The last time I drank I was surrounded by family. I’d just returned from a solo trip to Scotland where I drank heavily every day for several weeks. When I got home I put my foot down. Okay, only on special occasions now. Every alcoholic knows this little cha-cha. A few weeks later, my partner’s brother’s wedding: a perfect occasion. I tried to hide from my partner just how many I was having. But on the goofy, lovely school bus back to the hotel, as everyone else on the bus sang “Bohemian Rhapsody” acapella in joyous harmony, standing on the seats and clapping, I slumped down in my chair and sobbed.
I was tired of waking up ashamed with painfully swollen eyes, if I remembered enough to feel shame. My life was finally good enough to be afraid of ruining it. My new partner barely drank, not because of addiction, but just because! It helped. He helped. And I stopped, two days shy of 29.
But there were and are things he cannot help me with. He does not understand what it is like to have a substance use disorder. Alcohol was not my only drug, just my main one: the constant, looming star from which my other drug use orbited. In my day-to-day life, it remains immensely beneficial to have a partner and friends whose social lives don’t happen to revolve around alcohol and drug use. But when I’m struggling not to relapse, they can’t relate.
Among other things, drinking helped me pretend to be the carefree person I thought everyone wanted me to be with more ease. But just underneath, I was deeply sad and lonely. I celebrated six years of sobriety in August. I took myself out to dinner alone to celebrate the occasion. I have muscled through my entire sobriety without a recovery community. Not by choice, really—there just isn’t one right for me (I tell myself).
Perhaps this is just what I do. I tell myself I have to do things alone.
I’m really proud of myself. And I’m still often deeply sad and lonely.
The loneliness I felt while I sat on that bus, it stays. Would it be assuaged in a recovery group? Would it fade in more intentional community with other sober folks, whether they experience addiction or not? There is opportunity for this sort of connection. It seems more people than ever are questioning their relationships with alcohol and exploring sobriety, evidenced by the rise of mocktail culture, the appearance of sober bars, and other sober social gathering spaces. According to Statistics Canada, despite a general increase in alcohol sales during the first year of the pandemic, the reported level of heavy drinking in 2021 was the lowest since they began asking this question in 2015, with the largest percentage decrease occurring in the 18 to 34-year-old age group: down 10.1 percent from 2020 and 31.5 percent from 2015. The statistics aren’t out for 2022 and 2023 yet, but I wonder if the (somewhat controversial) January 2023 updates to Canada’s Guidance on Alcohol and Health, which say “Research shows that no amount or kind of alcohol is good for your health,” has driven even more people to decrease their drinking and explore sober spaces. Would entering these spaces help me? I have a lot of questions about this cultural moment in regard to alcohol use and sobriety, community and loneliness, and how we relate to one another within all of this. But I’m not sure I’ve found many answers.
The notion of an addiction recovery support group is virtually synonymous with AA (Alcoholics Anonymous) and its various offshoots (Narcotics Anonymous, Al-Anon, etc.), and for good reason—membership is estimated at over two million. As a free and widely available service, it’s undoubtedly valuable: people come together, share their stories, and help each other feel less alone. Many people owe their sobriety to the community and structure they’ve found there. However, AA has a kind of monopoly. There are other options, like SMART Recovery—“Self-Management and Recovery Training,” a program with a scientific foundation based on practical tools and self-reliance that also offers free meetings—but none are anywhere close to as broadly available as AA. SMART offers roughly 2,000 local meetings per week in 23 countries in comparison to AA’s 123,000 groups worldwide. When you’re searching for support as an addict, it often feels like AA is your only option. If you have philosophical issues with the “Big Book” (a kind of bible which outlines AA’s 12 steps, traditions and history), or with the way things are run, it can feel like you are on your own.
In 2021, when I was struggling to access care for a drawn-out health crisis mid-pandemic, I was desperate enough for support that despite my multiple qualms with AA, I attended a meeting on Zoom. But my gut feeling of uneasiness won out and I never returned. Mostly, I loathed the idea of anonymity.
My concerns aren’t just philosophical, but practical. I’m so tired of hiding. I’ve always hid my various addictions; I led a convincing double life (I think). Anonymity feels like stigma to me. I’m exhausted by the need to shelter others from these apparently scary words: addiction, alcoholic, substance use disorder. I’m not interested in being part of a support group that upholds anonymity as a part of its founding principle.
