Sobriety and Mental Health: When to be Sober Curious?
Sobriety and Mental Health: Fresh Curiosity and New Approaches
If you have perused recent book reviews, mindfulness-based websites or wellness-related Instagram pages lately, you may have noticed a rise in the topic of sobriety, addiction to substances (primarily alcohol), and the connection to mental health in the form of written memoirs, podcasts, and other mediums, in which writers discuss their personal stories and most difficult and shameful moments before deciding to explore and ultimately commit to a partial or completely sober life.
Usually reserved for a more traditional 12-step anonymous and closed setting, these stories reveal dark and painfully honest moments leading them toward a sober life, as well as the connection to anxiety, depression, trauma, and other mental health struggles exacerbated by substance use and abuse along the way. Addiction memoirs have been almost trendy of late; The New York Times’ Style section recently featured a collection of new books, opening with: “A national opiod epidemic. Legal marijuana. Continual attempts to redefine problem drinking. Is it any wonder that the addiction memoir… is surging yet again?” (Addiction Memoirs are a Genre in Recover; NY Times Style Section; February 13, 2020)
Although addiction memoirs are not uncommon, what is strikingly new is the way in which these stories are told, and the question posited by at least several of these writers:
- What does it mean to be curious about sobriety?
- Is complete sobriety the only option?
- Can a sober life see the light of day (and night) outside of a 12-step meeting?
- Can a sober lifestyle survive and thrive in mainstream culture?
Of course, the answers to these questions depend on severity of addiction or mental health issues. Consulting with a licensed therapist or addiction specialist is the first line of treatment for those who are wondering or concerned about their substance use or abuse.
But is there a “grey area” of sobriety?
Writer and podcaster Ruby Warrington has been paving a new road to examine these kinds of questions. Author of the book Sober Curious and host of podcast of same name, Ms Warrington has made popular the idea of a “grey area” of sobriety: “It just felt to me like there was a huge gray area, and a much wider acknowledgment now of the different categories of problem drinking,” Ms Warrington said (“The New Sobriety”; New York Times; June 15, 2019). Guests on Ms Warrington’s podcast explore their own mental health struggles and road to sobriety (or at least curiosity about sobriety), and give voice to the ways in which alcohol and other substances initially made coping with anxiety and depression seemingly easier at first.
Mental Health and Substance Abuse
Grey area aside, these questions and topics are ideally best discussed in a therapeutic setting first, in order to ascertain how severe the addiction is, and how impactful the addiction is to mental health.
By bringing mental health, the connection to addiction, and a curiosity about sobriety into the common lexicon, these questions are more openly able to be explored with less shame or judgement by those struggling with substance abuse and mental health issues. By opening up conversation about the role substances play in our day-to-day lives, especially in regards to social anxiety, depression, shame, and guilt, eventually more of us will feel more comfortable and less closeted discussing these topics.
According to the Anxiety and Depression Association of America (ADAA) website, “about 15 million U.S. adults, or 7 percent of the population, have social anxiety disorder in any given year. And it isn’t unusual for people with social anxiety disorder – or other anxiety disorders – to drink excessively to cope with symptoms or try to escape them.” The website goes on to state that, “about 20 percent of people with social anxiety disorder also suffer from alcohol abuse or dependence, and a recent study found that the two disorders have a stronger connection among women.”
It is no coincidence then that many of these memoirs have been written by women.
One recently published memoir, Quit Like a Woman, discusses alcohol and sobriety as a feminist issue. Writer Holly Whitaker posits, “Drinking has become so ingrained in the female code, we don’t even recognize the nearly endless ways it has pierced our every experience. Wine, spirits and even beer are a celebrated, quintessential accessory to having made it as a woman.”
Alternatives to 12-step programs
Whether you’re curious about sobriety, already sober, in recovery, or none of the above, these podcasts and memoirs offer at least a compelling and eye-opening journey into how we attempt to connect using substances because our anxiety, trauma and perhaps depression has become a serious impairment, and how ubiquitous and normalized using substances to cope or connect has become.
Talking with a therapist about these issues can be a life-changing first step. Discussing curiosity, connection, and addiction in a nonjudgemental space can allow for self-discovery and even forgiveness.
From Laura McKowen, author of We are the Luckiest: the Surprising Magic of a Sober Life:
“Addiction is just an experience, one of the many that can shape a life. It’s not unique. It’s not a flaw. It’s not even that interesting. It’s a natural human instinct —to soothe, to connect, to experience ourselves differently— gone awry.”