The Sobriety Spectrum

In 2021, What Even Is Sobriety?

Discover sober paths and how 5 women got started.

A collage of women's faces and different drinks. What is the meaning of sobriety in 2021? 5 women explain how they feel about sobriety.
Klaus Vedfelt, belterz, CSA Images, Xinzheng, Flavio Coelho, Paul Taylor, Tom Kelley Archive/Getty Images

From “Cali sober” to “straight edge,” everyone has a slightly different definition of what sobriety means. Kyara Beck, an internationally certified advanced alcohol and drug counselor at the addiction recovery facility TRIAD, simply defines sobriety as freedom. “Freedom from substance use disorder, or process addiction, like gambling, or even hypersexuality or kleptomania. It's freedom from that ... compulsive feeling.” Being sober, she adds, brings about “connection, level-headedness, and emotional freedom from irrational beliefs and behaviors.”

Below, Beck breaks down some common sobriety paths, and people across the sobriety spectrum share their stories.

Warning: This article contains information about substance use, which some may find triggering.

This is the laid-back sober, the I'm not doing any hard stuff; I'm just smoking weed. It's a version of harm reduction that favors alternatives like cannabis. The person works with a counselor, therapist, psychiatrist, or whomever to gain emotional sobriety and no longer drinks dangerously or does anything more physically and psychologically addictive, like opioids. Instead, they might have one beer at a wedding or smoke some weed if they’re feeling anxious.

I read Quit Like A Woman before Chrissy Teigen made it popular. Holly Whitaker’s book about her journey to stop drinking had just come out when I was doing Dry January last year as a reset. The book asks: When you imagine your best life, is alcohol part of that equation? For me, the answer was no. That’s when my Cali sober journey began.

Once February came, I’d microdose edibles here and there. It took my friends time for it to set in. Then the pandemic came, and no one could get upset with me for declining invites to grab a drink. It created a safe environment for me. Who knows what my first summer without margaritas would’ve been like? People replaced bar invitations with, “Wanna go for a hike? A walk in the park?”

When I used to go to bars with friends, we’d drink, discuss silly things, and then I’d go home, fall asleep, and wake up the next day exhausted. That was every weekend for me, stuck in a time loop — like Groundhog Day. My immediate circles were predominantly white. Now that I’m sober, I’ve realized most of my drinking was to numb myself to survive as a Black woman in white environments. I love my white friends, but I spent most nights as the only person of color at events. And that wasn’t the life I wanted.

When I was in high school, and the people in my life were mostly white, it felt like, Well, my parents chose this school. And then in college, I wanted to go here, and this white space is a result of that. But no one talks about what happens in our late 20s, when you realize you’ve built relationships with white people from school or work and feel trapped in a never-ending cycle as a full-grown adult. Sobriety presented this opportunity for freedom, where my social life now is more reflective of my identity, and I feel more comfortable in who I am than I ever have.

I’m prioritizing myself now. I spend money I would’ve used on wine to get massages or at fancy farmer’s markets. As a Black woman, that’s especially important when there’s so much happening to us out in the world. Audre Lorde says, “Caring for myself is not self-indulgence, it’s self-preservation,” and I’ve taken that to heart with my sobriety. I’m building a life that I enjoy.

This is the I'm going to give my liver a break for a month but then I could go back to drinking. Many people know Dry January, but any month can be a sober month. It’s deciding to abstain from consuming alcohol for a specific period of time. It's not a fearful, long-haul, long-term commitment that so many people associate with sobriety that sometimes discourages them from engaging. It’s centered around wellness and cleansing timed to moments when people feel a greater need for a break: after Christmas, New Year’s, and other times correlated with high alcohol consumption.

We did what we had to do to survive 2020 — including drinking whenever and however. Once 2021 came along, I wanted to learn how to cope without alcohol. I started Dry January at midnight on New Year’s Day. It wasn’t my first experience trying it, but I figured it was a good time with the pandemic and being cooped up at home. I wanted to reset, recharge, and let my nervous system figure out stress differently.