“I have a lot of gratitude for AA for my sobriety, and a lot of unease about how the program operates,” Sachiko Murakami of Toronto, in AA from 2010 to around 2018, says. “People who stop going to meetings are assumed to be drunk or dead or miserable,” she says, and when she left AA, her friendships fell apart, requiring her to rebuild her social life for years. Chris Banks of Kitchener, Ontario, who attended AA for three years, also has an issue with its members telling people if they leave, they’re going to die an alcoholic death. These kinds of messages and cutting off of friendships push members into a closed circle, entirely dependent on the group for support and community.
I understand reality: stigma does exist and people can be cruel about addiction. Anonymity is one way of protecting people from that, to ensure they can comfortably attend meetings and get help. But I think we should question the fact that the main recovery support system available to addicts props up an old-fashioned way of thinking about stigma. I want openness and inclusivity prioritized in any community I enter. That leaves me looking elsewhere.
Unfortunately, in a similar shame vein, in my exploration of Canadian “sober curious” spaces, sober bars, and mocktail/non-alcoholic drink stores, few explicitly named themselves as a welcoming space for recovering addicts. Sure, there was language like, “…for those of us travelling a sober lifestyle…,” or “… for any adult who is skipping alcohol for any reason including health, belief, and/or just not the right time for an alcoholic drink,” or “We are an alcohol-free space that emphasizes a life lived more fully…,” or “… for Anyone Sober or Sober Curious!” On the surface, that’s inclusive enough, right? For sober people! Okay! But I rarely found the words addiction, recovery, or alcoholic on these websites. I get it. Not sexy! Capitalism! But here I am, a sober recovering addict, wondering if these sober spaces are for me. On most of the websites I visited, I get the distinct impression that they aren’t. The exception in my (certainly non-exhaustive) search was Sober City in Halifax, “the one and only place for information, resources, and inspiration on where to go and what to do in Halifax for the newly sober, the sober-curious, and those who occasionally dabble in the alcohol-free life,” where the word “recovery” does in fact appear in the about section when discussing the founder’s personal story. I think it’s telling that in my search, this small moment felt noteworthy to me.
Megan Campbell is the founder of Sober Socials in Ottawa. When I asked her what communities Sober Socials serves, she said “…those who are looking for like-minded people on the path of living, or curiously exploring, an alcohol-free life… most attendees are sober-curious or attempting to live without alcohol for a period of time and are excited to meet people who get it and can relate.” Sober Socials are paid events which began in 2022, often focused on mindfulness, movement and mocktails, and partnered with other businesses in Ottawa, like Knyota Drinks, a non-alcoholic drink shop. Sober Socials began in 2022 and Knyota Drinks opened their storefront in the same year. I asked Campbell about her personal relationship to sobriety. “I have been sober [for more than a] year now and no longer identify as sober, but rather as living an alcohol- free life…However, as someone who has overcome addiction and recovered, I also deeply resonate with the concept of sobriety and am compassionate to those in recovery.” Campbell not only runs Sober Socials but also openly shares her thoughts about removing alcohol from her life on the page’s social media. But I have to say, as much as I appreciate Campbell’s candidness, it frustrates me that the stigma against addiction is so strong that even a group supposedly for and compassionate to people in recovery cannot explicitly state as much in their general marketing and website copy.
Am I being harsh? I am not trying to single out any one group—this seems to me like the linguistic marketing trend nationwide. But my loneliness is rearing its head again. So many of these spaces seem to be saying, we want sober people here, but not addicts. We welcome addicts, but only if you’ll be anonymous. If these are the options, I’ll go out to dinner alone instead.
And I probably won’t order a mocktail—I’m not super interested in drinking anything that mimics alcohol. But I know many in recovery feel differently. When at a bar, Murakami drinks non-alcoholic beverages—she is partial to sober paloma mocktails—“because it does feel weird to be at a bar without a drink in your hand,” whereas Banks will go for the non-alcoholic beer. If they don’t have it, he’s happy to reach for a sparkling water.
