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Getting on board the sober curious movement

'I totally bought into that mommy stuff, like I had a wine sippy cup,' says sober curious mom
Kristen Gardiner is on a sober curious journey and is holding a coffee mug to replace a wine glass.

Guelph's Kristen Gardiner is a self-described former ‘wine mom’ who is one of many joining the growing 'sober curious' movement.

And she says she's seen benefits to her life once she started to repair her relationship with alcohol.

'Sober curious' was a term coined by Ruby Warrington. who wrote the book Sober Curious. The term gave people a new way to talk about what part alcohol played in their lives without suffering from alcohol use disorder.

Since then a sober curious movement has taken off. Many are women who are taking a more mindful approach when it comes to their alcohol consumption and have mobilized through groups on Facebook. Women who live in suburbs, like ones in Guelph, are changing their drinking habits.

Kristen Gardiner and her husband started a journey of sober curiosity in January. Instead of a month-long dry January, they have been trying to go alcohol-free for 100 consecutive days.

On a run with a friend in her southeast Guelph neighbourhood, Gardiner noticed she couldn’t keep up with her. Her friend is in her 40s, fit and alcohol-free. Gardiner thought, she is younger, why couldn’t she keep up? 

Maybe ditching alcohol was the answer.

“I definitely don’t have the addiction but I also don’t think I have the best relationship with alcohol that I could,” said Gardiner. 

Alcohol consumption became part of her and her husband’s lifestyle, she said, since it was easy to add a bottle of wine to the grocery list.

The pandemic amped up her alcohol use and drinking became mindless; a default habit to have a glass of wine on Friday night or after a stressful day at work.

She uses an app called Try Dry to track the days she drinks and doesn’t drink. So far, she has only had alcohol a handful of times and said when she drank it wasn’t as enjoyable as it used to be.

Gardiner said she experienced having vivid dreams, better gut health, more physical and mental energy.

“There’s actually like a whole marketing thing around getting moms to drink. You know, mommy needs wine. Does she? Do we need wine? Or do we actually need support?” said Gardiner.

“I totally bought into that mommy stuff, like I had a wine sippy cup.”

She said not drinking wine has led her to enjoy more non-alcoholic beverages like pop or cranberry juice in a wine glass.

Chantal Pfaff, is a Guelph therapist and founder of Toi Toujours Counselling. She started her sober curious journey this summer with an initial 30 days of being alcohol free in June.

“I wanted to kind of see what it would be like during a time that a lot of my clients, who are sober, is really triggering for them,” said Pfaff. Some of these triggers could be barbecues, weddings and other social events happening in the summer.

Throughout the 30 days she noticed her own triggers like social events or stressors which she would usually turn to a glass of wine to help.

After the 30 days she took a break from sobriety and noticed she was feeling unwell physically and mentally. She decided to try for another 30 days sober in August.

She had better sleep, her clothes fit better and her digestion was better. She turned to better modes of coping like yoga, exercise, and painting.

Pfaff suggests finding what the trigger is when people have an urge to drink. A trigger could be the time of day, when you would usually have a drink. For instance, if you feel anxious, look for a way to calm your nerves like exercise or cool yourself down with ice or water. This way people can mitigate their negative feelings with something positive rather than turn to alcohol which only has a short term effect.

She said genetics and learned behaviour are factors to why people drink, or have an unhealthy relationship with alcohol.

"Another big thing is obviously a history of trauma. A lot of folks use alcohol to kind of regulate their emotions. It's a numbing agent often for people," said Pfaff.

Alcohol is a way some people give themselves a break in a society where everyone is on the go, said Pfaff. “It’s sometimes a way of people putting the brakes on, even if it’s subconscious. It’s how we give ourselves permission to relax.”

“I always say that alcohol is the only drug that you’re seen as having a problem if you don’t engage in using it," said Pfaff.

Science is also playing a role in helping people reduce their alcohol intake.

