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Why Sober Challenges Suck

And My Tips for Long Term Sobriety

My heart sank when I received an email this morning, requesting that I share a link to “Sober October 2017.”

I’ve been sober, and blogging about it for two and half years. I can tell you that Sober Challenges such as the ridiculously named Dryruary (Sober January), Dry July, Sober October—all of them, while well intended, are a symptom of our booze-sodden society.

Dressed up as an opportunity to foster a “new healthy lifestyle” while raising money for a worthwhile cause, at best they are useless, and at worst, dangerous for those who are in denial of their alcohol dependency, or in the first fragile stages of sobriety.

1. They send the wrong message that giving up booze is abnormal.

The very premise of a sober challenge, that being sober for a whole month is so abnormal that people will throw money at you for your heroic deed—perpetuates the “other-ness” of sobriety.

Alcoholism is a disease, it happens to people who suffer tragedies, who are weak-willed, who are "raving alkies,” this is a common stereotype. But drinking is normal and fun, right? “Other” people are alcoholics, and those people have to quit. They have to get sober. And go to meetings. And it’s very, very hard.

This is the stigma that sober people like me, face every day.

Despite the fact that I lead a full and productive non-drinking life, and these days, there is not one aspect of my life that would be enhanced by drinking… there is still an awkwardness (for other people) around my sobriety.

An awkward apology, if someone forgets and offers me a glass of wine. Invitations that don’t arrive because "It will be a boozy night, and we didn’t think you would want to come…"

A "Sober Challenge" is almost as offensive as “Let’s Pretend We are Deaf for a Month” would be for actual deaf people.

Sober October may help charities raise money (and in this case, it’s for cancer), but if as much effort was put into re-branding sobriety as normal, fun and healthy, rather than something only “brave fearless” self-sacrificing mortals do for 30 days, then they might not have to raise so much money to cure cancer at all.

2. They don’t work as a “kickstart” to a healthier relationship with booze.

"It’s easier with friends! Join as a team!"

Yep, it is easier with friends—a team of people will keep you accountable and on track, and will bolster your willpower.

But once that has all finished, the challenge is over, the real work of sobriety must begin — all alone, without your team — if your intention is to stay alcohol free.

Most of us can suffer through just about anything, relying on willpower.

But dealing with alcohol dependence and living a life of sobriety has nothing to do with willpower. It’s a journey of self-awareness, a complete change of mindset and lifestyle (often without support from confused friends and family), amid the stigma of addiction.

3. They encourage denial.

Alcohol dependency, and indeed any other form of addiction, carries such a stigma that years of denial precede any action for many sufferers.

In the three years before I finally quit drinking for good, I sought any tiny glimmer of "proof" that I didn’t have a problem. I read “pseudoscience” articles that touted alcohol as a “health drink,” I closely watched other people’s habits to confirm that "everyone" was doing it — and I was triumphant if (rarely), I managed to moderate, or last out a sober challenge.

“How can I possibly have a problem if I can quit for four weeks?”

The longer my denial continued, the further my alcohol dependency progressed. This is sadly normal. Yet, I clung to the fact that a year? Two years? ago, I managed to “survive” a sober challenge, so therefore I could do it again.

Except I couldn’t.

My only way to combat my alcohol addiction was to quit for good. Forever. Not just for 31 days.

4. They focus on deprivation (and occasionally cheating).

The “challenge” of course, is to deprive yourself of booze for a month. To make it easier (and to smooth over any concerns that participants have) you can invoke a “Golden Ticket” if during October, you have a social event that you really want to drink at.

I get it. The organizers want people to sign up.

The biggest hurdle that most sober newbies face is attending an event, without the “comfort glass” in their hand.

Because we are so accustomed to booze accompanying every social occasion from christenings to funerals, not to mention toddlers' birthday parties, book club meetings, Paint Nights, Yoga, PTA meetings, and the flask of vodka that’s handed round at the kid’s soccer match... it’s no wonder that the organisers foresaw diminished participation should they not give a "Sober Mulligan" for a night out.

Did I mention the irony that Sober October is to raise money for cancer? And that a causal link has been found between even minimal levels of drinking and seven types of cancer, particularly breast cancer?

So wouldn’t it be a good thing, if instead of giving their participants a "pass" if they have a night out, there was a bit more emphasis on the joy and benefits of socializing without booze?

5. The End of the Ordeal

“WOO HOO… I made it! Off to get a bottle (or two!) of wine.”

This was an actual Facebook status update from a lady who was very excited that she "made it" through Dry July, and was even more excited that she would soon be reunited with her beloved wine.

The temptation, at the end of the “brave ordeal,” is to run off and drink your face off, if you don’t have a plan in place.

Here’s my hope for the best outcome of a Sober Challenge… that a few people will be so blown away by how much better they feel after a month booze-free, that they carry on, and realize that sobriety is not just for alcoholics — normal people can be sober too!

If you would like to give sobriety a try, not as a "challenge," but as a permanent lifestyle improvement, here are my top five tips:

  • Plan, plan, plan… move booze out of your house, have a sober “toolbox” of distractions to use when you feel a craving coming on.
  • Focus on the daily benefits — lack of hangover, diminished “booze boobs and wine belly,” no more drunk posting on facebook.
  • Analyse why you were drinking in the first place — was it to reduce stress? If so, make sure you have a plan to deal with your stress, such as meditation or exercise.
  • Don’t be in denial about your drinking habit — calculate exactly how much you are drinking, how much it costs you financially, and how much time it takes up in your life. If you are completely honest with yourself, the outcome may surprise (or horrify) you. Hopefully it will motivate you to keep going.
  • If your friends are not supportive of this lifestyle — change your friends. You can always find another friend, you can’t always get another liver.
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