Era Of The Sober Curious – by Jack Sheehan

If Taylor Swift can have era’s, then so can I, and I’m calling this one my sober-curious era!

Not to suggest that I have coined the term sober-curious by any stretch of the imagination, it is in fact already trending and has been for some time now. In truth, I usually avoid terminology that dominates the social media landscape, but I must admit that I might just be able to get on board with this one!


You see, to be ‘curious’ is a fundamental intention for anyone engaging in a process of psychotherapy. What will underpin the value of an individual’s therapeutic experience is their capacity for curiosity about themselves, their past, their way of being in the World, and their relationships. What’s that got to do with sobriety you might ask? Well for some people, everything!


Strange as it may sound, the relationship between an individual and alcohol is often one of the most significant of their lifetime. That’s not only strange, but sad too I guess. Nevertheless it is the case, particularly for many Irish people who’s relationship with alcohol is deeply embedded on a systemic, familial, societal and cultural level, and the trauma associated is generational and far-reaching. Yet we drink as if it’s no big deal and not to be considered too carefully. But I say, let’s get curious!


Let me preface this next part by noting that here I am referring to the drinking population more broadly or perhaps more specifically those who identify as having a negative or challenging relationship with alcohol, but by all accounts are functioning, and while they may be observing some destructive patterns within their life pertaining to their drinking habits, they are still within the capacity for general therapeutic exploration of the issue. Not to be confused with a person who is in the throws of a severe addiction and would need more intensive wraparound support such as rehabilitation, a recovery program or a specialist in addiction therapy. I am also by no means attempting to shove sobriety down the proverbial throats of my readers, or cast a negative shadow on those who choose to drink alcohol for social pleasure. I too, have been one of those individuals, and am likely to be one again. Alcohol is often enjoyed in balance and treated with the respect and restraint that it’s consumer deserves. So if you find yourself living blissfully unaware of the negative impact of alcohol and you have been lucky enough to indulge in the joys of social drinking without any disruption to your life, this one may not be for you. 


Otherwise, let’s get into it.


Firstly, alcohol is the only drug that historically has often been frowned upon to not take. It is surprising when we see it written like that, but I think you’ll agree that it’s true, and it’s part of the reason for the long and painful history of addiction that has infiltrated this country for decades. People literally drink so that they are not ostracized, isolated, or considered boring or unusual. From the youth to the elderly, the urban to the rural, there is not a cohort of individuals on this tiny island that will not experience some pressure to drink alcohol within their lifetime, and furthermore who will not feel stigmatized, left out, or in the minority for deciding not to drink. The very fabric of our communities, and the social terrain of Ireland has traditionally been cantered around alcohol, and that in itself makes it an extremely challenging thing to give up. I cannot begin to tell you the amount of times a client has sat in front of me and listed all of the reasons that they do not want to drink alcohol anymore, only to surmise that they will in fact continue to drink out of fear of judgement from their peers, or isolation from their social circle.


Secondly, it is important to note the unusual contradiction between alcohol and pain. In general, the feeling of pain is usually a signal that all is not well and that there is a potential threat lurking. It is fair to say that for most of us when we identify the source of our pain, we aim (where possible) to remove it from our pathway. This principal does not seem to apply to alcohol, however. In fact, it is striking that no matter how much pain alcohol causes us, no matter the threat that it poses to our own lives and that of our loved ones, we still do not avoid it, but instead we run towards it with open arms. I often sit across from clients who list in no uncertain terms the unimaginable pain that alcohol has brought to them, yet they remain insistent on keeping it in their lives.


Why? I often ask them! Why?

Why is alcohol so important to you that you are willing to endure all of this pain? Why are you willing to risk losing everything that is important to you? Why are you choosing this one thing over everything else?

And this is where the work begins.


I tell my clients from the beginning that therapy will not become a space of rules imposed by me. If they wish to drink alcohol that is their choice, so long as they are sober when they attend their sessions. I assure them that we will not be creating a dynamic where they report back to me each week on how much or little alcohol they have consumed. In therapy we are not creating a linear process of success or failure, we are engaging with the reality of a person’s life. I do not label a person an alcoholic, as I believe certain language can be off-putting and create shame for people who are still at the beginning stages of exploring the role of alcohol in their life. That is not to say I enable clients or collude with them. I challenge them in as honest a way as I know how. If I believe a person should stop drinking based on what they have told me, I will tell them that, but it does not become a condition of therapy. I will also usually advise people that the clarity they need in order for therapy to be effective will usually not be possible if they are frequently under the fog of alcohol. The process then involves me asking the client to tell me about their relationship with alcohol;

how do you feel when you drink – how do you feel after you drink – do you get bad hangovers – does it impact the productivity of your week – does it effect your mood – do you spend a lot of money on alcohol – do you feel more confident when you drink – does your personality change when you drink – do you drink alone – has alcohol impacted any of your romantic relationships – have you lost any friends due to alcohol – what is your family history with alcohol – did you experience any trauma as a result of alcohol in childhood – do you ever break the law when you drink – do you ever drink & drive – has anyone in your life suggested concerns about your drinking- has alcohol had a negative impact on your mental health – has alcohol effected your physical health – has your drinking restricted you from doing anything you wanted to do in your life – if you saw a video of yourself drunk, how would that make you feel , would you like that person – does alcohol make your painful emotions feel less painful, or happy emotions feel even better – what do you like about alcohol – what do you dislike about alcohol – what worries you about your relationship with alcohol – what do you think the future looks like if you were to continue drinking as you are now – if you were to consider quitting alcohol, how would that impact your life – overall what does alcohol bring to your life – what does it take away from your life?

