Melissa Spicer remembers the moment she decided to give booze a break. The 47-year-old went to a party more than a year ago with a bad cold, intending not to touch a drop of alcohol. As the night went on, she found herself slugging back martinis, until she went home drunk in the early hours of the next morning.
Melissa woke up with a hangover and a new realisation: she didn't like her relationship with alcohol. She wasn't an alcoholic, but she was a binge drinker who found it difficult to put the lid on her drinking.
"When I drank, I got to the stage where I wasn't quite sure what was going to happen next," says Melissa who is a prop master in the New Zealand film industry.
"I started to feel like I wasn't in complete control. I had no off switch. I didn't like being that person."
Like many Kiwis, Melissa has had a long relationship with alcohol, first sipping a drop in her teens. In her thirties and forties, she was a weekend drinker who might polish off a bottle of wine on a Friday night, and then feel sluggish for the rest of the weekend. "I loved drinking," she says.
But that changed a year ago when she became sober, joining what is a growing movement in health and wellness – 'sober curiosity'.
One of the leading voices of this movement is the New York-based writer Ruby Warrington, who coined the term and wrote a book about her own journey giving up alcohol. The social influencer was a weekend drinker, but used alcohol as a crutch to ease her social anxiety. She argues that sobriety is for alcoholics; being 'sober curious' is for those who want to stop or ease their drinking, and question how much alcohol is a part of their lives.
Melissa sips a cup of tea in a Wellington café. Her brown eyes shine brightly and her skin is glowing. She no longer wakes in the night feeling anxious and just feels generally better about herself and her life.
The money she spent on her Friday bottle of wine is now put towards facials and massages. "I was surprised how easy it was, actually. I've never sat there and thought, 'I really want a glass of wine'.
"But I feel lucky because so many people don't find it easy. You read stories about people who are struggling and it's really hard. Alcohol is an addictive substance."
Asked if she might drink again, she's not sure. Today, she is not interested in touching a single drink. She can't see the point. However, she can feel like a bit of a loner in her alcohol-free journey as she only has one friend who doesn't drink.
"I think the hardest part is that our society is not built to support those who don't drink, whether that's cafés, bars and restaurants that don't offer decent alcohol-free alternatives or social occasions which are all built around drinking.
"If there are events which I know are concentrated around drinking, I won't go. But if it's an event about catching up with people, I enjoy those more than when I was drinking."
Melissa feels that women are under so much pressure to get everything right – to look good, to look younger than they are, to have successful careers and parent well. "We try to self-soothe by treating ourselves with a lovely glass of wine. For a portion of women that's fine, but for others, it's making our pressures worse."
Melissa is not surprised we are finally talking about our alcohol consumption, and some women are embracing sobriety or being 'sober curious'.
Even five years ago, it was relatively uncommon to stop drinking unless you were an alcoholic. Today, the number of people signing up to Dry July (8384 last year) and Dry January is growing, as more Kiwis embrace a break from booze.
An advocate of sobriety is Lotta Dann who runs the online community, Living Sober, which today boasts 10,000 members. The Wellington-based author of the 2014 memoir Mrs D is Going Without, about her sobriety journey says: "Our site is incredibly busy because there's a growing number of people taking a good hard look at their alcohol habits. The sober curious movement is fantastic for raising awareness around alcohol and presenting not drinking as a viable and attractive option. Sobriety is great. And the more we can get that message out the better."
The sober curious movement is also backed by Associate Professor Andy Towers, of Massey University School of Health Sciences, who says we're drinking far too much as a society: his research shows one in three Kiwis drink hazardously.
"Sober curiosity is not new but it's been given voice. For years, there have been people who have chosen not to drink. For a long time, they were shouted at and told things like, 'If you're not drinking there must be something wrong with you.'
"Now thanks to social media and newspaper articles talking about being sober and making it okay, it's safer for people to say that."
He agrees that with wellness increasingly at the forefront of people's minds, we're becoming more aware that alcohol is bad for us.
"The research shows that there is no safe level of alcohol consumption. It's a level one carcinogen and is related to about 60 other health issues. The idea that a little bit of alcohol is good for you is a myth perpetuated by poor science and alcohol industry surveys."
He is particularly concerned about the 'pinkifying' of booze: over the past decade, alcohol companies have deliberately targeted women through insidious marketing.
"They say things like, 'You're a mum, you deserve a drink. It's 5pm and you're home with the kids and you deserve to have a wine while you make dinner.' You might find that by the end of the night, she has had four drinks and it's only a Tuesday.
"It's hard to push back at that without people saying, 'You just don't want women to have power.' No, it's about pushing back at what alcohol companies are doing."
"One of the worst things that the alcohol industry has done is hijacked the women's rights movement [with the argument], 'You can do what men do'. I can't believe we're not calling it out more. The industry has been silent on this debate."
Dr Towers supports alcohol-free months, such as Dry January and Dry July, which give the body a break from drinking.
"We have a long history of hard drinking in New Zealand. If you want to be sober, that's fine, but it's also good to just think about drinking less. It's good to give people a view, too, that you don't need alcohol to have fun," he says.
Leigh Emmerton has done the odd Dry July stint, and a year ago, the mother of two stopped drinking completely. Reflecting on the prevalence of alcohol in our lives, the nurse and former midwife is concerned that we often deny the link between alcohol and cancer, especially breast cancer.
"Everyone says they drink in moderation, but they often have no idea what moderation is and what the guidelines are."
While Leigh didn't have a drinking problem, she was a habitual drinker, who would pour a couple of glasses of wine every night while she was making dinner.
"I never drank to excess. I had a good off switch," she says.
She has been sober curious for a couple of years. When she stopped drinking last March to test being alcohol-free, she only intended to stop for a month.
"But I just kept going and it was so easy. I sleep better and I just feel better. I'm way more productive in the evenings and I feel good when I wake up each morning."
The 54-year-old is health conscious, keeps fit and wants to age well. "I do think there has been a big shift and it's now becoming more acceptable not to drink," she smiles.
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