My So-Called (Semi-Sober) Life

The pretty basic act of just not pouring yourself a glass of wine requires a lot of introspection and goes up against some big cultural and social forces. Could Philadelphians really think about boozing differently? Could I?

Inside the sober-curious trend in Philadelphia. | Photograph by Andre Rucker

There wasn’t one catastrophic event that led me to reevaluate my relationship with alcohol. Rather, smaller, not-so-great moments began stringing themselves together like pearls on a necklace I didn’t want to wear anymore. Habitually canceling the Sunday-morning spin class that I swore to myself — in my non-hungover state — I wasn’t going to miss. Deleting emotionally charged social media posts the morning after overindulging — or, worse, apologizing for the passive-aggressive DMs sent to frenemies. Sleeping so, so poorly. Mindlessly grabbing a bottle of wine or can of spiked seltzer on any given night because work was over/I was so productive/I had a hard day/¯\_(ツ)_/¯

I used to be the person who only drank on Friday and Saturday nights, and I kept my beverage count low enough that I rarely had hangovers. But since the pandemic hit, I found myself more willing to pour a glass or two or three on multiple weekdays. Being less restrictive with my drinking was initially helpful. As a perfectionist who has struggled with orthorexia — an obsession with healthy or “clean” eating — I found that taking the edge off allowed me to not be so hard on myself when I indulged. However, I also found myself unable to decline the dry bubbles of brüt, the delight of a cosmo’s sweet-and-sour, or the tang of a grapefruit High Noon, no matter if the setting was social, solo, anxiety-ridden, awkward or just uneventful.

In truth, it wasn’t until I began reporting this story that I faced my relationship with alcohol head-on. Sure, I was aware that my consumption had increased over the past two years — whose hadn’t? And sure, I was sick of feeling sluggish, missing workouts, gaining weight, and acting impulsively. But honestly, I was a little afraid of changing anything up. Alcohol had become a comforting, consistent part of my routine in a period of immense uncertainty and stress. Drinking was how I coped with postponing my wedding not once but twice; dealt with my best friend of 30 years “breaking up” with me; and worked through a global health crisis. But though I could acknowledge all the negatives, I wasn’t sure I was brave enough to totally cast aside the social security blanket of drinking. What if I wasn’t good company without alcohol? What if I couldn’t have a good time? Embarking upon a major reckoning with myself felt like one more exhausting thing to tackle.

It’s not just me. I noticed more friends, celebrities and Philadelphians on my social feeds reassessing their drinking habits, especially those that had been exacerbated by the pandemic. In fact, a widespread movement dubbed “semi-sobriety” has become more mainstream of late. It’s the idea that a person drinks less or not at all by choice, rather than as a response to addiction. (You may have also heard people identify as “sober-curious” — a term Ruby Warrington coined in her 2018 book Sober Curious: The Blissful Sleep, Greater Focus, Limitless Presence, and Deep Connection Awaiting Us All on the Other Side of Alcohol.) Semi-sobriety encourages people to be more intentional with their sips, drinking how much and when they want to for the sake of their health, goals and lifestyle — in essence, to exert a little control over something that often makes people out of control.

This mentality makes semi-sobriety a radical reassessment of the long-standing drinking culture in this country. Americans have evolved to put drinking pretty much into two categories — all or nothing. “You are either a normal drinker who can (and should!) drink with abandon, or you are an alcoholic and must abstain completely,” writes Amanda White, founder of Old City-based Therapy Center for Women, in her book Not Drinking Tonight: A Guide to Creating a Sober Life You Love. Approaching imbibing this way goes beyond trendy challenges like Dry January or Sober October. Rather, being purposefully semi-sober is a daily commitment to achieving bigger goals. At the movement’s foundation is a very-millennial approach to wellness: setting intentions, manifesting aspirations, and believing that people who don’t live with addiction have the power to own their decision-making. The more I read and reported, the more I was motivated. And curious. What’s it like to be sober-ish in a town known for working hard and playing hard, for Citywide Specials and 14-­ingredient cocktails, for over-the-top celebrations and greased street poles? I quickly realized that reducing isn’t simple — that the pretty basic act of just not pouring yourself a glass of wine requires a lot of introspection and goes up against some big cultural and social forces, especially if you’re a woman. Could Philadelphians really think about boozing differently? Could I?

