• Shanna Whan is the founder of national alcohol awareness charity ‘Sober in the Country'. (Supplied)Source: Supplied
Calling yourself ‘sober curious’ might seem uncomfortably ‘fun’, but it’s not a bad way to break open a tough conversation.
Candice Chung

5 Mar 2020 - 3:38 PM  UPDATED 6 Mar 2020 - 8:59 AM

I am looking at the photo of a young woman in a London restaurant. Glass raised, lips pepper-red — the still-life of a feeling I know so well. In a moment, she will take a sip from the long stemmed glass. I picture that first rush of icy liquid — one elephant, two elephant, three — before the hard edges of the week melt in the stomach. I look at my laptop. It’s 4.08pm. I imagine myself in her seat as the night hums.

This would’ve been typical social media fodder, were it not for the fact that she was posing with a virgin espresso martini in hand — an order that tends to confuse bartenders. (“Sometimes I get a puzzled look — so just a coffee then?”) Katie Brunsdon, who runs the Instagram account Stylishly Sober, belongs to a growing community of online sobriety advocates: women and men with huge social media followings that flank wellness-flavoured posts with hashtags like #stopthestigma #soberlife #soberstyle #soberAF.

At the centre of this alcohol-free world are people who identify as ‘sober curious’. Coined several years ago by British writer and sobriety advocate Ruby Warrington, it’s a term that describes those who are openly questioning their relationship with alcohol. From the movement grew alcohol-free bars, events, dance parties, talks and retreats — giving sobriety a new, internet-friendly sheen, where abstinence isn’t a gloomy subject, but embraced as a point of pride.

“Sobriety is having a moment,” declares one headline. On Instagram, all-caps posts ask, “Where my sober babes at?”, alongside shareable war cries like “Clarity is the new high”.

It’s easy to dismiss the colourful treatment of alcohol addiction as flippant, or in mid-2010s speak — ‘basic’, even. Compared to the earnest, instructive tone of recovery programs like Alcoholics Anonymous, the language of the sober curious can often feel — despite the seriousness of the subject matter — unnervingly ‘fun’ (“Alcohol is the f—k boy of all f—k boys!”). 

But to Shanna Whan, founder of national alcohol awareness charity ‘Sober in the Country’, there is something new and transformative about breaking open a very “fear-based conversation”.

“Traditionally, anything to do with alcohol is big and scary and intimidating."

“Traditionally, anything to do with alcohol is big and scary and intimidating. And you did not discuss it because if you talked about it, you were an alcoholic,” says Whan. “So sober curiosity is bringing a friendly tone to a conversation…where people who resonate with it want a soft way into a hard chat.”

A recovered alcoholic based in country Australia, where anonymous support is often rare or non-existent, Whan sees the merit of the movement in “catching people before they fall in”. 

“I’m not sober curious — I’m more in the line of, if I didn’t get sober, I would’ve died. But because of my personal experience, I am all about doing what I can to encourage curiosity around sobriety, for those who don’t need more dramatic measures,” says Whan.

“The softer approach is fantastic if people are not in crisis and we’re trying to be preventative. But a serious and informed approach needs to be taken if people have fallen in and are drowning in crisis,” she says.

Here, a key thing to note is difference between sobriety and recovery.

It’s one thing to quit drinking — for good, or for a short while — to improve one’s sleep, work life or relationships. But recovery, on the other hand, refers to those in active addiction who are “addressing any underlying addiction issues through therapy or treatment programs.” The latter — a long road back from a life-threatening condition — should not be conflated with someone attempting a sober weekend or Dry July.

Ultimately, finding a way to talk about our relationship with alcohol, without shame, is the key for addicts and the ‘sober curious’ alike. It’s also what prevents people from falling through the cracks of ‘invisible alcoholism’, thanks to the stigma around so-called ‘problem drinkers’ —  a damning label that implies someone isn’t simply struggling, but failing at daily life.

“In the end, I was invisible. I was literally dying under the watch of my community because by day I was Shanna the amazing and by night I was a derelict in my own home. I was a black out drunk and nobody knew,” says Whan.

The shame that compels someone to stay in denial means they begin to self-isolate.

The shame that compels someone to stay in denial means they begin to self-isolate.

“By the time that happens, people are no longer socialising,” says Whan. “People are now retreating, they’re isolating, and doing their dangerous drinking at home away from people who can see. And that was me.

“I no longer went to the pub and touched alcohol, because I did not trust myself. Because I knew as soon as I touched one drink, it was going to end in disaster. So I went to events and pretended I was fine and said I was driving. But when I was at home and opened the wine — it was all over.”

Normalising the conversation about our relationship with drinking: whether it’s the very real pang you feel for a drink at 4pm on a stressful day, or a far harder, more painful struggle with alcohol —can be life-saving.

“Our birthright as human beings is to be happy, and the addict just wants to be a human being,”  writes author and esteemed addiction expert Gabor Maté.

In this sense, we may come to see that addiction itself isn’t the problem, but an attempt to solve a problem — one of “overwhelming stress, of lost connection, of loss of control”. In other words, “a forlorn attempt to solve the problem of human pain,” says Maté.

And it’s this kind of radical, non-judgmental clarity, perhaps — that sobriety influencers call “as good as a high”.

Shanna Whan will appear at the Sober Curious panel at All About Women on Sunday, 8 March. She’s the the CEO | founder of national alcohol awareness charity 'Sober in the Country’ and a finalist in the 2020 Regional Woman of the Year Award.

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