“Grey-area drinkers” aren’t falling-over drunks, but nor is their relationship with booze healthy. In recent times, many have been giving up or cutting back – being sober is the new black.
By Brook Turner
Kristen Allan vividly remembers the moment she decided to quit drinking for good. It was April 2017. Her brother and his family were visiting from Queensland and they had gone to dinner at a friend's house. "I was surrounded by kids and family and somehow it came up that I was freshly out of a relationship," Allan recalls.
Children. Family. Relationships. They were old conundrums for Allan, now 45, conundrums that had always seemed to crave a drink. Small and slight, she looks every inch the ballet dancer she once was as she sits in a Sydney cafe nursing a hot chocolate, albeit with a sneakers-and-no-make-up chic all her own. In her mid-teens, she attended the specialist high school at the Victorian College of the Arts. Living away from her family in Queensland, she learnt to play as hard as she trained. "Usually with ballet you'd smoke and drink coffee. We just threw alcohol in as well, because we were those hard ballet girls: no pain, no gain. I'm tiny, but I was always the girl who could keep up with my brother, who's six foot four."
After giving up ballet in her 20s, she moved to London where she worked on Savile Row and in PR. It was the 1990s, the height of Cool Britannia, its presiding spirits Kate Moss and the hard-drinking Young British Artists, led by Damien Hirst. "It was a big drinking culture," Allan says. "You'd drink at lunch time and after work your bosses would say, 'Let's go back to the pub.'" Returning to Australia, she fell into hospitality. The perfectionism that had driven her dancing career meant she excelled, managing fashionable Sydney eateries Vini and Berta in Surry Hills, but the industry also "fed that thirst", she says.
"I had always been a big drinker, and hard liquor: whiskeys, martinis, negronis. If I was going to drink, I was going to do it well. I loved scotch – that burning sensation – and I learnt a lot about wine because I was working in really good restaurants. You'd taste the wine to make sure it wasn't corked or something, but you'd also drink through service to get through service. You weren't drunk, but it was constant, and your tolerance was so high."
Something began to shift in the years leading up to that 2017 family dinner. "I started playing with giving up at end of 2015," Allan says. "I'd just finished two years of unsuccessfully trying to have a baby by myself with IVF. I spent 2015 travelling and trying to recover, and successfully pushed the grief away with booze. It got to the end of the year and it was a combination of things: I was thinking about fostering and I knew I had to be at my best emotionally to do that. I just decided I didn't want to be that single woman who was a mess and drinking a lot. I think I also began to notice that it wasn't serving me."
As her friends never tired of pointing out, Allan was not an old-style alcoholic. Nor did she ever have the classic rock-bottom, lose-everything moment. She could go for days without drinking. But she preferred to tuck away a bottle of wine at home on her own, more if she was celebrating or had company.
"Looking back with the clarity of mind I have now, I was using alcohol to keep me performing at the level required: you can go to work, you're at the top of your field, but you need alcohol to keep you small, because you don't know what's out there. You just think, 'If I stay this small person, everything will be safe.' It becomes your comfort zone."
By April last year, there had been another fork in the road. Allan had started a relationship with a man who had a son from a previous relationship.
"I really bonded with [the son]. We'd go to the footy together, and it all seemed so right that I started drinking again because I had all this anxiety about not having children and somehow I felt it was going to be okay. Then we split and everything was taken away. No one warns you about that situation when you bond with someone's child – there was huge grief."
It all came to a head at the family dinner. "Because I hadn't been drinking that much, it was like I was standing outside myself, watching as I drank and drank and drank – red wine and plenty of it. And the next day I knew exactly why I'd done it because I didn't have the family; because I felt this shame at being me.
"I knew I was through because I had a really beautiful bottle of wine some friends of mine in the Adelaide Hills had made and I decided that would be my last. But after two glasses, I just felt numb. It was the first time I'd really felt that dead feeling, and I thought, 'That's it. I'm drinking because I'm ashamed of who I am. I don't want to f…ing feel like this anymore, I don't want to feel like I'm dead.'"