Temperance is nothing new, of course. Its U.S. roots can be traced to the early 1800s, when an anti-boozing crusade, primarily spearheaded by religious groups, quickly shifted from promoting moderation to pushing abstinence. The campaign argued that alcohol was a “great evil” — a temptation to be resisted at all costs. (Those who swore off the hooch would be rewarded with salvation, naturally.) Women were a driving force in the anti-alcohol charge, fed up with the ruinous impact drinking had on their marriages and families. The no-drinking dogma grew into a groundswell of Americans who protested, lobbied for political reform, formed temperance unions, and even slung actual hatchets to destroy saloons.

These actions led to the start of Prohibition in 1920. America’s 13-year ban on booze did help reduce consumption — mainly because it made obtaining alcohol hard — but it didn’t necessarily change people’s desire to drink. In the 90 or so years since Prohibition’s repeal, consumption of beer, wine and spirits in the U.S. has ebbed and flowed. But it hit a peak — especially among teens — in the late 1970s and early 1980s. While the exact reasons are unclear, heavy drinking became the norm. For myself and many other millennials, this means our parents, caregivers, and other key adult figures were young adults when the culture of hard-core drinking was common. Overindulgence became the standard for many baby boomers and Gen X-ers.

In 1984, Congress raised the legal drinking age from 18 to 21, making one’s 21st birthday a rite of passage no matter which state you live in. Those born after that came into a world in which alcohol felt illicit, dangerous and untouchable until you were of age. Drinking was a threshold to cross: On your 21st birthday, you were expected to get wasted — and then continue drinking (but without overdoing it!) for the rest of your life. This mixed message presents challenges, says Brynn Cicippio, a licensed marriage and family therapist who specializes in substance use and founded BCA Therapy in Wayne. “When we praise or view unhealthy behaviors like drinking through a celebratory lens but then condemn people for going overboard,” she says, “we’re sending super-confusing messages to those growing up within that culture.”

It’s clear that temperance has never been, well, temperate. That’s why this idea of being sort of sober is revolutionary: Semi-sobriety is a less punitive approach than that of our fire-and-brimstone ancestors. It declares, “I can drink; I just don’t want to all the time” — a monumental statement to make at a time when Americans are reportedly drinking more than they did when Prohibition began. To go against a century-old ethos without completely abstaining is, at its core, a big fuck-you to the all-or-nothing attitude ingrained in American drinking culture.

Even in the Before Times (circa 2019), people were reevaluating and modifying their drinking habits. The approach aligned with a newish emphasis on pursuing things that are good for you: clean eating, more movement, meditation, journaling. Celebrities like Blake Lively and Zendaya — plus big-name local chefs including Nick Elmi, Jesse Ito and Jen Carroll — began publicly declaring their decisions to live alcohol-free. (Meek Mill recently tweeted that he’s “happy as hell sober!”) These revelations helped make sobriety — and vulnerability in general — a bit more normalized in our alcohol-obsessed culture.

But the pandemic upended mindful drinking. Many of us became unhinged, for good reason: We were hunkered down in our homes, worrying nonstop, watching all of Netflix. The last thing we wanted to do was give up one of the few outlets that provided emotional relief. From March through September in 2020, U.S. liquor-store sales grew by 20 percent, according to researchers at Columbia University. Pennsylvanians spent a record amount on alcohol ($2.91 billion!) from July 2020 through June 2021. Women were drinking more than ever before; a study by the RAND Corporation think tank found that our heavy drinking (defined as four or more drinks within a few hours) rose 41 percent in 2020. Heck, we were drinking so much that #quarantini went viral.

“When the world shut down, there was this collective mind-set of ‘Do what you need to do to survive mentally and emotionally,’” says Brynn Cicippio. “Because alcohol depresses our central nervous system, it provided people immediate stress relief. Moms were having cocktails at lunch to get through virtual schooling. Zoom happy hours were the only way to hang with friends. It was like a prolonged snow day for adults.”