I had a couple of friends who started, too, but after the Capitol [insurrection], they were like, screw it, I’m having a drink. Then came the inauguration, when I wanted a glass of Champagne but didn’t have one — I was proud of that. My family and friends were supportive. But I had some people who said, “I don’t know how you’re doing this. It’s OK if you want to have a drink.” That first weekend I kept asking, “Why am I doing this to myself?” But after a while, it was nice to wake up with no hangover. My sleep, creativity, and focus improved. There was no fear that one drink could put me over the edge and get me into a state where I start messaging “I love you” to everybody in my phone. When I’d get the urge of wanting wine to wind down, I’d take a 10-minute walk. It gave me the same euphoric reaction of relaxation.

On Jan. 25, I got a flat tire and bad health news — all in one day. One of my friends suggested I break my Dry January at this point since I’d made it so far. But the purpose was not to need a drink, to be able to process information without alcohol.

I went back to drinking on Feb. 1, and I’m doing it less and in moderation now — I used to drink three to four glasses of wine, now I drink around one to two, and take some days off from drinking during the week. Before, if I was handed something at a bar and it tasted terrible, I still drank it. Now, I drink for taste and no longer have hangover anxiety — that regret of waking up the next morning, even if you didn't do anything — or the fear of not accomplishing something productive I set out to do. I’m more mindful and take in each sip, tasting the different flavors, experiencing the temperature of it. It’s just like how I enjoy McDonald’s Sprite, but I’m not gonna have three or four because it’s full of sugar, and I don’t want all of that. So I’d just have one. I approach alcohol in the same way now — that’s what clicked for me.

This is the if you have an itch, investigate the urge to scratch approach. It’s an ongoing interrogation of: Why am I drinking? Why am I using? Why am I hanging out with people who are doing things that may not align with my values? It’s not only about the physical-chemical sobriety; it also involves emotional wellness. It increases the person’s critical thinking and self-reflection. So, the person may still be drinking here or there because they are not ready to commit, but if they end up abstaining from alcohol or substances, they would’ve made an informed choice.

The thing with alcohol is, it never tastes good after the first glass — which is like f*cking juice from heaven. From the second glass, it gets hazy. But you keep drinking because you want the good time to continue. Before you know it, you’re drunk. You’re hungover.

That’s how drinking was for me since I was 19. I’ve struggled to see how I could go sober in the last five years, even more so during the pandemic. I started journaling and as I flipped through the pages recently, I saw that every single note involved some type of struggle with alcohol — things like, I drank too much last night. I want to be better.

I’ve been curious since January after a friend mentioned Quit Like A Woman. At first, I saw it as a white feminist approach. But I kept reading, and the points struck me. It made me understand the addictive properties of alcohol, and that it wasn’t me. I made peace with that, and lately, I don’t have the same desire to drink. But it’s still very much day to day. So much of me has been tied to drinking culture, that feeling of being an intellectual. When I see some people with their glasses, and they look all fancy and sophisticated, I get this trigger, this jolt in my brain: I want that.

Every day it feels more doable. At first, I grieved it. I couldn’t even say it out loud — it was like breaking up with a family member, a best friend. Drinking has been a part of my identity, and it was my hobby, my husband’s hobby. Anytime we went to a hotel, we went to happy hour. Any time we didn’t know what to do while we were traveling — happy hour. After work? Happy hour. It dominated my life, and I felt so out of control.

I relish waking up without a hangover. The biggest thing for me has been how my relationship with food has evolved. When I would drink, it would unleash this hedonistic side of me. It was this release of, F*ck it. Tonight’s going to be a party. I’m not holding myself back. I’m going to eat and drink whatever I want. I don’t have that same impulse anymore.

In the long run, my circle of friends may change, and that’s fine. I have friends who are evaluating their relationship with alcohol, too, and others who have stepped up for me. I feel empowered. I feel supported.

This is the I will never drink path. It’s a term that’s almost 200 years old that simply means a person is dedicated to abstaining from any drinking. Some who go down this path go the extra mile and avoid any socializing that involves those elements. And though they may not party with alcohol, they have fun engaging in sober activities and are not puritanical, as the name may suggest.

I had always used drinking as a crutch to deal with my anxiety. When my dad died two years ago, I relied on alcohol even more to cope. And the more I did, the more I thought about him no longer being around, about life and death, about the kind of life I wanted for myself. And that daily sort of rinse and repeat, numbing process of heavy drinking just wasn't it. There wasn't one aha! moment — it was a series of reality checks, realizing that there was no fulfillment in being on autopilot where drinking was something I let consume me simply because I’d always done it. Three months after he died, I fought hard to take charge. [Quitting] wasn't a one-day thing, it was a build-up. I had gone from drinking a lot to drinking even more to cope with his death, and I really didn't like the path that I was on. During hangover moments or days after going hard, it became clear to me that to live this life, I had to be alive.