Sydney cheese-maker Kristen Allan toyed with giving up drinking before an epiphany changed everything.Photo: Jennifer Soo
Allan's story is deeply personal, her honesty searing. She is emblematic of a growing wave of people – particularly those approaching or traversing middle age, not least women – who are reassessing their relationship with alcohol. While each story is individual, the themes are common: issues-management via imbibing; a growing disquiet culminating in a crystallising moment or moments, often involving children, followed by a period of what can only be called self-discovery and reinvention; often chronicled – and supported – online.
Few would fit the cliched profile of an alcoholic. Most are closer to what American nutritionist and TEDx talker Jolene Park has dubbed "grey-area drinkers", people who have come to live somewhere between "an end-stage, lose-everything drunk" and someone who, as she says, drinks "a glass of champagne at a wedding and never drinks again for weeks". A wellbeing expert and one of the first people Kristen Allan found online when she gave up, Park has said of her own pattern of drinking, where a glass of wine tended to turn into a bottle: "What people didn't know was how much I loved the 'off' switch that wine provided to my 'on' – and often-anxious – brain."
As she has also said, that sort of pattern used to be considered pretty acceptable. But we live in increasingly sober times. According to the latest large-scale study, the 2016 National Drug Strategy Household Survey (NDSHS), Australians continue to drink less, a change driven particularly by young people, who are drinking later and less. Overall, both the proportion of Australians drinking daily and those drinking in excess of lifetime-risk guidelines – no more than two standard drinks on any day – declined between 2013 and 2016. Half of recent drinkers moderated their drinking within this period, with concern for health being the main driver.
Significantly more teenagers abstained in 2016 than in 2013 (82 per cent compared to 72 per cent), while the average age among 14- to 24-year-olds trying alcohol for the first time increased (from 15.7 to just over 16 years of age). Of course that trend is neither uniform nor universal – young people are more likely to binge-drink, for instance. At the opposite end of the spectrum, those aged 70 or more are the most likely to drink daily.
As for what lies between: "In 2001, the peak age for long-term risky drinking (more than two drinks per day) was 18 to 24. That has now moved to 40 to 49," says Matthew James, deputy director of the Australian Institute of Health and Welfare, which releases the NDSHS report. "There is evidence of an increase in lifetime risky drinking among people in their 40s and 50s, and the peak age for men is their 40s and for women is their 50s."
But this isn't really a story about statistical trends. It's about individuals – a wave of individuals and, increasingly, a community of individuals – who are reassessing their relationship with alcohol. They might be in their mid-30s, 40s or 50s. Alcohol has come to play an increasingly critical role in their daily lives, identity and functioning, and they're sick of it.
"Alcohol is so imbued in our culture as the thing you do when something good happens, when something bad happens, when anything happens – and when we're bored," says Dr Emma Miller, lecturer at Flinders University College of Medicine and Public Health. In cutting back, or giving up, this growing cohort is challenging the ubiquity of alcohol and helping to forge a new, more nuanced drinking culture. Whether – and how – this wave registers statistically over time remains to be seen, but it certainly shows signs of growing.
Take Dry July, which launched a decade ago with 1000 people signing up after radio presenter Adam Spencer plugged the campaign on air. In the five years to 2017, about 19,000 people signed up to each annual campaign, which involves giving up drinking for the month, mostly raising money for charity in the process. This year, the number of people signing up almost doubled to more than 36,000. And some aren't going back from what has become an annual ritual, either in July, or February with Febfast or October with Ocsober.
John Stewart, the former headmaster of Tudor House in the NSW Southern Highlands and the Green School in Bali, signed up to Febfast this year along with his wife Sophie after a mildly indulgent Christmas. "Sophe lasted 'til day two, but I got through February and just found I didn't have the urge to drink," says the 51-year-old father of four, a keen surfer who already only drank on weekends. "It got to the end of March and it hit me that it was the first Easter I had been through without a drink in 35 years. I started imagining the swimming pool of alcohol I had swum across in that time.