Acid League, created by University of Guelph graduates Cole Pearsall and Allan Mai, re-imagines vinegar by using fermented fruits and vegetables. They have created their own line of non-alcoholic wine called Proxies.

“Our approach was to be able to understand the compounds and the overall skeleton of wine,” said Pearsall.

They wanted to recreate the experience of drinking wine without the alcohol. To get the tannic structure found in wine, they use tannins from black tea. Glycerol which creates the mouth feel when sipping a glass of wine can be recreated with a single-origin fruit.

“We’re targeting those sober curious people that are looking to replicate the wine occasion without the alcohol necessarily,” said Pearsall.

Traditionally, the alcohol is burned off to create a non-alcoholic wine. Acid League reconstructs wine so it doesn’t lose the complexity of the taste and structure. Pearsall and Mai wanted to recreate the occasion of drinking wine.

“I don’t know that people our age, people that are younger, are going to be drinking as much,” said Mai. He said he thinks people are more conscious of their health.

“I pretty much successfully avoided drinking during university. So I feel like coming from somebody that had the experience who was not an alcohol consumer during university. I can understand and empathize with the people who do feel out of place,” said Pearsall.

He said to look at the use occasion of alcohol and why or why not someone would be drinking. 

“There’s the sober curious people that are curious because they are looking for an alternative that they still want to appreciate a beverage. They want to appreciate a high end beverage which typically they would have associated with some sort of alcohol in the past,” said Pearsall.

To date, Acid League’s highest selling month was last January, as in dry January, where many people quit alcohol for the month after the weeks of winter holidays where drinking excessively with family and friends was the norm.

“Basically any use of substance that immediately changes the way you think and feel can be very appealing for people short term,” said Helen Fishburn, CEO of the Canadian Mental Health Association of Waterloo – Wellington.

Fisburn said there are people who recognize what role alcohol plays in their life.

“They are going to choose to avoid alcohol for personal reasons or wellness reasons,” she said.

There are people who drink with no problems associated with it, some who have problematic drinking who should monitor it and people who have an addiction, it is a disease for them, said Fishburn.

Virtual-based 'sobriety and mindset' coach Amy C. Willis is six years sober and has been coaching professionally for three years. She coaches women and LGBTQ+ people with coping skills to help them along their sobriety journey.

Her Instagram page, msamycwillis, gives helpful information about alcohol and she is the founder of Hol and Well.

Her clients are looking for a substantive change and to examine their relationship with alcohol.

“The movement has really blown up and I think it’s really helpful for folks because it really can invite anybody to get curious about the role that alcohol plays in their life and their relationship to drinking,” said Willis.

“I think the movement has really enabled the messaging that you know you don’t need to be dealing with a severe alcohol addiction or dependence.” This has also helped de-stigmatize addiction.

“I think we need to be really mindful not to trivialize the life and death reality of addiction,” said Willis.

Problematic drinking for women has increased over the years and noticeably worsened during the pandemic, she said. 

Alcohol companies use feminized tactics like wine mom culture, to increase sales and alcohol consumption, she said.

Alcohol use can lead to poor sleep, increased risk of certain cancers, liver problems, added anxiety and depression. 

Her coaching both one on one and in group settings helps people change their habits, mindset and beliefs around alcohol.

“I created a term called 'normative alcohol culture' and it’s all the ways that we think about it, engage with it and how normal it’s all been made,” said Willis.

Largely, part of the problem is alcohol is sold by the government which suggests alcohol is harmless because why would the government sell it if it wasn’t, she said.

The tides are starting to turn with discussions around alcohol use, but there is still a lot of work to be done," said Willis.


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Santana Bellantoni

About the Author: Santana Bellantoni

Santana Bellantoni was born and raised in Canada’s capital, Ottawa. As a general assignment reporter for Guelph Today she is looking to discover the communities, citizens and quirks that make Guelph a vibrant city.
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