After a year or so of overindulging, though, many of us were left with negative consequences like crappy sleep, zero patience, and regular surges of dread. (What did I say and do last night?!) As Amanda White explains in her book, having even one drink disrupts your ability to achieve REM — the most restful type of sleep — instead sedating you in much the way anesthesia does. That’s why you’re often short-tempered, unmotivated, and generally annoyed with everybody and everything the morning after a lot of drinking. She writes that we suffer “hangxiety” — the psychological phenomenon that accompanies physical hangover symptoms — because the body always wants to be in homeostasis, an internal stabilizing condition that alcohol impedes. “When you consume alcohol — a depressant — your body produces cortisol and other stress hormones to become balanced again,” White explains. “So when alcohol leaves your body, you’re left with all these anxiety chemicals, literally increasing your anxiety the next day.”

Cicippio and White agree that what alcohol wreaks the most havoc on is long-term mental and emotional health. Cicippio says her practice received countless calls over the course of 2021 from folks who weren’t alcoholics but didn’t necessarily have a use disorder. (Another marker that drinking habits aren’t as black-and-white as we’ve been conditioned to believe: The DSM-5 — the official standard classification of medical disorders — created a spectrum for alcohol use disorder in 2013: mild, moderate, and severe, like alcoholism and binge drinking. Before then, the only two classifications were “alcohol abuse” and “alcohol dependence,” meaning if you weren’t deemed an alcoholic, you were still put into the camp of “problem drinkers.”) Cicippio says that consumption had become not just habitual but unintentional — as if people weren’t actively paying attention to or acutely aware of their inclination to turn to alcohol. White adds that this is probably because in the United States, many people grow up learning that drinking is “the preferred way that adults deal with stress.” In movies, we see people downing shots after receiving bad news or before tense situations. (The image of an overworked parent coming home with Wine & Spirits bags is a common one.) When we meet up with friends after a long week, the first thing we say or hear is, “I need a drink!” This American mind-set of “If stressed, then drink” is actually counterproductive: “When we use alcohol as an emotional crutch,” White explains, “we’re temporarily getting relief, but we’re not actually processing or learning how to sit with our emotions, which is what makes us feel better in the long run.”

It’s as if year two of the pandemic became, for many of us, a mirror — a means of reflecting on and facing all we’d been avoiding. My friend A, who lives in Cherry Hill and uses they/them pronouns, was the first person I knew who practiced mindful drinking. They became sober-curious in February of 2021 to pinpoint alcohol’s role in their life: “I realized that I was drinking to do something, whether that was to numb out or have fun or something else. I wanted to figure out what need I was trying to fulfill with drinking and then address the root cause instead of the symptom.” Not moderating “has never led me to any good decisions, and the costs don’t outweigh the benefits,” they say.

I soon discovered that many others in the Philly area were drinking less after I put out a call on our Be Well Philly Instagram page last December asking to connect with local semi-sober and sober-curious folks. I didn’t know what to expect from the ­posting — this city loves strong drinks and bar crawls — but within a few hours, I had dozens of replies. Southwest Philly-based chiropractor Hava Rose, Old City acrobat Rob Li, and Ali Bonar, founder of Warminster-based granola butter company Oat Haus, were all pursuing a semi-sober lifestyle. Juliet Sabella, owner of The Wall Fitness in Manayunk, told me she started being more intentional with her consumption last July, when her husband’s job began requiring extensive work trips. “The thought of not being 100 percent clear-minded if our child ever needed anything really scared me, so I choose to not drink at all when my husband is traveling,” she says.

The notion that alcohol was serving little to no purpose — or, worse, was playing a toxic role — was echoed by others. Gary C. of East Falls says his consumption organically lessened when the pandemic limited his socializing. “I’ve never been one to drink at home or alone,” he says, “so once the pandemic hit, I found that my drinking became infrequent. These days, I have a take-it-or-leave-it relationship with alcohol: I drink about once a month when my group of friends gets together for happy hour.” Dana A. of Collingswood began moderating six months into 2021: “My consumption increased after the death of my brother. I also grew to think I needed alcohol to relax after work every night and became uncomfortable with that dependency. Trying to change my consumption by myself was impossible — I needed a therapist, not alcohol, to help me with my loss and diminish my attachment to drinking.”