"And the other element was my kids [aged 15 to 23]. Alcohol is just so prevalent on social media; people highlighting their dependence in a way that has become totally acceptable. I wanted to show them that it's not necessary to drink. It wasn't like I was taking it up as some great cause, I just suddenly began to notice how pervasive alcohol is."
Since he quit, Stewart says two of his closest friends have joined him on the wagon. "I just got a text from one," he says. "It said, 'Got to get myself out of the haze. Had enough.'"
Chris Raine saw his Hello Sunday Morning non-drinking blog spiral into an international online movement.Photo: Jennifer Soo
Chris Raine has been watching that wave break across the shores of Hello Sunday Morning (HSM), which he started as an online blog nine years ago to chronicle his experiment with giving up alcohol for a year. Now 31, Raine says things had gone awry in his mid-teens, after he quit playing state-level tennis, which had – rather like Allan's ballet career – given his life structure and purpose. When his friends began blogging alongside him on HSM back in 2010, a social network was born, which subsequently turned into an online movement, largely funded by local, state and national government grants.
In October 2016, HSM moved into clinical support, launching Daybreak, an online app that helps members change their drinking habits – whether giving up or moderating – through a combination of peer support and coaching from a clinical psychologist. Almost 30,000 people, mainly in Australia but with users in the US, UK and Canada, have signed up to Daybreak since. Seventy per cent are women and the peak age is just shy of 43, though with significant cohorts on either side.
"It's fascinating that a movement set up by and for young people, the demographic drinking less and late, has been increasingly inhabited by Gen X and Baby Boomers," Michael Thorn, CEO of the Foundation for Alcohol Research and Education, says of HSM. "It's very much an individual rather than population-movement thing – to go to for help when they realise they have a bit of an issue with their drinking." So much so that the federal government recently gave Daybreak $3 million to fund a further 20,000 Australians to undertake the program over the next three years.
"When I first started, not drinking for a year was something that made me a career," Raine says. "Now it's become much more culturally acceptable." As for the typical Daybreaker, "they might be your weekend binge-drinkers who need more clinical support than the system is currently giving them, but most have complicated relationships with alcohol." There's usually a lot of pressure on them to, on the one hand, "fix" this part of their life, but on the other, to keep their drinking a secret from friends and family who've been burnt by it.
As for the strong female representation, HSM psychologist Briony Leo says the typical profile is "a mum of one or two, working part-time and with a busy life. For some members they are managing a mild to moderate mental health condition like anxiety, in combination with normal life stress such as finances, relationship and social commitments. Others might be dealing with a parent's illness, parenting issues, family dynamics or grief and loss."
Occupational therapist Karen Shaw was one of the almost 1200 people who signed up to Daybreak last December. The Melbourne mother of two daughters says she was an habitual, rather than daily, drinker. "I'd think nothing of sharing a bottle of wine with someone and a bottle would never be left unfinished," she says. "I'm a huge wine snob, I'm known for knowing my wine, it's part of my identity. More than that, it's about the way you socialise, connect people, the way you honour and commiserate."
Like Kristen Allan, Shaw's trigger to give up was at once specific and cumulative. It was December 10, 2017. Her eldest daughter had just finished her final piano exams. "It was a bit poignant, the end of an era," she says. "It was just before Christmas and I had taken a friend out for the day for her birthday. It should have been a happy occasion, but I was just so sick myself. I felt like I was going around in circles in my life, and if I'm honest, I have always had a level of depression and anxiety. I decided I was going to manage my mental health better and decided the simplest place to start was zero alcohol. I didn't know I was really going to do it and I still don't know how I did it. I just had this crystal-clear thought."
Shaw has been surprised by how fundamental the change has proved. "It has taken seven months, but finally I can feel a real sense of change. It wasn't just about alcohol. It was that alcohol was a default position and had always been in my life. More interesting than not drinking was the impact on other things like relationships. You only realise what a big drinking culture we have when you take a step back and see it with open eyes."
