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Are You Still Sober If You Drink Alcohol Substitutes?

In 2018, at our annual Christmas party, my friends from high school and I decided to buy tickets to see our favorite band. It was probably my idea, but I don’t remember because I drank enough red wine to lose both the ability to operate a motor vehicle and my phone. After my friends dutifully found my phone and drove me home, I woke up to find a muffled voicemail message that recorded a conversation I wasn’t meant to hear: I’d become a sloppy, embarrassing, and intolerable drunk.

That literal wake-up call prompted me to make a change, and a few months later, the concert was my chance to prove that I had gotten my drinking under control. The confidence I had in my new sobriety was shaky, so I paid a hefty concession stand price for a bottle of non-alcoholic beer. When I couldn’t find a cup to hide the fact that I wasn’t drinking real beer, I tried moving the label underneath my hand and held the bottle below my hip. Despite my careful trickery, one of my friends shouted, “Are you drinking NEAR BEER?!” with an incredulity that still haunts me. The jig was up. I’d been found out. I was stuck between wanting to do something healthy for myself by not drinking but I also wanted to avoid the scrutiny of being sober. I couldn’t risk near-beer outing me as an alcoholic again, so I kept drinking instead.

Other people’s judgment has often made me question the value of non-alcoholic beer and liquor in my recovery.

After the concert, I knew my relationship with alcohol needed to change, but I wasn’t ready. It took several more months of hangover-induced Google searches like, “When do you know you have a drinking problem?” “Symptoms of alcoholism,” and “How to quit drinking?” before I took an assessment for Alcohol Use Disorder (AUD). Meeting at least 2 out of 11 criteria in a 12-month period qualifies for a diagnosis of AUD. My score of 6 put my alcohol dependency in the severe category, and I knew I couldn’t hide anymore.

Sobriety felt impossible and overwhelming, so I opted for cutting back, a classic harm reduction approach that’s seen a resurgence in popularity after being rebranded as “sober curious” by Ruby Warrington in her 2018 book of the same name. Warrington differentiates the strict, lifelong abstinence that characterizes alcoholism and her concept of sober curiosity as a health-conscious, soft entry into recovery. “When you truly get to choose,” she writes, “you might even choose total, lifelong abstinence.”

I made complex rules about when, where, and how often I could drink without consequence, which I almost always broke. I knew in my heart of hearts that I’d have to quit drinking eventually, but I couldn’t seem to stay sober. What turned the tide for me was fully accepting two truths about my drinking: I could not moderate my alcohol intake, and I love drinking rituals like cracking open a cold one on a hot day. So I decided to give near-beer a second chance.

Craft beer’s meteoric rise in popularity has influenced the quality, availability, and cool factor of today’s near-beer.

At first, the only near-beers (commonly known as NA beer) I could access in my small Midwestern town were the mass-market options, all of which have “NON-ALCOHOLIC BEER” written in big, embarrassing block letters across their joyless labels. Luckily, I cared a little less about what people thought of me at this point than I did at the concert, so I kept bringing it to parties. Like a sober speakeasy for those in the know, other non-drinkers started whispering the secret locations in the liquor store where I could find not only non-alcoholic beer but also zero-proof spirits and alcohol-free wine that look just like the original.

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