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4 Reasons the ‘Sober Curious’ Movement Could Harm People Living With Addiction

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Editor's Note

If you or a loved one is affected by addiction, the following post could be triggering. You can contact SAMHSA’s hotline at 1-800-662-4357.

In the nearly five years I’ve been in recovery, there has been an exponential increase in social awareness regarding sobriety, recovery and addiction as a whole. Celebrities have been open about their own struggles, and the media are beginning to accurately depict addiction. Fortunately, we’re beginning to chip away at the stigma that undeservedly surrounds the disease of addiction and mental health as we’re seeing this illness can affect anyone and does not discriminate.

Recently, I was introduced to what is called the “sober curious” movement in which, essentially, people cut back or limit their drinking. The idea behind this is great; anyone who has, or wants to re-evaluate their relationship with alcohol and decrease the amount they intake should be commended. Being present without the addition of a mind-altering substance is a great feeling, and I think it’s great that others want to experience that. “Sober curious,” though?

1. The term diminishes the significance of sobriety.

In my world, and the field in which I work, to say you’re sober or are in recovery is a badge of honor and an accomplishment that is worn with pride. The decision to become sober is not a choice made lightly. The choice to forego all substances comes about after terrible events, fractured relationships, legal issues and lifelong health problems brought on by substance use, among many other things. Making the choice to become sober means changing everything about you. There are friends and family you may never speak to again, and patterns and behaviors you’ve known all your life are changed. Then, there’s the possibility of withdrawals and seizures. Sobriety and recovery are physically and emotionally taxing.

For those with addiction, there’s no such thing as being curious about sobriety. We’re wired differently. For us, sobriety is something we fought tooth and nail for and maintain when it gets hard or uncomfortable. As positive as the sentiment behind this movement can be, calling it “sober curious” just seems wrong. Being “sober curious” requires no commitment and the idea can be thrown away without consequence. These are all the things that sobriety is not, and probably not top of mind when someone’s finishing their weekend Instagram post with #sobercurious.

2. “Sober curious” can give some in recovery an open door to question their sobriety.

In addition to being a slight to the concept of sobriety, this movement can also be dangerous to some. “If you give them an inch, they’ll take a mile” is a common saying that is applicable in this situation. Just reading about this, I know there’s at least one person who, upon learning about being “sober curious,” thought to themselves, “OK, I won’t do my drug of choice, but maybe I’ll just try this sober curious thing and see how it goes. I’ll cut back and have a drink once in a while. People have been successful at this, why can’t I? Alcohol wasn’t my problem.”

The fact of the matter is that someone with an addiction cannot drink just a little bit. Whether the problem was alcohol or heroin, addiction is a disease that affects how we think. Once we have a taste of a substance, any substance, our addiction is triggered to want and need more. It’s like a light switch gets turned on. One is too many and a thousand never enough.

3. For some, cutting back may be dangerous.

The thing with addiction is that those who have an addiction to a substance don’t realize they have a problem; nearly 13% of the U.S. population meets the diagnostic criteria for alcohol use disorder and many don’t even know it. Cutting back for this population can be very dangerous.

Alcohol withdrawal symptoms usually take place within eight hours after the last drink and reach their peak about two to three days later. Depending on the person’s dependence on alcohol, they could experience mild symptoms such as headaches, vomiting, muscle weakness to potentially life-threatening symptoms, such as seizures.

The rise of this movement gave rise to influential people on social media. An influencer attempting in good faith to espouse the idea of being sober curious could inadvertently motivate the wrong person to limit their drinking. This person may not realize the severity of their alcohol use and limit their alcohol intake on their own, which can have unfortunate consequences.

4. The line between “sober curious” influencers and addiction experts can be blurred.

There are individuals on a number of social media platforms that, to their followers, can do no wrong. For example, the vast amount of “detox teas” being offered on a great deal of Instagram accounts have zero clinical trials to prove their efficacy but are still being bought based on the recommendation of influencers. The facts of medical experts and professionals are being ignored. This is my worry with the sober curious movement.

Across Instagram, there are “experts” in every field providing advice on diets and lifestyle choices, yet they lack the credentials to offer this information that impressionable followers may act upon. While an online social community can be beneficial, the wrong information from an idolized celebrity (with no credentials) can cause a lot of harm.

It’s essential to remember these are people. Some have the appropriate licensure for addiction treatment and others do not. Some have years in recovery, while others may drink on the weekend. While it is OK to take their advice and suggestions in consideration, it’s important to stay your course in your sobriety. The number of followers someone may have is in no way indicative of their experience or knowledge. Whether you do 12-Step with a sponsor, AA or any other program that helps you maintain your sobriety, continue to do so. Work your program how it works for you.

Again, if someone wants to re-evaluate their relationship with alcohol, I support that unconditionally. There are some things that can make the “sober curious” movement better without taking away the power the word “sober” has to those in recovery. Making the idea of “not drinking as much” a hashtag is a bit much, but the overall sentiment — a focus on wellness by lessening alcohol intake — should be encouraged. I know from experience that choosing to be present over escaping is a healthy way of life. My hope is that, if this movement persists, we don’t overlook or take away from what sobriety really means or the struggle it takes to achieve it.

Missy Pollack is an Alumni Coordinator at Recovery First Treatment Center located in Hollywood, Florida. Learn more about Missy Pollack and addiction at

Photo by Timothy Barlin on Unsplash

Originally published: September 11, 2019
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