Sobriety, recovery & culture

Normalizing and celebrating health


By Jeremiah Gardner

NOTE: This was published for the Hazelden Betty Ford Foundation’s monthly Recovery Advocacy Update. If you’d like to receive our advocacy emails, subscribe today.

A non-alcoholic drink named the “Betty Ford” was on the Fourth of July menu at the Sofitel in Washington, DC. (Photo by Ryan Hampton of Mobilize Recovery.)

What’s more valuable — safe social spaces for people in recovery or acceptance within the larger social spaces of our culture?

This is a question that has been occupying my mind since connecting recently with friends Jen Gilhoi — whose new Tedx Talk, Why We Should Rethink Drinking Cultureis attracting lots of attention on YouTube, and Zero Proof Nation founder Laura Silverman, whose alcohol-free evangelism has gone so far as to infiltrate the digital pages of Wine Enthusiast.

For example, if we want to make it easier for those of us in recovery to enjoy community at music concerts, sporting events and festivals, is it best and most feasible to create sober check-ins and meetups that are safe but separate? (You see this at Grateful Dead and Phish concerts, for example, and even Lambeau Field.) Or is it better and just as feasible to normalize sobriety — with more substance-free drink options and cultural occasions like Dry July, for example — and create integrated social experiences that are both safe and fun? (This is one goal driving Jen’s and Laura’s work, which I admire and respect.)

I’ve been thinking about these related but different aims and approaches because I’m involved in planning a grassroots advocacy workshop with Mobilize Recovery to be held on Oct. 1 at Hazelden Betty Ford in St. Paul, and the working objective is to enable and support more and better sober social experiences in our community — specifically, at major Minnesota entertainment venues.

What can be done, for example, to make our major festivals, sporting events and concert venues more viable, attractive and inclusive social options for people in recovery and others who don’t drink or don’t want to drink on a particular day or night?

Workshop participants, me included, will wrestle with this question: Safe spaces, or inclusive spaces where drinkers and nondrinkers are integrated?

Similar questions are asked throughout society. In schools. In group therapy. Anywhere we organize people. When do the benefits of affinity give way to the traps of segregation? And when do the benefits of integration fall short of the strength found in shared experiences?

There’s also a third option: a whole new sector of social activity that is 100% alcohol-free. Not a safe, segregated space within an otherwise unsafe space; not a space where drinking and non-drinking are integrated to comfortably co-exist; but a safe, sober space unto itself.

Like ‘Oksoberfest’, for example, coming this fall to Chicago. Or Ghost Notes, an alcohol-free block party in Minneapolis on Sept. 23. Such events aren’t recovery events per se, but because they’re “zero proof,” they’re just as safe and even more inclusive.

For me, I think the answer is all three of the above. If we can create sober check-in and meetup spaces at large entertainment venues, great; I absolutely love my recovery tribe. If my wife and I can get fun, tasty mocktails when we’re out for dinner or at a concert alongside others who are drinking regular cocktails — also great. And if our communities can start to have more 100% alcohol-free entertainment options for anyone who wants to enjoy them sober, for any reason, even better.

1) Support recovery. 2) Normalize sobriety. And 3) de-centralize alcohol in social activities.

If we take steps in all of those directions, the culture will be a lot better for everyone.

Let’s be clear: drinking alcohol is never healthier than not drinking alcohol. The research is in. Even moderate drinking increases risk for an assortment of health issues and compromises. Drinking especially increases risk for the tens of millions of people like me who have experienced or are in the midst of a substance use disorder, and for the tens of millions more who have mental health concerns. For the lucky folks with none of those challenges, abstaining is also the healthier option.

As Laura Silverman writes: “It’s about choosing health and wellness.”

In my mind, that’s where sobriety and recovery belong and will thrive most: in a culture of health.

Jeremiah Gardner is director of communications and public affairs for the nonprofit Hazelden Betty Ford Foundation.

Jeremiah Gardner



Hazelden Betty Ford Foundation

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