Alcohol is poison. It’s addictive. These are facts. Alcohol is everywhere. It’s considered the norm in American society for a person to be a consumer of alcohol. Being sober means you are an outlier. These are also facts. I’ve been living my life as a sober person for only a few short months, but I’ve had long periods of abstinence in my thirteen legal drinking years. This time I’m choosing for it to be permanent.
I’ve been reflecting on why drinking alcohol is encouraged, endorsed, expected of adults. Those of us who choose not to drink, for various and limitless reasons, are misfits. More importantly, I’ve often noticed that some drinkers feel uneasy around those who choose not to. I recently attended a meetup for “sober curious” people in Orlando, hosted by Townie Tourist and Pulptown. Jenny DeWitt shared her story and perspective on sobriety, and the thing she said that struck me the most was alcohol being a mask for awkwardness.
This feels like the answer to why alcohol use is so prevalent in our society, and why a sober person in a group of drinkers feels threatening. It harkens back to primal days, it plays on our instinctual fear of the other, and it forces a moment where we have to check in with ourselves about our own behavior. The periods of my life where I have been sober have certainly forced me to confront and get comfortable with my awkwardness, and working through this has only served to make me more solidly myself.
Beyond its power as a social lubricant, we’ve been taught that alcohol is okay in moderation. The article referenced above does a wonderful job of breaking down that belief, and explaining how alcohol truly affects our bodies. As I started examining the effects of alcohol on myself, I had the realization that alcohol is usually combined with added sugars or artificial sweeteners. These substances are also toxic to our systems, and perhaps even more addictive than alcohol. When examining the prevalence and norming of alcohol use, we cannot ignore these other substances that get paired with the ethanol we are pouring into our throats.
I had lunch recently with a friend who had recently celebrated her child’s first birthday. She has chosen to raise her daughter without any added sugars in her diet. She made her a birthday cake using bananas for sweetness, but didn’t share that with the party. One of the party attendees made a point to pull her aside and tell her how glad she was that she was finally giving her daughter sugar. In the moment of hearing this story, I knew it was ludicrous, but it becomes more so each time I re-tell it.
The power of the story is that it shows how strongly we are pressured by those around us to conform to societal norms, and how this pressure is applied throughout our lives. We should be questioning these norms, challenging them, and subverting them. Choosing not to drink alcohol or not to eat sugar are not easy paths. We are surrounded by messaging and marketing that is asking us to conform, to not question or think critically, and to encourage others to do the same. These messages are telling us that choosing not to drink means we have a problem, or we can’t moderate our drinking, or that we’re uptight, or we are simply the all-encompassing “weird.”
I’m pretty comfortable with my weirdness. I think it makes me unique, and more fun to be around. With all this extra time and energy I’ve had since I stopped drinking, I’ve gotten pretty into tarot. In many decks, the 14th card in the Major Arcana is called Temperance. My definition of temperance, prior to my tarot research, was pretty narrow. To me, it meant being sober, as the word was so strongly identified with the Temperance movement that led to Prohibition in the 1920s and early 1930s.
As part of my tarot research, I’ve been comparing decks. One of my favorites, the Aleister Crowley Thoth deck, uses the word Art for the 14th card, instead of Temperance. I couldn’t quite wrap my head around how they were related, until I listened to the Strange Magic podcast’s Episode 29: Temperance -- Take Me To Your Healer. They discuss how temperance is about alchemy, about abstaining from distractions, and using our struggles as fuel for creating beautiful things.
Alcohol is a distraction from our pain and struggle. It masks those feelings. It drains our time, energy, and income. When we give it up, what else can we create in that void? And if more of us give it up, what can we do to improve our world in its absence?