The End of Alcohol
SHE WAS DRESSED in a cartoon-spangled onesie, while he wore a tiny denim jacket and wide-legged pants. It was a bluebird day in Williamsburg, Brooklyn, and I was eavesdropping on the couple at a crosswalk.
“Sobriety is a big thing these days,” she said.
“Yeah,” he said. “For babies.”
Babies are sober, and adults drunk. Browsing in a cavernous thrift store, I rolled the idea around. It’s true I sometimes feel remedial and juice-boxy holding a Sprite at a cocktail party, as I often have over the past 10 years. But I also remember someone sharing in a 12-step meeting that she used to think she was a cold, calloused femme fatale when she was blackout drunk—the soul of sophistication. I used to think the same thing. Later, she realized that she drank because she couldn’t bear one electron of pain. Some alcoholics call this Queen Baby Syndrome. She self-soothed, she said, by sucking on a bottle of Georgi. (I’ve changed some details here to protect privacy.)
This person hit bottom, she said, when she woke up on a deflated air mattress spooning with a drag queen who looked like Ted Cruz. I’ve never forgotten that.
Though I still describe myself as an alcoholic, the word has fallen out of favor with marquee nondrinkers, and for good reasons. Above all, it’s a coarse portmanteau, one that has set off its share of linguistic crises, notably “chocoholic.” But “alcoholic” also confounds because it designates not an ordinary person with a problem (cf. “diabetic,” “asthmatic”) but a problem person whose intractable nature somehow includes an eccentric orientation toward an otherwise benign if flammable organic compound, ethanol. Ethanol is not as ubiquitous as (say) gluten, but, as desperate alcoholics know, it can be found not just in whiskey sours but in perfume, mouthwash, and windshield-wiper fluid.
In traditional 12-step treatments for alcohol addiction, as opposed to the beguiling new ones that I’m now curious about, inveterate boozers are also represented as having an eccentric orientation to lying, cheating, stealing, boasting, and mean-spiritedness. But are these eccentricities measured in numbers, divined by introspection, or evaluated with respect to cultural norms? Maybe none—or all three. In 1633, the English poet and priest George Herbert brilliantly tried his hand at alcoholism analysis in “The Church-porch.” He warned that drinkers court shame, and perhaps emesis, if they don’t dump excess booze:
Drink not the third glasse, which thou canst not tame,
When once it is within thee; but before
Mayst rule it, as thou list; and poure the shame,
Which it would poure on thee, upon the floore.
Herbert’s special worry about the shame brought by the third drink brings to mind another three-stage adage about the progression of alcoholism: “The man takes a drink, the drink takes a drink, the drink takes the man.” Herbert then switches to the personal pronoun and imagines that the third drink would cast him on the floor, where he would literally hit bottom.
It is most just to throw that on the ground,
Which would throw me there, if I keep the round.
Herbert, of course, wrote centuries before the habit of consuming more than a third of a six-pack was considered a pathology rather than a failure of will. But the 20th-century disease model, often associated with Alcoholics Anonymous, brings more confusion. Why does the affliction that’s said to define the alcoholic—“alcoholism”—lack clear biological markers? Finally, it’s “ism,” not “itis.” Is alcoholism a disease or an ideology?
If etymology is any help, “alcohol” comes from the Arabic al-kuhl, referring to kohl, the black eyeliner powder dating back to the fourth millennium BC; kohl was made of a refined mineral, and then it came to be used for anything distilled. I Googled this once when I was drunk. Another spelling of the word, in Latin, is alcool. All cool.
SOBRIETY IS A big thing these days.
The hip crosswalk woman was right. And she was especially right if sobriety has something to do with “changing your relationship to drinking,” talking about it all the time, and exploiting sobriety’s market potential. Instagram is fully awash in pastel George Herberts—dancing soberfluencers who soberglow while soberaf. The 21st century has been a boon to young abstainers who reject the word alcoholic, and to anyone who wants to quit drinking without becoming a sad sack or a prig.
It’s hard to know when AA lost its luster. One starting point is the early aughts. Since then, an increasingly robust swath of people testing the zero-proof waters of sobriety has sworn off drink and joined the international reverse-rave known as Dry January. In 2013, Dry January launched as a branded public-health initiative in the UK, attracting some 4,000 people. By 2021, that number had jumped to 130,000. The fever for abstemiousness also caught on in the US, which will forever be known as both puritanical and hedonistic; the challenge of refraining from drinking for 31 days has seemed to energize those eager to observe secular Lents. Last January, nearly one in five American adults tried Dry January.