As for a sober bar, I don’t want to be in a space that is mimicking a bar without the alcohol. I only go to bars now if there is a reason to be there, like a concert or a reading. I don’t want to go to bars just to go, even if there isn’t actual booze. I don’t feel good in those spaces at this point in my recovery. Banks and Murakami are also disinterested in sober bars. “Sober [bars] might be interesting but I much prefer just going where my friends want to go,” Banks says. Whereas for Murakami, it’s more a matter of where she is in recovery: “I don’t really need that level of support to maintain my sobriety these days…I would certainly go to support a newly sober friend, though!”
Our somewhat indifference to these organized physical spaces makes sense to me given that we don’t seem to be their target audience (though mocktails and non-alcoholic drinks on their own are clearly a different story). Do some people in recovery not seek these places out because they are excluded from the marketing, or are they excluded from the marketing because they don’t seek these places out? I am unsure. All I can say is that personally, I was tentatively interested in exploring these communities until I picked up on these language choices, and then, I was decidedly not. So, who are they for?
I wanted to talk to some sober-curious people (though not everyone I spoke to identifies that way) and get their read on things. Are they into mocktails? Are sober bars places they’d frequent? What do we have in common?
I put out a public call on Instagram and was surprised by the number of people who responded. The people I interviewed abstain from alcohol for many reasons— medication interference, health, family history of alcoholism, not enjoying drinking culture, partners with addiction, general disinterest. They also happened to mostly fall within that 18 to 34-year-old age bracket. Sarah Kikuchi of Halifax, 32, has recently noticed more people talking about sobriety on social media, which she appreciates. She says, “I have a fairly neutral relationship with alcohol. It’s not something I care much about but it’s hard to imagine life without it as it’s so prevalent.” Namitha Rathinappillai of Toronto, 23, notes this prevalence as well: “As I began distancing myself from drinking and drinking culture, I have become more critical to the ways in which alcoholism or ‘problem drinking’ is deeply normalized…”
Drinking holds a heavy presence over our social interactions. Early in my sobriety I avoided most places with alcohol (so, most places). Even still, if I’m at a party or show where people are drinking, I try to leave once people are visibly inebriated. I know others in recovery feel similarly. “I usually leave before everyone gets sloppy and annoying,” Murakami says.
What about sober social spaces or bars? I knew I personally didn’t feel welcome after looking more closely at their marketing, but do sober-curious folks feel differently? Interestingly, most of the sober-curious people I spoke with, despite this feeling that drinking culture looms large, were uninterested in the idea of sober bars or sober-specific meeting spaces. Either because they are, as Rathinappillai said, “just not someone who would frequent a bar, sober or not,” or like Christine of Ottawa, 33, “…everything I do in life is sober and just as fun so I don’t see the appeal of [sober] spaces/gatherings,” or like Heather Krueger of Airdrie, Alberta, 45, who, not loving crowds or loud music, is unsure if “a sober bar would be a space I would want to go.”
Clearly, though, these spaces hold appeal for someone— they exist! But for who exactly, I’m just not quite sure. It doesn’t seem to be for those in recovery, and it also didn’t seem to be the sober-curious folks I spoke with (though this was far from a scientific study). The people I interviewed seemed more interested in either engaging in spaces completely removed from drinking culture or did not seem to mind being around drinking in the first place.
At one point in my reporting, I felt slightly resentful toward these sober- curious spaces. The sharp turn from hopeful—maybe I will find a space to lay some loneliness to rest!—to excluded left me feeling angry. But after speaking to more sober-curious people, that anger faded away. It’s good that these spaces exist, even if they aren’t for the people I spoke with, or for me.
Everyone deserves a welcoming space, whether they have a perfectly healthy relationship to alcohol, never really liked drinking to begin with, have an active substance use disorder, or are sober and/or in recovery. Somewhere that aligns with their values, with people who appreciate their experiences. Ideally, there would be some kind of adult space where everyone could gather and feel safe, regardless of their relationship to substances.
Where is that space for me? I still feel alone on the bus, surrounded by people singing. Where do I go when the readily accessible recovery support group is rife with issues that I’m unwilling to look past? Where are the non-support-group sober spaces that are explicitly inclusive of addicts? Is it possible to create a space inclusive of, and safe for, the sober curious, sober people in recovery from addiction, and drug/ alcohol users? I don’t have an answer to these questions, but I think they’re worth posing. In the open, out loud, and in public, where they belong.