Those engaging in mindful drinking all touted the benefits, including improved sleep, self-esteem, skin and sex. Sabella says her anxiety is more manageable when alcohol isn’t in her system; Rose notes that her energy levels are more stable on booze-free days. Bonar feels more “in the moment,” adding that she’s living a fuller life by being more intentional with her consumption. Cutting down on drinking has other perks, too: Fairmount resident Bianca Solari, who’s been sober for three months after being sober-curious for two years, says going out to dinner is cheaper sans alcohol, while Gary C. notes that the semi-sober lifestyle curbs the “2 a.m. cheesesteak- or pizza-eating I’d be doing after a night out at the bar.”

I’ve noticed the local landscape evolving in tandem with the trend. Before the pandemic, only a handful of upscale eateries and bars, like Nick Elmi’s Laurel and ITV and Jen Carroll’s Spice Finch, carved out menu space for zero-proof drinks that weren’t the basic Shirley Temple. Now, more trendy spots are following suit, crafting complex concoctions like Ember & Ash’s Negroni — which has three house-made non-alcoholic “spirits” — and the aloe-juice-based “un-cocktails” at Solstice in Newtown. Wellness boutiques and coffee shops around town are stocking ­alcohol-free spritzes, and Philly-based delivery service Gopuff — which caters directly to the under-40 crowd — now carries non-­alcoholic beer. In October, Gem Life + Bar, the area’s first zero-proof bottle shop, opened in Pitman.

Just to be clear: Booze-free doesn’t necessarily mean straight-edge. Many semi-sobers are choosing natural alternatives that offer stress relief without alcohol’s negative consequences. Marijuana use, especially, has skyrocketed now that it’s been decriminalized and legalized in several states. (People are even going “Cali sober,” a.k.a. forgoing alcohol in favor of weed.) Products like CBD and zero-proof drinks with adaptogens and nootropics that Zen you out are more widely consumed. A drinkable THC, the Pathfinder Cannabis Spirit, was even created by local brand Art in the Age. (They have a non-THC, non-alcohol version, too.) Kava, an extract from a plant native to the Pacific Islands that provides an all-natural high, can be found in drinks at recently opened spots like New Hope’s MagiKava and Queen Village’s Lightbox Café. As many newly semi-sober practitioners point out, not drinking as much doesn’t mean you’re morphing into a Puritan; instead, they think of themselves as “healthy hedonists,” finding less harmful ways to relax and de-stress.

I decided it was time to try semi-sobriety after I got home from a week-long family vacation over the holidays feeling bloated, tired, and in need of replenishment. I was nervous. Alcohol had become a mainstay in my life, whether I was celebrating, hanging out, avoiding conflict, dispelling boredom, or evading sad and anxious thoughts. Women, I discovered, are more likely to be drawn to this lifestyle shift, which resonated. Societal forces have an outsized say over how women see themselves and are seen, and drinking culture makes women feel they need alcohol to function, cope and socialize. (“Boxed wine is a juice box for mom,” the long-standing joke goes.) That mentality is precisely why semi-sobriety is vibing with women — it’s a way to take back power and agency that’s so often stripped away. “Culturally, we talk about and hear how women need wine to survive motherhood, or that we should be rosé-ing all day after yoga,” says Abbie Romanul, a Chestnut Hill native and co-founder of make-at-home mocktail subscription box Raising the Bar. “But in the ‘MeToo’ era, women are fed up with being held back, especially by frivolous societal demands. Because alcohol suppresses the ability to tap into who you are and confront things that need to be worked on, more women are finding that what they thought was helping them de-stress is masking all the ways to live better — and are pushing back as a response.” Even armed with all this, I knew my decision to turn down drinks would be met with the same sorts of intrusive, unwelcome questions that have greeted any lifestyle change I’ve embarked on. (I was priming myself for the inevitable moment when someone would ask if I was pregnant. Big eye-roll there.) But I felt encouraged by others’ positive experiences, which affirmed that discovering my consumption catalysts (a.k.a. triggers) and improving my relationship with alcohol were worth the potential hurdles.