For years, too, there’s been a stampede of self-help books by alcohol skeptics, most of them women, many of whom once had trouble drinking not the third bottle. These books have included My Unfurling, by Lisa May Bennett; Her Best-Kept Secret, by Gabrielle Glaser; This Naked Mind, by Annie Grace; The Unexpected Joy of Being Sober, by Catherine Gray; Mindful Drinking, by Rosamund Dean, Drink?, by David Nutt; Sober Curious, by Ruby Warrington; and Quit Like a Woman, by Holly Whitaker. The subtitles run together, but they make big promises. If they follow the instructions, readers of these books—and listeners to adjacent and spin-off podcasts, including Recovery Happy Hour and Edit Podcast—will break up with alcohol, emerge from the grip of anxiety, radically defy patriarchy and capitalism, and become happy, healthy, and even wealthy. As 12-steppers will tell you, traditional recovery from alcoholism guarantees none of these marvels.
Some of the intoxication with nonintoxication may be more than a pose. People really do seem to be cutting back on drinking. According to Gallup, in 2019, 65 percent of American adults drank alcohol; in 2021, even after the claustrophobia and worry of the plague years, that number went down to 60 percent. What’s more, Americans went from (an avowed) four alcoholic drinks weekly in 2019 to 3.6 in 2021.
To cater to these newly temperate types—that is, to get those who decline to consume to keep consuming—sober-friendly bars have shot up like crocuses in New York, Denver, Miami, Austin, and San Francisco. Some of these places serve no booze at all. Others feature extravagant mocktails alongside full bars. At these places, someone with a drink the color of rust or algae can generally pass as a habitué. Amid chic decor, mixologists lace soft drinks with sophistication-signifiers and wallet-declutterers like orgeat, tobacco syrup, and chinotto orange.
In the last year, household-name mocktail moguls including Blake Lively, Bella Hadid, and Katy Perry have introduced their nonalcoholic beverages in collectible, high-design containers. The promises made by these drinks, which are largely water and tea plus high style, complement the ones made on the covers of sobriety books. Several available on Amazon, including Tranquini and Recess, come with herbal adaptogens, the latest wide-spectrum panacea for stress, in place of alcohol, the best wide-spectrum panacea for stress. Töst, one sober beverage brand, offers a “grown-up, complex” fake wine, while another called Seedlip distills plants to make a “flavorful, sophisticated, adult option.” Maybe sobers do fear being perceived as babies.
Just the way Big Food engendered Big Diet, Big Alcohol seems well on its way to engendering a new market sector with Big Sobriety. That could mean hefty payouts for opportunists who are more entrepreneurial than sober. Already, an 8-ounce can of Katy Perry’s De Soi Purple Lune drink, a fizzy tea with rose and myrrh that comes with outlandish health claims about balance and stress relief, can be yours for $6. This is nearly five times the price of a can of Bud.
All the better, I guess, to toast the charismatic influencers who inhabit the highly nonanonymous sobriety … space. (There’s always a space.) You might think there would be an oligopoly in neo-sobriety superstardom, but no, it’s a thousand points of light, and each soberfluencer has staked out a niche approach or at least some trademark design elements. Many also sit in Venn patches with lifestyle masters in apparently related realms: exercise, spirituality, prosperity, productivity, and even conspiracy. From what I’ve divined from a heady three-day scrolling bender, the biggest influencers in the sobriety space fall pretty clearly into three categories: mystical gurus who ground their sobriety in rococo superstitions, professional habit-breakers who regard sobriety as a happiness hack, and reps from the managerial class who advocate for medical interventions and cognitive science to treat a brain malfunction they now refer to as alcohol use disorder.
On the ground floor of sober influence is of course Russell Brand (Perry’s ex-husband), the flamboyant one-time heroin user who swapped drugs for the sober papacy in 2002. He now calls himself prophetic, dresses like the Lizard King, and flaunts a crucifix tattoo and rudraksha mala beads. His florid self-promotion and orientalist affectations (including zeal for dime-store Hare Krishnaism) are at odds with both the anti-mysticism of science-based sobriety and the imperative to humility of traditional 12-step sobriety. Lately, Brand has espoused so-far-left-it’s-right politics that confuse the principles of liberal humanism with the market-driven neoliberalism he naturally despises, and occasionally he seems determined to consign the whole liberal project—including science and voting—to the trash heap of history. On YouTube, Brand-branded sobriety comes packaged with his ideology of rad individualism, conspirituality, and kitchen-sink disinformation about vaccines, Russia, and Hillary Clinton.
