gray Michigan winter days blurred into one long Groundhog Day, I caught myself anxiously watching the clock for 5 p.m. when I could open up a bottle of Pinot Grigio.
I started wondering if that extra glass was really necessary, and if things would be easier if I didn’t have to fight the morning mental fog leftover from the wine the night before. Would life be better without alcohol? And more to the point: Did I like the release brought on by my glass of wine just a little too much?
I didn’t identify with the term alcoholic because, to be honest, my drinking didn’t look different from my friends—Christians who, like I did, devoted their life in some way to promoting the gospel message. After all, I reasoned with my inner doubts, I wasn’t living in the gutter! I had two advanced degrees, a nice home, steady work, two strong, confident daughters, and a healthy marriage. What was the problem?
It wasn’t until I discovered the sober curious movement that I found the language for it.
During the pandemic, I attended 30 online recovery groups for alcoholics in 30 days. The first thing I learned was that the people in these groups weren’t the people I imagined them to be: struggling for work, struggling in relationships. Instead, the women were especially high achieving. They were doctors, lawyers, marathon runners, CEOs, and entrepreneurs. In their life before, they drank to manage their extraordinary responsibilities. To my utter shock, their stories did not sound any different from mine.
But there was another lesson I learned. It was one of those lessons that upends everything, that gets in the roots and the cracks of your character, that digs out the deep-rooted weed sown into your soul long ago. I realized that the very skills that helped me survive a dysfunctional home—perfectionism, overachievement—were killing me as an adult. And I had to let go. I had to change.
Some Christians fall into a cycle of perfectionism and achievement and ultimately dejection when they fail to live up to impossible standards because they believe God will not accept them any other way. I cycled because I believed tectonic plates would shift if I wasn’t perfect.
If you had asked me, I would have told you, “Of course, I know the world won’t fall apart if I’m not perfect.” I knew it, but I didn’t know it the way I know I love my daughters. God did not require, expect, or even ask me for perfection. He never had. But those meetings helped me see how much I stood upon my own perfectionism. Being at those recovery meetings cracked the ground beneath me and forced me to stand back on the solid ground of my faith.
As a researcher at Denver Seminary who studies ministry to young adults, I had read studies on addiction and virtue and heard of young adults asking: Why isn’t the church more like recovery groups?
Indeed, people who populated these meetings demonstrated more vulnerability than I have seen in any church group. Perhaps because you’re known the second you step in the door. And because you’re known, you know you don’t have to hide your pain and failures behind a façade or a smiling face. The people in recovery groups have already met their worst selves. The world can be a brutal place, and they are not afraid to say it.
As a sober curious person who has turned down more than a few drinks at Christian events, it’s occurred to me that alcohol is the only drug you have to explain not using. Embarrassed, I’ve whispered to bartenders more than once at open bars, “Just a ginger ale please.” Not imbibing at Christian events sometimes raises eyebrows and other times stokes jokes about whether or not you are a “fundie”—a fundamentalist who judgmentally looks down on drinking. (When did non-imbibing become something you have to explain around Christians?)
Paul references our call to “not treat with contempt” those whose faith leads them to not indulge (Rom. 14). Perhaps in America today, that means not assuming all of us who are “free” to drink will choose to, and not second-guessing those who pass on alcohol for a range of reasons.
Because of my work in young adult ministry, I also see the sober curious movement as an example of how the younger generations can lead the older. They’ve been willing to rethink categories and overcome the stigma to embrace a life sans alcohol, or with a lot less of it. And the research is backing up their instincts that sobriety really is the healthiest option.
On June 9, the American Cancer Society, in a major move, issued new guidelines on the consumption of alcohol and cancer risk. It recommends not one, not two drinks per day for optimal health, but none. Not drinking alcohol is the third most important thing you can do to decrease your risk of cancer, just behind not smoking and maintaining a healthy weight. Furthermore, studies show that mental health is affected even among moderate drinkers.
Going without still is not always the easy choice. Sometimes, nothing sounds better than sitting in my backyard as the sun sets over the Rockies with a charcuterie board and chilled glass of Pinot Grigio. But I know that in forgoing that, I will go to bed and wake up with peace and mental clarity to face my day. I will enjoy a deep connectedness with God and my family. Most of all, I will experience life unblunted. I will walk through valleys, even the valley of the shadow of death, without the aid of alcohol to numb the pain. And I will summit mountaintops, joys unnumbered, living in high definition.