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Is it time to stop drinking? More Minnesotans are asking themselves that question

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Minn. sobriety

Nell Hurley, right, leads Megan Vanderbilt through a strength training circuit at her in-home studio. Hurley, a St. Paul-based recovery coach, says she offers an alternative to a culture that normalizes drinking as a coping mechanism.

For recovery coach Nell Hurley’s clients, sobriety looks like an intense workout in her St. Paul fitness studio.

For the members of Jes Golding’s Sober Duluth collective, it’s a pop-up dry bar with local nonalcoholic brews like Ursa Minor’s NA Time NA Where.

And for those who party with Twin Cities arts and wellness nonprofit Dissonance, it’s a sober good time, complete with live music and a signature mocktail.

Sobriety is changing — with new terminology, interpretations and energy.

Going sober can be a lifesaving choice for someone with alcohol use disorder, but a “gray area drinker” might want to abstain or cut back before rock bottom is in sight. Someone who is “sober curious” might go without booze in search of wellness. The “ Cali sober” might abstain from alcohol and smoke pot instead.

“In the past, your options were treatment and AA,” said Hurley, who has been in recovery for 23 years. “Nowadays you don’t have to declare yourself an alcoholic or be in recovery to be a part of the sober movement.”

In an era when drinking continues to be widely celebrated and the bottle has become a coping mechanism to fight the stress of the pandemic, more people are openly examining their relationship with alcohol. Instead of just church-basement meetings with folding chairs and Styrofoam cups of bad coffee, recovery support can take the form of a workout, a group bike ride with the Twin Cities Recovery Project, or an online “sobriety school” like Tempest.

And, unlike Alcoholics Anonymous, which has been based in anonymity since Bill H. and Dr. Bob founded the organization in 1935, many of the latest recovery initiatives aim to shed stigmas and go public — with people celebrating being alcohol-free in social media posts, sharing photos of their sober CrossFit class or gathering for dry bar parties over pints of kombucha, nonalcoholic craft beer or switchel.

The change is evident in Minnesota, which has been a hub for alcohol treatment and recovery ever since Hazelden opened in 1949. While AA’s 12-step model is still widely practiced, new models are expanding the reach of recovery.

“While the diversity and sheer number of recovery support options is growing, they all tend to have one important thing in common — the strength of shared experience,” said Jeremiah Gardner, director of communications and public affairs at Hazelden Betty Ford Foundation. “And, as far as I’m concerned, the more avenues into the healing power of connection, the better.”

Dry bars and Quit Lit

Mental health therapist Sarah Souder Johnson founded the nonprofit Dissonance five years ago, aiming to build a healthy local arts community. The organization has hosted alcohol-free events, including a New Year’s Eve party, concerts and an anniversary celebration hosted by Royal Foundry Craft Spirits, which created a “Dissonance” mocktail for the occasion, with lemon, sage, simple syrup and a hint of salt. Her new goal is to open a sober music venue with a zero-proof bar in the Twin Cities.

Souder Johnson envisions a future where alcohol has a smaller role in Minnesotans’ social life. “What are we doing as a culture when we just endorse this thing that we know kills a lot of people and breaks up families and is very, very harmful and damaging?” she asked. “We need to get away from that idea that it’s the expectation or the norm. I actually think that before too long, it won’t be.”

Souder Johnson herself isn’t in recovery, but said alcohol is a “very small” part of her life.

“More people are adopting a sober curious mind-set,” she said. “This idea of, ‘How do I feel when I’m not drinking?’ Stopping and thinking, ‘Wait a second, how is that going to feel in an hour, or how’s it going to feel in the morning?’ “

“People are starting to pay more attention, understanding this link between physical and mental and emotional wellness.”

Nationally, women are leading a widening cultural conversation about alcohol and recovery, elevating an entire category of books called Quit Lit.

Tempest founder Holly Whitaker’s bestselling 2019 book “Quit Like a Woman” argues that traditional 12-step recovery models designed for and by white Christian men fall short for many. (Whitaker got a big boost last December when Chrissy Teigen posted an Instagram story crediting the book for sparking her sobriety.)

In 2020’s “The Sober Lush: A Hedonist’s Guide to Living a Decadent, Adventurous, Soulful Life — Alcohol Free,” friends Amanda Eyre Ward and Jardine Libaire promise a “giant, dirty, wild, glamorous life without consequences of numbness or regret” is possible with sobriety.

And in her 2018 book “Sober Curious,” Ruby Warrington urges people to question their relationship with alcohol and ask: Would my life be better if I stopped drinking?