That women predominate HSM members is no surprise to Dr Karen Coates, a former GP specialising in health and wellness assessments for women, who also runs workshops at Gwinganna Lifestyle Retreat on the Gold Coast hinterland. She says for many 40-something women, drinking is more stress-management than social. "Often, the wheels fall off in their mid-40s with teenage children and all sorts of other pressures. I have had several women who start to drink too much, but they do it in the closet. They're the role model for the family, but with a bottle of vodka in their room."
Clinical psychologist Dr Sally Hunt, a senior lecturer at the University of Newcastle, is finalising a report on the reasons why Australian women drink. "I see women with a drinking problem as women with a coping problem," she says, pointing to the number of roles women now juggle and the trend toward having children later. "You have a cohort of women who are in the workforce, setting up patterns of how to be adult, going out for drinks and setting up a lifestyle pattern that's similar to their male colleagues prior to having children. They then resume that lifestyle after kids. And of course, women also experience the physical ills of alcohol at a lower dose than men, they suffer the health consequences sooner because they're physically smaller."
Those consequences are increasingly serious and difficult to ignore. "If you look at population trends, 10 to 15 years ago, it was young people who were the biggest drinkers," says Flinders University's Emma Miller. "Now middle-aged women aged between 45 and 65 years are the biggest drinkers among women. That's where I do most of my research, the link between alcohol consumption and breast cancer in those 'middle-aged' women. It is increasing and some of this – perhaps one in six cases – can be attributed to alcohol consumption."
“Alcohol is so imbued in our culture as the thing you do when something good happens, when something bad happens, when anything happens – and when we’re bored,” says Dr Emma Miller. Photo: Nic Walker
That the times are changing is increasingly apparent anywhere books, booze or counsel are sought or sold. In the 1990s, a whole generation identified with Bridget Jones as she nervously tallied the daily alcohol units that never quite matched her resolutions. This decade's equivalent is Eleanor Oliphant, the two-bottles-of-vodka-a-weekend Glaswegian heroine of the award-winning UK bestseller, Eleanor Oliphant is Completely Fine. The debut novel by former Glasgow civil servant Gail Honeyman, 46, recounts Oliphant's gradual emergence from her anaesthetised shell, and sparked a bidding war resulting in a six-figure advance. Actor/producer Reese Witherspoon snaffled the film rights within days of its publication last year and the book has since sold more than 1.1 million copies in 30 countries.
In fact, women-and-wine has become its own publishing category since US journalist Caroline Knapp's acclaimed 1996 memoir, Drinking: A Love Story. Twenty years after Sex and the City immortalised the cocktail as lubricant and symbol of sophisticated relationships, alcohol is the new Mr Big, the subject of a dizzying array of books about women busting up with booze, with titles including Sober is the New Black, Mind Your Drink, The Sober Diaries, The Sober Revolution, Drunk Mom, Mindful Drinking, The Unexpected Joy of Being Sober, Glass Half Full, Girl Walks Out of a bar: A Memoir, Blackout: Remembering the Things I Drank to Forget.
Paralleling that boom has been the proliferation of online blogs and communities, which include Club Soda, Hip Sobriety, Sober Evolution, Sexy Sobriety, This Naked Mind, Living Sober, One Year No Beer and Smart Recovery. "They have really got into the mainstream psyche," says Lucy Rocca, the British author of four books on the subject, who founded her own online community Soberistas – which now has almost 50,000 registered members, 90 per cent female – in late 2012.
"There is a glut of books on the [UK] Sunday Times bestseller list and what connects them all is a very similar story of middle-class, normal, respectable women drinking. It's like we have all fallen foul of this myth that wine is Mummy Juice, that life is like Sex and the City, all about going out for cocktails, and then we get to 40 and we realise the negatives that come with that lifestyle. People are just so relieved it's not just them."