On a recommendation, I downloaded Reframe, an alcohol-reduction app launched in 2020 by two Georgia Tech grads. According to co-founder Vedant Pradeep, the app has 70,000 active subscribers, more than 80 percent of whom download it in hopes of reducing, rather than eliminating, alcohol in their lives. The daily activities and check-ins are meant to inform users of the underlying reasons why they drink and what they can gain from cutting back on or eliminating alcohol, and to prepare them for situations in which they’d typically drink. In the first week, I found avoiding alcohol super-challenging but stuck with Reframe’s tip to focus on something other than my desire to drink. I was also encouraged to reflect on and record my emotions in the moment, which helped me get past cravings. Reframe is akin to wellness activities like journaling, taking up pottery, seeing a therapist, and hitting your favorite fitness class — all of which get people doing things that don’t put alcohol front and center, which in turn helps them live more present, richer lives.

On evenings when I wanted to taste something other than water, I opted for a cup of tea or a mocktail. The great thing about having a true mocktail — as opposed to sparkling water — is that it maintains the ritual of enjoying a drink. “If you’re out with friends, it can feel really lame to toast with a glass of tonic when everyone else has fancy drinks,” says Romanul, who conceptualized Raising the Bar shortly after going sober in late 2018 and realizing, on her way to her first subsequent New Year’s Eve party, that she might feel left out. “Having an equally sophisticated beverage can help you feel included in those joyful, celebratory moments. Nobody should experience FOMO from not drinking.” I would open a canned mocktail, pour it into a stemless wineglass, and cheerfully sip on it while my husband and I watched TV. (Worth noting: Drinking mocktails or using alcohol-associated stemware isn’t recommended for those living with alcohol addiction, as these might be triggers and lead to relapse.)

In a few short weeks, my outlook grew to be what the app intended: reframed. I wasn’t eager for the taste of red wine every night, wasn’t impulsively or thoughtlessly asking my husband to make me a cosmo (his are excellent), wasn’t feeling bummed out about negative things I said or did. In fact, I felt energized and more in touch with myself and those around me. I was more productive at work and even invested more time in new and old hobbies — ­reading novels, playing my flute, finally starting that skin-care routine I’ve been putting off for years.

When I did drink, I was intentional in every sense: the when, the why, and the how much. I cheers-ed on date nights, after receiving good news from a doctor’s visit, and during a long-overdue get-together with friends. And drinks tasted better, as if my palate was tuning into flavors that formerly went underappreciated. More importantly, I found myself emboldened to do something I had rarely done before: cut myself off. An act that had been challenging for me for the past two years was transformed into a deliberate decision — all because I’d made a conscious effort not to feel physically, mentally or emotionally shitty post-imbibing. A non-alcoholic option, like Athletic Brewing’s booze-free IPA, began to replace what would have been a third round. Saying no simply because I didn’t want to have another drink (as opposed to declining out of fear or peer pressure) felt like a massive triumph.

This isn’t to say that modifying my consumption is easy. There are many physical, mental, emotional and social factors to navigate, from craving sugar (I’ve eaten more ice-cream sandwiches than I care to count) to reassessing booze-abundant friendships and feeling out of place during gatherings. Laura Taylor, founder of Berwyn-based sparkling mocktail brand Mingle Mocktails, says she struggled with moderating initially due to perceived social pressures: “I thought by not drinking, I’d be letting my friends down, or I just didn’t want people to ask, so it was often easier to just give in. It took me a long time to realize that people who are curious as to why you’re not drinking are, more often than not, assessing their own relationship with alcohol and wondering how you’re doing it.”

As I write this, I’ve had 46 booze-free days. I’m not boasting — even though I am proud of myself — but simply marking that I did or didn’t drink because it was my choice, nobody’s decision but my own. I hope that by the time this issue arrives in your mailbox, I’m still giving myself grace and leverage; that I’m continuing to pause and assess before making any decision, alcohol-related or not; that I’m practicing self-compassion and creating more mindful moments; and that I’m showing up to that Sunday-morning spin class. Cheers.

Published as “My So-Called (Semi Sober) Life” in the April 2022 issue of Philadelphia magazine.