On the softer side of gurudom is Ruby Warrington, a lifestyle influencer in the so-called Now Age and creator of an astrology “tool” called the Numinous Astro Deck. “Little old middle-class me,” as Warrington describes her pre-franchise self in her memoir, used to overconsume chardonnay and cosmopolitans. She then found herself #sobercurious, as she has tirelessly memed it. In 2016 she helped launched an event series called Club Söda NYC—the sober umlaut strikes again—and she now hosts other happenings for people who are kind of thinking about quitting drinking, or thinking about kind of quitting drinking.
Before the pandemic, these events featured “plant-based family-style brunch” meals, TED-style sermons-on-the-mount, and high hopes—the usual aesthetic comforts of the WeWork/Obama era. From the photos, Warrington’s events are also abuzz with Instagram-farm vibes. At Club Söda (“sober or debating abstinence”), quitting drinking is not styled as a last-ditch way to address “incomprehensible demoralization,” as the soul’s dark night is known in AA, but as the royal road to bliss, focus, and deep connection. Sex and productivity, it sounds like. Good gig if you can get it; the 12 steps tend to scare away dates more than they spike libido.
A less astral influencer is Holly Whitaker, a social-justice optimizer and author of the 2019 bestseller Quit Like a Woman. In 2013, Whitaker, a San Francisco Bay Area rise-and-grinder, decided that drinking was a drag on her girlboss well-being. One year later she founded an online alcohol-counseling startup called Hip Sobriety (now Tempest) that offers its paid services to help people, yes, “change [their] relationship with alcohol.” Whitaker’s programs use techniques like coaching and online communities, and with fewer fireworks and less insight than Russell Brand, she connects patriarchy and capitalism to boozing, because those things kindle overconsumption. At the same time, she describes her online business as a product and a business model: “a for-profit, consumer-focused, design-forward thing … geared toward people like me.” In 2020, she gave an interview to How I Raised It about how to get venture capital in Silicon Valley as shrewdly as she did, having raised $15.4 million for Tempest in three investment rounds. By contrast, the only venture money in 12-step programs, which have no dues or fees, is crumpled singles dropped into a hat during meeting breaks.
Gabrielle Glaser, a distinguished health journalist who has never had a drinking problem, is committed to data over all spiritual folklore, from AA’s “higher powers” to Warrington’s astrology cards. But she’s not a personal brand; she has no recovery story of her own. In 2013, her densely researched book Her Best-Kept Secret: Why Women Drink—and How They Can Regain Control had 12-step programs squarely in its sights. As Glaser underscores, AA doesn’t have much science backing it up. The anonymous program is notoriously hard to track, and Glaser is right that it’s tricky to prove empirically that it works.
What Glaser recommends instead is a less absolutist approach, notably touting naltrexone, an opiate antagonist, as a way to cut back on booze. When you take opiate antagonists, alcohol stops bringing pleasure to the brain, which reduces cravings. John David Sinclair, the psychologist who created this regimen for addiction and died in 2015, published his discoveries in peer-reviewed journals over four decades. Glaser cites a 2001 study by Sinclair in the journal Alcohol and Alcoholism that shows a 78 percent success rate of naltrexone alone in helping patients cut their drinking down to 10 drinks a week.
Oh … OK. So 78 percent sounds like a good chunk, but holy smokers: Ten drinks a week, which easily could still fuel my old weekend blackouts and hangovers, plus a new pill that antagonizes my brain’s own pleasure systems? That’s success?
Leafing through thousands of influencer posts, a hundred ads for top-shelf celebrity soft drinks, and a dozen journal studies of brain receptors doesn’t, blessedly, make me want to drink. But all of this does make me want to drop my last name, grab a steel folding chair, and indulge in some old-time AA, complete with sloganeering in a musty church undercroft. Keep it simple, stupid. Or my favorite: Easy does it. I’ve decided these new abstainers have an entirely different goal than the anonymous alcoholics of yesteryear.
FOR EVERY CULTURE that includes fermented drink among its sacraments or refreshments, there is a unique perspective on drunkenness. Over a century ago, the French poet Charles Baudelaire counseled, “Be always drunk”; the Nigerian Afropop singer Joeboy advocates wine as a break from troubles in his 2021 hit "Sip (Alcohol).” Among the European colonizers of North America, drunkenness became a religious issue, a lapse from Christian virtue. In the 1870s, Protestant women, long before they could vote, centered their politics on the temperance movement as a way to keep their men in line and keep the rowdies away. By 1900, nativism had crept into the temperance discourse, as immigrants from Ireland and Italy were associated with drunkenness and moral turpitude. Some proponents of temperance required that churchgoers keep pledges of abstinence, on pain of damnation.