That first year sober was challenging because there were all these firsts that felt jarring. First birthday, wedding, and vacation without drinking. I can’t do this always rang in my mind at these events. But I’d remember the poor decisions I used to make when I was drunk: oversharing, overspending, and the many hangovers that left me unable to accomplish my to-dos — and the guilt that followed. In those moments, I reminded myself, "I got this."

It was also weird being around my friends at first. They were heavy drinkers like I was and they looked stunned when I told them I wasn’t drinking anymore. Some asked why. The worst was when I'd tell someone, and it would be followed by awkward silence. I already suffer from anxiety, so those seconds would drag. I never had to cut off any of them — it just took them time to get used to me not drinking.

Those moments taught me that drinking is so normalized that when you don't do it, it feels like you're the weird one. But the more I didn't drink, the more I didn't want to. It’s now second nature to me, and I’m two years strong.

Therapy and journaling helped me, especially with figuring out how to manage my anxiety — the same anxiety I used alcohol to ease. I'm learning how to better process my emotions instead of running and hiding from them. The pandemic, oddly, has helped me be stronger, too. I'm much better at coping with discomfort and anxiety, through self-care, without needing to numb any of it.

This is the punk subculture that gained traction in the ‘80s and ‘90s around swearing off all substances and alcohol — and particularly a combination of the two. Some add smoking cigarettes to the list, but the core remains abstaining from drinking and drug use. Recently, it’s been diluted with different intensities and subcultures. Some tend to be socio-political — engaging in movements surrounding animal rights, human rights, and women’s rights — and may still attend events where people imbibe and partake of substances. The bottom line is if you completely abstain from drugs and alcohol of any kind, then you belong in this group.

My mother was an alcoholic and a drug addict. I grew up witnessing her recovery in AA rooms. When she died, she had 30 years of sobriety. My drinking started at 12. By 13, I didn’t enjoy what happened when I drank, like kissing a boy I didn’t like. I went straight edge then, which lasted three years. I started drinking again and began experimenting with drugs. By 17, I was addicted to methamphetamine.

There were three DUIs. Arrests. Lost jobs. Homelessness. Assaults, including sexual assaults. I was hospitalized many times with alcohol poisonings. One time I had BAC upwards of .5, with doctors telling me, “You should be dead. Maybe you should get some help.”

I was out of state when I got my last DUI in May 2019. They kept me in jail for a while, so I had several months of sobriety. I thought, I’m gonna stay sober and change my life. But when I got out, I drove straight to a Walmart and bought moonshine. I drank it while driving across the country — that’s the insanity of addiction.

Back home, I was homeless, out of money, and in withdrawal again. I was having small seizures. I thought I might die. I called a friend who worked in a treatment program and she said she’d get me a scholarship. I started it in September 2019. By Halloween, I relapsed for 10 days until finally getting caught by the owner of the program.

She sent me to a detox facility on Nov. 13, 2019, and I’ve been straight edge ever since — I abstain from alcohol, drugs, cigarettes, and promiscuous sex. There was lots of guilt and shame to deal with, but I worked really hard. I got a sponsor. I did the steps. I stayed in Sober Living for as long as I could. I got a job, an apartment. Paid off all my warrants. Got rid of my criminal record. Got my driver’s license back. Bought a car.

I used to think people in recovery who said they now live a life beyond their wildest dreams were full of sh*t. But it’s true. If you told me two years ago that I am where I am right now, I would’ve thought you were wasted.

My friends said, “It’s nice to have you back.”

My stepmom said, “It’s not even nice to have you back. This is a whole new Jessi, and it’s a pleasure getting to know her.”

These interviews have been edited and condensed for clarity.

Thinking about sobriety? Here are some more online programs and resources:

Women for Sobriety helps women recover from alcohol and drug addiction with online gatherings and resources.

Sober Black Girls is an online community dedicated to helping BIPOC women get on a sober path that is right for them.

AA-Alcoholics Anonymous, the popular 12-step abstinence program’s online resource.

Editor’s Note: If you or someone you know is seeking help for substance use, call the SAMHSA National Helpline at 1-800-662-HELP(4357).