A new urgency

If there ever was a good time to ask this question, it’s now.

Nearly one in four Americans say they are drinking more to cope with pandemic stress, according to an American Psychological Association survey conducted in February. (The rate more than doubles for parents of kids between 5 and 7 years old.)

Another study, by researchers at RAND Corp. and Indiana University School of Public Health, found a 41% increase in the number of days women are drinking heavily compared with before the pandemic. At the same time, hospitals around the country have seen a spike in admissions for alcohol-related liver diseases.

St. Paul recovery coach Hurley sees these alarming statistics, especially among women, and feels an urgency.

“The whole ‘mommy wine,’ ‘wine o’clock’ (culture), it becomes very normalized as a coping mechanism,” Hurley said. “I want to offer an alternative to that.”

She uses fitness to help people take temporary breaks from drinking or maintain an alcohol-free life, using a combination of personal training, recovery check-ins and techniques like motivational interviewing.

That’s because working out is part of what has worked for her. “My sobriety date is December 27, 1997,” Hurley said. “When I first got into recovery, I did so through a 12-step program, but I also joined a running group.”

She began meeting other runners every Saturday. “I found a community and started feeling better physically,” she said. “Today, all these years later, I still do those two things: I still go to a meeting every week, and I’m still running.”

Hurley has worked in the recovery field for more than a decade, at Minnesota Recovery Connection, at Hazelden Betty Ford Foundation (where her husband, William Moyers, is a vice president) and at a nonprofit called the Phoenix, which runs sober fitness classes in Minnesota and around the country. She started her own company, Hurley Health, this year.

“I have no judgment about whether people should drink or not. I love working with people who are kind of sober curious, that are in that gray area,” Hurley said.

Some of her clients choose to take supported breaks from alcohol that last 30, 60 or 90 days, said Hurley.

“There’s a huge swath of the population that’s not alcoholic, but drinks in a way that poses risks to their physical health — maybe impacting their relationships, their job, their sleep cycles, their digestive system, their level of anxiety, depression, you name it,” she said.

“These are people who are not clinically appropriate for treatment, but they’re wanting some support around taking a break from alcohol to see how they feel.”

Building a sober community

For Sober Duluth founder Golding, taking an initial break from alcohol meant leaving Minnesota. After ending up in the hospital due to alcohol use disorder four years ago, Golding headed to Florida to be with family and try to get sober.

“The doctors said that I almost had a stroke, and I needed to make a life change,” said Golding.

After a few years finding balance, Golding felt secure enough in sobriety to move back to Duluth in 2019, but worried about the pull of Minnesota’s drinking culture.

“I’ve tried AA in the past, and that was just never really my thing. I didn’t feel like I fit in. I’m also transgender and queer nonbinary, and I always felt like a misfit,” Golding said.

So Golding decided to create a new network called Sober Duluth, connecting through Instagram and hosting pop-up alcohol-free events.

“It’s all about meeting people where they’re at and just accepting that your sobriety or recovery journey isn’t one-size-fits-all,” Golding said. “Whatever empowers you to live your most healthy, authentic life.”

After putting in-person gatherings on hold during the pandemic, Sober Duluth hosted a bingo night at Wild State Cider over pints of NA beers and kombucha.

“Since I’ve been back and started Sober Duluth, I have been noticing that just in general the sober sphere has kind of exploded,” said Golding. “More restaurants are including mocktails and people have approached me with ideas about doing, instead of yoga and a pint, yoga and kombucha.”

As the “sober sphere” expands in Minnesota and nationwide, the beverage industry has been innovating to keep pace. There’s an expanding array of alcohol-free wine, bottled non-alcoholic drinks like the new Bella Hadid-backed Kin Euphorics and cleverly named NA craft beers, like Bauhaus Brew Labs’ line, called Nah.

Whitaker, the “Quit Like a Woman” author, welcomes all these options and the increasing normalization of sobriety, especially since she found that a major difficulty in her own recovery was not knowing anyone else who didn’t drink.

Still, quitting drinking isn’t a simple consumer choice, she cautioned.

“Recovery is very subversive. It’s very much an individual thing. You’re not doing it to fit in, you’re not doing it because it’s trendy, you’re doing it for deep personal reasons, and to experience the world very differently,” Whitaker said.

“Recovery is not (simply) drinking a nonalcoholic drink. It’s so much more. It’s a whole entire life choice that upends everything.”

"Recovery is not (simply) drinking a nonalcoholic drink. It's so much more. It's a whole entire life choice that upends everything." 

Holly Whitaker, founder of online "sobriety school" Tempest

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