I could ask questions for days! The list is not exhaustive and each question can often lead us to a new area of exploration, meaning gathering a the full picture can often take many weeks of therapy, before even beginning the process of helping a person navigate change. We are not searching for a score here, not searching for justification of continued drinking by only answering yes to some of the questions, and not attempting to force sobriety by proving the presence of many or all of them. The goal here, as mentioned, is to help an individual understand the full scope of their relationship with alcohol in all it’s nuance and complexity. By bringing the details of the relationship into language in the therapeutic space and then processing the impact of that on an emotional level, a person has a much greater opportunity to decide if they wish for that relationship to stay the same, or if they would like to make some alterations. 


Let me be clear, it is not always about full abstinence, hence why I avoid labelling or creating conditions as alluded to earlier. As with any relationship it’s important to ask yourself – what would I like this relationship to be like? And alcohol is no different. It is at the very least a good place to begin. You might arrive at the conclusion that you do not want to continue drinking in the manner which you currently do, but that you would like to keep alcohol in your life in a new, more balanced way.


Okay, so what could that look like? But more importantly, are you capable of creating this change?

Sometimes people are.

And sometimes they are not.

This is usually when accountability becomes vital. If you have tried to change your relationship with alcohol while keeping it in your life, but you are still drawn back to the old destructive patterns, what now?

Well, perhaps now it’s time for a break!


This is often the point where a person has been enlightened about their relationship with alcohol, along with seeing the clear evidence that they do not seem to be able to create the desired change, so they willingly embark on a journey of becoming sober-curious, a new era for them! Conflictingly it is also the point where others will send out the battalions of full resistance and avoidance, attempting to engage in a manipulation of themselves and the therapy in order to justify their continued quest to keep alcohol in their lives, or may even disengage with therapy altogether. A behaviour that is unfortunate, but most understandable when we remember our earlier mention of how deeply entrenched alcohol has become in our way of being in the World. Not to mention it’s most powerful and alluring quality that I have not  given adequate attention to thus far, and that is it’s capability to remove us from ourselves, from our trauma, from the discomfort living within us.  The pain associated with alcohol was alluded to earlier, and here we see the glaringly frustrating paradox of how alcohol not only causes pain, but can take pain away. The reprieve may be temporary, but boy does it feel good and it is for sure addictive. Racing thoughts become quieter, insecurities become less, confidence grows, physical pain is diminished, sleep becomes more accessible, fun becomes elevated, the list goes on. Suddenly the resistance to quit makes sense. The dual addiction of the substance itself and the feeling it gives is no easy feat to contend with. 


But it’s not all bad news. After all, I title this article ‘Era of the Sober-Curious’ for a reason! As much as we still have a way to go, we have in recent times seen mammoth leaps forward. I mean the fact that sober-curious is even a term speaks volumes.  It is slowly becoming more acceptable to be the designated driver for the night out, or order the Guinness Zero instead of the real thing, and bars are stocked with alcohol-free gins, beers, and ciders to boot. Podcasters are discussing the topic with ease, and influencers and celebrities are revelling in their new found sobriety. I remember the days when our social media feeds were flooded with a hundred drunken pictures from a night out, while now we tend to opt for more flattering imagery such as hiking on a Sunday morning! The human race has always been one of extremes I guess. One day we might find balance!


So how am I getting on with my own era of sober-curiosity? Very well I must admit. Nine months since I’ve had a drink and I can honestly say I no longer miss it. The first of everything was a challenge – the first wedding, the first concert and so on and so forth, but the experience has been rich in learning and self-growth.  Sitting through the discomfort of feeling socially awkward or lacking confidence in certain environments without the crutch of a drink has been powerful. Noticing my ability to hold my own and withstand the pressure from others has been a source of pride within myself. Observing those who it seemed to bother more than me has been eye-opening. Feeling the support and acceptance of friends and family has been heart-warming. I have no suspenseful tale to tell you of my own personal issues with alcohol, because mainly there is none. There is certainly trauma within my family system when it comes to alcohol though, and my childhood and parts of adulthood have no doubt been impacted by this disease that rips through families like no other. Yet, I myself have never struggled with it in any sensational manner. For me it has been more about connecting to the trauma living within me and understanding the role alcohol has played generationally in my family.


On a more superficial level, I get extremely bad hangovers and felt I wanted time away from that feeling in order to understand what else would fill that space. I’ve also had a particularly stressful year, peppered with big life achievements, but also challenging experiences too, and I so desperately wanted to be present and conscious throughout, a state-of-being that is not possible while alcohol is involved. I had originally set myself a target of July this year, and imagined myself on our summer holiday in Boston indulging in my first gulp of red wine in nearly ten months. Now as I approach this milestone, I find myself in the unexpected, yet deeply comfortable position of feeling like I could genuinely take it or leave it, and selfishly (for all the right reasons) not wanting to give up one day of my hard earned break nursing a hangover, a plight I have not had to endure in quite some time! We’ll see! The likelihood is that I will allow myself to go there slightly, but the autonomy and self-control which I feel regarding my relationship with alcohol is now undeniable, and that feels pretty great! 


And so, I hope you have found my ramblings in some way relevant to your own experience and that without judgement or prejudice, and always with a compassionate voice, that you too take a glance at your own relationship with alcohol. Ask yourself some of the questions posed earlier, and just for a second, wonder what it might be like to explore with honesty and accountability if there is some work to be done. At worst, you find nothing and you’ve lost only a moment of your time. At best, your life might be about to change. 


Thanks for reading!


Co-Founder & Psychotherapist at MindSpace







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