It's a tide that Rosamund Dean, author of Mindful Drinking, watched washing across her desk working on women's magazines in the UK before deciding to write her own memoir/self-help book charting a middle course. "There were so many books on giving up and it had become huge on social media," she says. "Half my Instagram feed was about giving up and the other half were images of women with martinis. There just didn't seem to be any middle ground between being hammered all the time and being totally sober."
American writer Kristi Coulter offered perhaps the most incisive take on the subject in her 2016 essay Enjoli, which chronicled her first season of sobriety. It has since spawned a blog, Off-Dry ("I got sober. Life got big") and a well-received book of essays, Nothing Good Can Come from This.
"That summer I realise that everyone around me is tanked. But it also dawns on me that a lot of the women are super double tanked – that to be a modern, urbane woman means to be a serious drinker," Coulter writes in Enjoli. "The things women drink are signifiers for free time and self-care and conversation – you know, luxuries we can't afford. How did you not see this before? I ask myself. You were too hammered, I answer back. That summer I see, though. I see that booze is the oil in our motors, the thing that keeps us purring when we could be making other kinds of noise."
For anyone of a certain age, the "You've Come A Long Way, Baby"' slogan Philip Morris used to launch Virginia Slims cigarettes in the late 1960s comes to mind. Just how far we've since come was underlined last month, when online wine seller Lot18 tried to launch a selection of Handmaid's Tale-themed wines timed to the final episode of the show's second series. So fast and furious was the reaction online that the pinot noir, cabernet sauvignon and Bordeaux blanc – named for Offred, Offglen and Serena Joy respectively – had to be withdrawn from sale the same day. Lucy Rocca isn't the only one who wonders if alcohol is on its way to becoming the new tobacco: Catherine Gray in her 2017 book The Unexpected Joy of Being Sober wrote: "In 50 years' time, our grandchildren could be saying, 'I can't believe people used to drink for fun?!'"
Ben Branson launched Seedlip, a boutique non-alcoholic liquor, in 2015 – and it’s a hit. Photo: Supplied
These days the latest thing in London is "conscious clubbing" and sober raves such as Morning Gloryville, and The Shine, a booze-free "volunteer-produced inspirational variety show" imported – why does it seems so inevitable? – from the US. Former wild boy Damien Hirst called last drinks on his drinking more than a decade ago, in his early 40s. As for his former Cool Britannia consort, at 44 Kate Moss's favourite tipple is reportedly Seedlip, "the world's first distilled non-alcoholic spirit". Underlining the changing times, British multinational beer-and-spirits company Diageo – home to Smirnoff, Johnnie Walker and Guinness among drinks – took a 20 per cent stake in Seedlip in 2016, reportedly the first non-alcoholic drinks investment in its 257-year history. Seedlip has since become both its fastest-growing brand (albeit with a minority stake) and the bestselling liquor brand at David Jones, after it launched in Australia a year ago. "We are all trying to be good these days," the 35-year-old founder of Seedlip, Ben Branson, says during a promotional trip to Australia earlier this year. "Good is the new cool."
A former graphic designer, Branson began experimenting with herbs and distillation five years ago, around the same time he co-founded a boutique marketing company. The son of a mother whose family had farmed for generations and a father in marketing, he was initially driven by the lack of sophisticated options for non-drinkers like himself, coupled with an autodidact's fascination with medieval herbs, remedies and techniques. Then his marketing brain kicked in. "I began to research it and to understand the cultural forces at work. That alcohol volumes were in decline globally. That young people were drinking less and better. That they were more likely to brag about how long it's been since their last drink than what bar they fell out of," Branson says. "And then we had this crazy thing called social media, which was driving some hugely interesting behaviours in terms of people suddenly having this public image that needed to be curated to make their best selves appear to the world, as if everyone lived the most wonderful lives all the time."
In 2015, Branson abandoned his marketing company, got the Seedlip crest he'd just designed tattooed on his arm, and threw himself into his new venture full-time. That year he made 1000 bottles, using a still bought online and installed in the 14th-century cottage he shares with his fiancée outside London. His initial approach to the head buyer at UK department store Selfridges was unpromising. "It was, 'I'll give you 15 minutes and I hate anything that doesn't have alcohol in it,' " Branson says. The meeting lasted an hour, and the buyer not only took an exclusive distribution deal but introduced Branson to "every bar that mattered in London".