Later, after Prohibition ended in 1933 as a failed experiment, public-heath officials tried a new approach, condemning drunkenness less as a sin, like adultery, or an unhealthy lifestyle choice, like smoking, and more as a threat to public safety, like brawling. The states made laws to curb drunk driving, and programs sprung up to educate students about how drunkenness can lead to every kind of violence. Public health as a framework for alcoholism is Janus-faced. On the one hand, when drunkenness is framed as a shared public problem with social remedies, hard drinkers might be faulted less often for personal failure. On the other, when law enforcement gets involved, some people get stopped for speeding or frisked for drugs far, far more than others. Twelve-step groups are filled with white drunks marveling at how often they got away with driving drunk while people of color describe being jailed for far lesser offenses.
In parallel with the post-Prohibition approaches to hard drinking, Alcoholics Anonymous, which was formed by a doctor and a stock broker in 1935, evolved as a project of moral betterment. Yes, you’re expected to stop drinking in the program. But the longer you sit in the rooms the clearer it becomes that AA doesn’t see abstinence from alcohol as an end in itself but as a baseline precondition for a life of honesty, faith, and service to others.
A therapist once told me that people don’t come to therapy to change; they come to get out of pain. You have to coax them into changing. The same is true in 12-step programs. People come into the rooms heartbroken, bruised, unemployable, and in dire need of comfort (and, often, money). Within days, even if they’re trembling with withdrawal symptoms, they’re urged to help others, if only by mopping the floor and stacking chairs. Soon after, they’re encouraged to seek a “power greater than ourselves” in which to invest their faith. The so-called “God stuff” has turned people off from the start, although atheists have cooked up plenty of higher power workarounds, like ”the universe” or “nature.” The self-important but amusing AA manual known as the Big Book even offers a chapter called “We Agnostics,” which tries to allay fears that sobriety requires specific pieties. Some sober nonbelievers find the chapter disingenuous.
Still, if you stick around, the helping-others part almost always sinks in. As does the imperative to self-examination. It also becomes a source of wry humor. Some months in, while most drunks are fuming about the garbage people who’ve done them wrong, you’re encouraged to write out an inventory of the people you, the original garbage person, have harmed. If you’ve ever once padded your expenses or faked an orgasm, a guide to the program—your sponsor—might make you add it to an inventory. You’re a thief. You’re a liar. It stings.
One of my favorite stories from the rooms was told by a 12-stepper who noticed a friend reading The Art of Happiness, by the Dalai Lama.
“I doubt I’ll read it,” the guy said, morosely. “Can you just tell me the secret?”
“You’re not going to like it,” his friend replied.
“Oh no. It’s not—”
“Please say it’s not.”
“It’s ‘help other people,’ isn’t it?”
When I came into a 12-step program, I hated the idea that helping others was supposed to take the place of screw-top wine and benzos. Helping others is the key to happiness? What do you know. I really thought it was money.
This old-fashioned parable of sobriety, in which the untreated drunk is a scoundrel and not a wellness entrepreneur, showed up in an unexpected place this year: a sitcom on Hulu called Single Drunk Female. Created by TV writer Simone Finch, who is herself a recovering alcoholic, this extremely charming show, which premiered in January, stars Sofia Black-D’Elia as Sam, a blackout drunk who is remanded to 12-step meetings after an assault charge.
To my surprise, scenes of meetings and deep cuts of AA jargon in Single Drunk Female don’t exist entirely to set up exciting relapses, as they do in many shows that feature problem drinkers. In fact, Sam’s recovery with the 12 steps was so spot-on and moving to me that I wondered if someone else might see the whole show as merely AA propaganda, like that run of Archie comics that had an unnerving undertow of Christianity. Archie and his crew would be having normal fun in a convertible, facing midcentury temptations like cigarettes or making out, and one would say something like, “You know, Jughead, read John 14:6! God has a perfect plan for us!” My partner assured me that Single Drunk Female was not like this. But I noticed he didn’t choke up like I did when Sam got her 30-day chip. And when she finally realized the world doesn’t owe her a living and started coming through for other people? Forget about it. I cried.
