USA TODAY International Edition
Social drinking is serious business
Many Americans have a difficult time not drinking. There’s a multitude of reasons – it’s fun and it feels good, and there’s the influence of genetics, trauma, peer pressure, the pandemic. Drinking really is everywhere, which makes drinking completely normal. We drink in restaurants and bars, at concerts and sporting events, at dinner parties and on children’s birthdays. We drink when we fly, get our nails done, while we shop or dance or mingle.
In the past decade, there have been a number of seemingly contradictory trends around Americans’ alcohol use. Research shows Americans overall are drinking less, but many are binge- drinking more. Women are drinking and abusing alcohol at higher rates. During the pandemic, nearly 1 in 5 Americans report consuming an unhealthy amount of alcohol.
There’s a growing movement of sober- curious people normalizing a desire to drink less even without hitting a metaphorical “rock bottom.” There has been a significant rise in the accessibility and popularity of alcohol- free booze, inviting many sober people back into spaces that felt dull at best and risky at worst.
Biology, human psychology and powerful cultural and economic forces that dictate who controls and promotes alcohol can make it hard to abstain or even to cut back. The mythology of alcohol suggests it’s an antidote to the mundanity of our lives. Alcohol- free spaces are scant, which means abstaining from alcohol can translate to abstaining from people, from places, from life. That’s a lot of fear of missing out. It’s almost impossible to not drink without scrutiny. Forgoing drinking makes you more visible and consequentially more vulnerable.
“Not drinking is really a radical act,” said Laszlo Jaress of the National Council for Mental Wellbeing, who’s in long- term recovery. “You are choosing to sort of operate outside the normal purviews of society, where everything is so oriented around being out in spaces where alcohol is consumed.”
Alcohol as a ‘ social lubricant’
PET scans have shown drinking releases endorphins. Drinking feels good and can help us socialize. Alcohol often is referred to as a “social lubricant.” When consumed in social settings, it can reduce negative emotions that make people less silent. It makes us more chill, more open, ostensibly more fun.
“Going out” is one of the defining aspects of culture, and alcohol is nearly everywhere people go out. That ubiquity suggests drinking is what people do when they socialize, even if they don’t always want to and even if they don’t like the way it makes them feel.
Many people – with and without substance abuse struggles – believe alcohol is the answer to anxiety and banality. Nine in 10 adults who drink too much are not alcoholics or alcohol- dependent, according to a study by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
“Look at any commercial. We are sold the myth of the night out,” Jaress said. “We’re sold this concept that we need alcohol to reach these highs. ... But we’re never going to find what they’re selling us. Happiness is a moving baseline.”
There’s an industry invested in getting us to drink. People with substance use disorders have a host of behavioral health problems, but Jaress said the entire culture is susceptible to the ideas that big alcohol sells – that drinking is normal, that it helps us fit in, that if you drink, you’ll be OK. The global market in alcoholic beverages is expected to grow to $ 735.83 billion in 2025.
Drinking, and especially excessive drinking, also are influenced by unequal power dynamics. Jennifer S. Hirsch and Shamus Khan looked at college drinking in their book “Sexual Citizens: A Landmark Study of Sex, Power, and Assault on Campus,” and they concluded you can’t understand campus drinking culture without recognizing the ways it’s shaped by multiple forms of privilege. Wealthy, white young men are not typically worried about being sexually assaulted, about the cost of an ambulance ride, about being killed by police for punching a hole in the wall.
“Women or students of color or sexual minorities, first- generation students are funneled into spaces controlled by older, white, wealthy men, which sets those men’s tastes and preferences as the norm for the campus in ways that other students have to fit themselves into,” Hirsch said.
Feeling left behind on the ‘ night out’
It’s hard to find spaces that aren’t centered on drinking. The demands of private spaces are that they are profitable to survive, and alcohol contributes to profitability. People mostly socialize in private spaces – bars and restaurants rather than parks or libraries – which means there’s a social cost to not drinking.
Kayla Veatch has stopped drinking more than once but often returned to it because she feared the social cost, that she would miss the promise of the “night out.”
Veatch has known Jaress for nearly a decade. They met in Denver three weeks after Jaress quit drinking. Veatch was both amazed and confounded that Jaress could socialize and not drink.
“He would still go out and we would play pool, and I would drink a beer, and he would drink a soda water,” she said. “It was the first example of someone that was doing well without drinking.”
It intrigued her that someone could stay sober and not retreat from life. Veatch wanted to stop drinking but was surrounded by overconsumption. She resented the hypervisibility around her periods of sobriety. It invited too many questions.
“I might have started being open to less drinking earlier if there were mocktails and nonalcoholic beers that were tasty and options that were not just soda water in a plastic,” she said. “Things that level the playing field, that leave it to your own discretion whether it’s even visible that you’re drinking or not drinking is just really important because then it gives people the freedom to make that decision without the scrutiny of being outed.”
Veatch has been sober since March. She has kept her job as a bartender and general manager at the Golden Moon Speakeasy and helped expand its mocktail offerings.
Education is a key
Alcohol is treated differently from other drugs. Binge drinking alcohol doesn’t carry the same stigma as abusing heroin.
“Drinking is something that has always been culturally acceptable,” said Natalie Randall, founder of the Sobriety Clubhouse on Clubhouse. “A lot of times when we think of cigarettes, people are like, ‘ Oh my gosh, this is the harm it can cause me,’ but because alcohol is almost seen like food ... we don’t think twice about it.”
Excessive alcohol kills more than 95,000 people in the U. S. each year, according to the CDC. Binge- drinking – defined as four or more drinks for a woman during a single occasion and five or more drinks for a man – is associated with a host of serious health problems, including unintentional injury, violence, sexual assault and chronic disease.
“Not enough people think, ‘ Oh, this is actually a substance I’m putting in my body,’ ” Jaress said. “There needs to be education that this is a drug.”
Alcohol is the most frequently used and misused substance in the U. S., according to the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration.
Randall has abstained from alcohol for nearly eight years. When she stopped, she said, alcohol- free spaces would have made things easier. Now she’s an ultra- marathoner. She kayaks and does kickboxing and whitewater rafting.
“My mind is open to how many things there are out there to do, so many things that are not centered around drinking,” she said. “It makes life more interesting, because who wants to go to the same bar every day, every week? It gets old.”