That first thousand bottles of Seedlip sold out in three weeks, the second thousand in three days and the third in 30 minutes on the Selfridges website. Three years later, Seedlip is in 16 countries and 100 Michelin-starred restaurants. "I put 99 per cent of our success down to timing," Branson says. "It was the right product at the right time; there was this pent-up demand." As for Australia, "It's our fastest-growing market," he says. "We've just put two 40-foot containers of Seedlip on boats in the past two months."
Karen Shaw signed up to the Daybreak app last December. “I’ve been laughing a lot more lately,” she says.Photo: Darrian Traynor
Of course, nothing under the sun is completely new. Before Seedlip there was Claytons, sold as "the drink you have when you're not having a drink", back when alcohol was being targeted as a factor in Australia's road toll in the 1970s. Though having sampled both, this writer would have to say we have indeed come a long way. As Foundation for Alcohol Research and Education's Michael Thorn points out, too, people have been giving up and taking up alcohol for a very long time. And there have always been communities to support them, from temperance societies to Alcoholics Anonymous.
But this does feel different. As other communities have proliferated, the number of AA meetings held in Australia each week has remained fairly stable at about 2000 for a decade now. And it may just be an age and stage thing, but everywhere I go, Gen X and Baby Boomer drinking buddies have called it quits. Some have stories of near-death experiences or career or relationship suicide. Others have come to derive the same pleasure from sobriety that they used to find in drinking. Still others have simply moderated with age.
And that is very much the ethos of moderation's new evangelists: that one's relationship with alcohol – like sexuality or, increasingly, gender – is an entirely personal choice. One of many. Ben Branson may not drink, but he certainly smokes. Hello Sunday Morning's founder Chris Raine still drinks, though rarely and far more moderately than he did as an event promoter in his early 20s. "The challenge I have is that I would be untrue to myself if I didn't drink, because I actually think it has value in my life," he says. "I think there's a cultural value to it and a ritual of it and as long as that's not globally enforced, as can happen, then all is well."
"It's a really personal thing," agrees Kristen Allan. "Alcohol and moderating don't work for me, but I don't regret any of the drinking I did. I miss it. We had a great time together, but I've come to that part of my life where I don't want to do it anymore. The voice of sobriety has become so much stronger than the thirst to drink."
Karen Shaw says she's treating her sobriety as a scientific trial. Prejudging whether she'll continue would cruel the experiment, but modelling sobriety to her daughters has been important. She's also taken up running. "I have been laughing a lot more lately," she adds. "And I don't have a chemical laugh, it's genuine."
Interestingly, each has a new sense of purpose. Through Daybreak, Raine has fallen back in love with Hello Sunday Morning, from which he had considered walking away after completing an MBA at Oxford University a few years back. "We started building all this stuff for Daybreak and we went, 'Hang on a minute, we really f…ing love this, it's what we were born to do,' " he says. Green School's John Stewart was already deep in the planning stages of a new school in Byron Bay when he stopped drinking. And since she gave up, Kristen Allan's taken the upmarket cheese-making business she had started in a small way to a whole new level.
She has told her story "in case someone reads this who has that little voice but isn't quite sure," she says. "Because there's a stigma to not drinking. People just don't get it; it isn't just about alcohol. It's all intertwined: mental health and feminism and not playing small and finding your strength and being vulnerable and imperfect." A few months ago, she hit her first anniversary of sobriety. "I was on the floor of the cheesery, sobbing," she says. "I'd been living this very small closed-in life, and not drinking forced me to look at myself and say, 'Okay, sort this out.' "
So, exactly how much better is life without a drink? "The one thing I'm entirely sure of is that I will never have a drink again," she says. "That's how much better it is!"
To read more from Good Weekend magazine, visit our page at The Sydney Morning Herald or The Age.