A big criticism of AA is that the hair-shirting—AITA? Yes and always—can tilt into moral masochism. Though the bracing inventories of my own “defects of character” seem to keep me honest, some in the program who suffer with trauma see AA’s insistence that alcoholics are all sinners as victim-blaming. Searching for your part in your life’s low ebbs might lead you to repress your own suffering or, worse, compound it.
There’s plenty more to dislike. Though the rooms are more socially heterogeneous than just about anywhere I’ve been on earth, talking about politics is essentially forbidden in the program’s loose guidelines, which are called its “traditions.” (I was once kicked out of a meeting for complaining about Brett Kavanaugh.) What’s more, the sexism in parts of the Big Book is preposterous. In the horrifying chapter “To Wives,” the ideal handmaidens of boozers are instructed to forgive their drunken men everything from profligacy (“the checking account melted like snow in June”) to violence (“they struck the children”) to bad company (“the sheriffs, the policemen, the bums, the pals, and even the ladies they sometimes brought home”).
But, though some 12-step members are textual fundamentalists and cultural conservatives (the tenor of meetings is highly regional), the programs live less in scripture than in the eclectic lore and aphorisms accumulated in the rooms over the past 80-plus years. This neverending document includes “qualifications” and “shares.” Through these ritual forms of storytelling, alcoholics discuss their experience, the perspective they’ve gained, and the hope they cultivate. The bulk of the Big Book is also not gospel from midcentury white men. Instead, after the opening chapters that explain the program, it contains mini-memoirs by diverse alcoholics, including queer drunks, indigenous drunks, doctor drunks, and hobo drunks who rode the rails. In many meetings, members read from these stories, sometimes taking the “I” pronoun into their own mouths, embodying identities foreign to them; when an elderly auntie drunk reads the words of a young felon drunk, there are ironies—but also the supreme sweetness that comes from acknowledging the expansiveness of other minds and the universality of suffering. Good sponsors also keep sponsees from zeal, and help you laugh at the program’s dogma, contradictions, and anachronisms.
Less pleasantly, a sponsor will also remind you that you don’t get sober in order to win “cash and prizes.” These are things like cars, sex, fame, dough, or even physical health—the super things sober influencers model, and even offer. Nor do sponsors countenance drinking “in moderation,” much less 10 drinks/week. A hazard of drinking for a traditional alcoholic is that it invariably leads to dishonesty. A formidable matriarch in the room once warned me not to “get cute with this disease” when I asked whether I could taste a dessert with a touch of cooked-off Grand Marnier. She definitely doesn’t mess with near beer or Katy Perry’s $6 mocktails.
PART OF WHY I can’t take too seriously the scientific rejections of AA like Glaser’s is that researchers seem to use a vision of success that, in 12-step programs, would not count as sobriety, which the fellowship generally sees as a moral and spiritual state that only starts with “putting down the drink.” In the end, AA makes an extremely modest set of promises. According to a list called the Ninth Step Promises, recovering alcoholics who make amends to people they’ve hurt can expect only a few vague dividends. By not drinking and by helping others, you get a measure of peace, renewed interest in others, keener intuition, and freedom from regrets, self-pity, bafflement, and fear of economic insecurity. (nb: Freedom from fear of economic insecurity ≠ money.)
So much of the new sobriety flex is anathema to the captious alcoholics of 12-step groups. But carping that others aren’t doing sobriety right is such a common mistake among recovering alcoholics that Bill W., the founder of AA, came up with excellent slang for the carpers: “bleeding deacons.” God knows where that phrase comes from, but I imagine gaunt figures in black pope hats with open, oozing stigmata. According to popular interpretation in the rooms, bleeding deacons insist that if you stray from their narrow path—failing to pray, say, or arranging coffee cups wrong—you’ll literally die.
I have no authority at all when it comes to quitting drinking. It took me till I was 41 to quit. (Russell Brand was 27; yes, I compare-and-despair about that.) Very little love or light informed my pissed-off cold-turkey detox. Quitting with the use of opiate antagonists, hot yoga, and nonalcoholic tequila seems every bit as righteous—and evidently more effective—than sweating it out in the rooms.
But the way I learned it, to get sober is not to stop drinking. It’s to undertake a program that is chronically uncool in the quaint hope that it will make you a better person. People in the rooms talk less about drinking than about yielding to other drivers, feeding a stranger’s meter, buying a sandwich for a panhandler. The new sober influencers have convinced me that this cornball 12-step stuff isn’t for everyone. Certainly, its benefits can’t be tabulated by science. In my experience, they are indeed beyond measure.
This piece first appeared in Wired Magazine.