People are fascinated by the sober and sober-ish. But the real question is – why aren’t there more of us? | Moya Lothian-McLean

Recently, a friend in Scotland has been griping that licensing laws are standing in the way of his summer nights out. But not in the way you might think: his grievance centres on the impossibility of buying a non-alcoholic beer from a shop after 10pm.

A formerly enthusiastic drinker, he has recently discovered the delights of 0% lagers: all the fun of the fair without any of the hangover. And now he finds himself unable to buy what is essentially a soft drink, simply because you can’t buy alcohol after 10pm in Scotland, and his 0% beer is categorised alongside its alcoholic equivalent. “I’m going to start a social media campaign about this,” he complained, only partly joking.

The UK may have one of the highest numbers of pubs in the world, but the evidence is growing that we’re teetering on the edge of a sober sea change. Drinking among the nation’s teenagers and young people is on the decline – and this June, sales of low- and non-alcoholic beer at Tesco outstripped those in dry January by 25%. Retailers are responding by launching lines of low- or non-alcoholic drinks; far more pubs and bars now offer them.

I have been “sober adjacent” (a term a friend favours for those of us not completely teetotal, but more likely than not to go “dry” on any given night) for a year now, and I have noticed more and more friends and acquaintances either cutting back or quitting booze altogether. Some are in recovery programmes for addiction; others, like me, are lucky enough to be able to moderate our drinking at will – a rarer gift, in our drinking culture, than you might think.

People seem fascinated by the rise of sober and sober-adjacents, and the first question you tend to hear is: why? The answer will be different depending on personal circumstance and demographic, though for most it falls into some combination of health, wealth and context. Today’s teenagers may be drinking less because the places where they socialise have changed – social media is now their main public square, a location that offers significantly fewer opportunities for drinking copious amounts of Sourz Apple – and because it’s prohibitively expensive. Most of the sober or sober-curious people I know – urban-dwelling, middle-class millennials like me – want their all-too-short weekends unmarred by a day lost to sore heads, and to manage their health better.

Another clue to what’s going on in the urban millennial demographic lies in the upswing in the recreational usage of magic mushrooms and ketamine. Unlike stimulants such as cocaine (whose use is closely associated with booze), these drugs are used to “soften the edges”, and are increasingly building profiles as alternative treatments for conditions like depression. The hardcore, booze-driven lad and ladette culture of the 90s and the “three-day bender, no surrender” approach of the noughties are now passé. Partying is still substance-assisted, but the idea is to enhance your experience rather than block it out – there’s an emphasis on the spiritual, rather than having your body remind you who’s boss by forcing you to vomit up rum and coke on your shoes.

All this is against a backdrop of creaking welfare and healthcare services, and the premium placed on both physical and mental health by “wellness” culture. Taking care of yourself has become an individual, not a collective, endeavour. The ill effects of alcohol have been well-documented – is it any wonder that people are opting for alternatives?

I do think, though, that when people ask “why” we’re moving away from alcohol, what they really want to know is, “How? How have you managed it?” The spotlight on us sober and sober-ish folk is so bright, I suspect, because we’re still outliers: because ours is a nation of people who, for the large part, feel compelled to drink, while receiving little to no state-provided assistance in reducing their consumption, and a lot of cultural reassurance that their boozing is “normal”. It’s pretty clear why people don’t drink – the real question is why do people continue to drink when they don’t want to?

Over and over again, I’ve played priest in whispered confessions from smashed people who tell me they yearn to be able to cut down their drinking, but can’t. Because it lubricates social situations; because they need it to manage their mental health conditions; because life in Britain is bleak and hellish and this is their one escape, OK?

One thing I have learned is that those who are secure in their drinking habits don’t give a fig who is or isn’t drinking – and that they’re far rarer than you might think. The pandemic may have seen light drinkers reduce their consumption, but at the same time, heavy drinkers increased theirs. Ten million people in England regularly exceed drinking guidelines; and cultural stigma surrounding the image of the alcoholic prevents people from seeking what help there is if they feel uneasy about their relationship with alcohol – while acting as a source of comforting denial if they have not yet reached “rock bottom”.

Instead, the burden often falls on the individual to “moderate” their drinking or to simply give it up. For some of us, that is an option. For others, it is not that easy: even if they stop the act of drinking, it dominates their thoughts, as actor Tom Holland recently articulated when discussing his sobriety. In a society with a comprehensive understanding of when drinking stops being a choice and becomes a compulsion, people would feel they could reach out for more structured help, rather than struggling alone to find their way to sobriety. But I fear that such a utopia is still a long way off.

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