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Coping: Here’s what it means to be ‘sober curious’

Society’s relationship with alcohol is complex and it can be difficult to know if drinking has become an issue — sober curious is one way to test the waters
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In a constant quest for health and wellness, many people will examine carefully how they eat; counting calories, setting time limits, even omitting whole food groups altogether. Exercise is considered – what is enough, what is the best way to train your whole body etc. – to the point that we have technology designed simply to tell you if you are moving as you should. Supplements are always in play, whether they help or not, and everyone in Canada knows they should try to get outside for some Vitamin D in the winter. For health, you avoid caffeine, smoking, drugs, and especially stress. 

But how long has it been since you put the eye of health on your relationship with alcohol? 

Because many of the studies that measure alcohol consumption are based on the subject’s memory, rather than recordable data, they can be at risk for under-reporting. But with the knowledge that these numbers might be higher, rather than lower, Statistics Canada reports that 19 per cent — that’s 5.8 million Canadians over the age of 12 — reported alcohol consumption that classified them as heavy drinkers. (In this instance, ‘heavy’ means that in one occasion of drinking at least once a month in the last year, men had five drinks or more, and women had four drinks or more.)

The numbers for the male and female genders were highest in the 18-34 age group; 34.4 per cent of men and 23.4 per cent of women were considered heavy drinkers (note that while the legal drinking age in Canada is 18 (Alberta, Quebec, Manitoba) or 19 (rest of Provinces/Territories), this study starts at the age of 12). 

Between the ages of 12 and 17, 27.9 per cent of Canada’s youth reported consuming an alcoholic beverage in the last 12 months, and 41.8 per cent said they did so once a month. 

Four per cent of them were classified as heavy drinkers. And that’s without the legal ability to purchase alcohol.

In terms of consumption, there are recommendations for what amount is considered low risk to your health. The province of Ontario considers this to be zero to three drinks per day or up to 15 per week for men, and for women, zero to two drinks per day or up to 10 drinks a week. Their interpretation of a drink serving is as follows:  

  • 341 ml (12 oz.) bottle of 5% beer, cider, or cooler
  • 142 ml (5 oz.) glass of 12% wine
  • 43 ml (1.5 oz.) serving of 40% distilled alcohol (e.g., rye, gin, rum)

But that doesn’t truly paint a picture of your relationship with alcohol. While you may stay within the safe drinking guidelines, your consumption could be having an effect on your work, your interpersonal relationships, or even your ability to reach your goals. 

This is why Dr. Tara Leary, interim regional RAAM physician lead and regional addiction medicine consult team physician lead at Health Sciences North (HSN), views tools like these  as guidelines, taken in addition to the impact it is having on your life.

“We may only have a drink or two a day, which is well under the safe drinking guidelines, but if it means we are calling in sick multiple times to work or we are arguing constantly with our spouse or significant other, well, that has to be taken into with the whole context. It’s not just the amount, but the impact as well.”

And Jessica Rivers, an Addictions and Mental Health Worker with the Safe Beds program at HSN, agrees. 

“It boils down to any kind of alcohol consumption that is chronic, that is habitual … that you have a hard time refraining from, that starts causing negative effects, whether they be physical, social, employment.”

Part of the difficulty in truly examining how you feel about alcohol is its stature within society. It’s legal to consume for one, but more than that, it’s socially acceptable. 

“It is difficult because alcohol is so socially acceptable and almost its own social institution within our culture,” Rivers said. “People forget it’s still a mood-altering substance. It’s still going to affect you, and so when people are determining their relationship with alcohol, they often minimize it because of the social acceptance.”

Leary puts it this way. “Data shows that in Northern Ontario, more than a quarter of our population far exceeds the standard drinking guidelines, so when you look at your peers, that might not be the best way of evaluating.”

For many who have chosen to test their need for alcohol, words like SoberCurious and Dry January come up, a chance to impose a limit on drinking, or omit it altogether, to see how well you do, and if you feel better. 

But instead of a resolution, or a haphazard attempt at white-knuckle quitting, Leary recommends SMART goal setting – a chance to set a limit for yourself, and see how you do. 

First is S: Specific. Make a specific goal, not one that you can rationalize or shift later to fit your desires. 

M is for Measureable: Will you drink no alcohol, will you only drink premeasured amounts etc. Ensure that you can clearly see whether you have met your specific goal, or not. 

A means Achievable: You don’t want to crush your hopes by asking too much all at once. If the idea of a month seems completely out of reach — you have an event coming up this week, for instance — work to a more achievable goal. 

R is Relevant – It doesn’t make much sense to achieve a goal you didn’t need to. 

And T is Time-Bound: That your goal has a pre-determined timeline. 

But giving up a learned behavior is never easy. If it was, Leary said, “we wouldn’t be in the business we’re in.”

Part of that is overcoming the constant pressure around you to drink alcohol, especially if it was something you frequently did with friends. Whether it’s a glass to wind down after work, weddings, work events, even Hockey Night in Canada, alcohol seems built into the fun. 

“Either we choose what we do because of the people we hang out with, or we hang out with those people because of what we choose to do,” Leary said. 

Giving up alcohol even for the short term will require you to change your lifestyle, to fill the hole that drinking will leave in your life with something better. 

For instance, while you may be doing well with your goal, ask anyone who has ever declined a drink what happens next. 

“Those who choose not to partake have that social stigma, you’re the oddball who is not drinking,” says Rivers. “The No. 1 thing most people say was the hardest thing when they stopped drinking was they lost all their friends, because their social supports were based around that social institution of drinking together.” 

It’s for this reason that community leader and activist Beth Mairs began Sober Sudbury, a chance to create a new social structure. Their first event launched during Dry January – a month recently associated with giving up drinking after the holiday bacchanalia. In recovery for many years herself, Mairs seeks to help others through the journey she faced and in a way that invites those who do not wish to consume alcohol for any reason — taste, inability, health, addiction — to enjoy an event without pressure.

“Too much of what is on offer here and elsewhere involves alcohol,” says Mairs. “The alcohol-free spaces are shrinking — even some yoga classes have jumped on the boozy bandwagon.”

Events from organisations like Sober Sudbury are a way to create a social network and support system that isn’t based on drinking — in fact, quite the opposite. And having options like this will certainly help you on your journey. 

“It is extremely challenging to crawl out of addiction,” says Mairs. “It’s important to build all the support you can in creating a new life.”

So if you are looking to re-evaluate your relationship with alcohol, perhaps an attempt to give it up for a while will teach you an important lesson: be it the ease of which you achieve your goal, or the struggle you have just planning it. 

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Jenny Lamothe

About the Author: Jenny Lamothe

Jenny Lamothe is a reporter with She covers the diverse communities of Sudbury, especially the vulnerable or marginalized.
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