Zero Proof Nation
This Q&A, facilitated by Jeremiah Gardner of the Hazelden Betty Ford Foundation, was originally published for Hazelden Betty Ford’s monthly Recovery Advocacy Update. If you’d like to receive our advocacy emails, subscribe today.
Have you noticed more non-alcoholic drinks popping up on menus— mocktails, for example, like the “Betty Ford,” spotted recently at the Sofitel in Washington, DC? How about more sober social activities (recovery community pickle ball, anyone)? More sobriety on TV, in the movies, and in music?
Perhaps some of that is society’s natural response to the rising challenges of addiction, loneliness and mental health. And perhaps it’s also due to alcohol-free trailblazers like Laura Silverman, who have spent the past decade or so working intentionally to normalize sobriety and integrate it into our wider cultural framework. Sober since 2007, Laura is the founder of Zero Proof Nation and Booze Free in DC, two platforms focused on highlighting non-alcoholic beverages and the culture driving their growth. She’s a consultant (reach out to her) and frequent speaker on the topic, as well as a former roller derby girl and karaoke enthusiast. We enjoyed catching up to get her take on the zero-proof movement and its intersections with the recovery movement.
Q — Laura, you recently celebrated 16 years of recovery — congratulations! And you’ve been a public recovery and mental health advocate for several years now. You’re also very active on social media and appear to be having a lot of fun. For those uninitiated, what does recovery look like for you, and how has it empowered different aspects of your life?
Thank you so much! Yeah, it’s pretty wild to think my sobriety is old enough to drive. To borrow a phrase from the Twelve Steps and to echo Buddhist philosophy in staying present, my recovery is very much one day at a time. But it’s not about the booze; for me, it’s just about living day by day.
Across 16 years, I’ve not only had the privilege of trying out various different programs and modalities (Twelve Steps, SMART Recovery, She Recovers, mental health therapy and medication, etc.), but I’ve come to a new understanding of what recovery means to me. I just don’t think about drinking alcohol anymore. That doesn’t mean I don’t stay vigilant of my sobriety, but my recovery is more about my daily mental health than it is about alcohol use disorder. I struggle with and triumph through (depending on the day) obsessive compulsive disorder, anxiety, panic disorder, adult attention deficit disorder, trauma, and seasonal affective disorder. Whew! It’s no wonder why I binge drank alcohol to try and quiet the mental and emotional gymnastics going on in my brain.
I didn’t comprehend when I was first getting sober that I was masking all these symptoms. I was definitely in denial that I had a problem and yet I voluntarily, after two hospitalizations for alcohol poisoning in 18 months, sought help via an intensive outpatient program. For some reason it stuck, and that was in July of 2007 at just 24 years old.
Q — What does it mean for you to share your recovery with others?
I first shared my sobriety and recovery story publicly when I started a blog in 2015, with almost eight years of sobriety under my belt. I remember back then, I just wanted to connect with others who maybe had a different recovery journey than what was understood — or even, expected — to be mainstream.
On social media, I definitely try to show not just the highlight reel of my life but also the real reel, because I’m human and messy and imperfect and we all know recovery isn’t a linear path, but rather a journey of twists and turns. I also show up as my authentic self because it enables me to truly connect with others and allows me to be a role model to someone just starting out.
Q — How did you come to make the transition from recovery advocate to also now, and perhaps more prominently so, an alcohol-free advocate? What are the distinctions and similarities?
I’m not sure how it happened, to be totally honest. My first year of sobriety, I was mostly focused on staying sober — not drinking alcohol. It wasn’t about finding tasty non-alcoholic tipples to imbibe. But as I grew in my sobriety and came of age (remember, I got sober at 24), more social opportunities presented themselves, whether they were first dates, work events, New Year’s Eves, weddings I was in, or just hanging out with friends. And 99% of the time there weren’t beverage options beyond water, Coke, or juice. I felt like the odd person out time and again, and I wasn’t going to just lay down and resign myself to feeling left out for the rest of my life. I’d ask establishments about non-alcoholic options and if they didn’t have them on their menus, I’d ask them to consider adding some.
I didn’t realize it at the time, but I was advocating for inclusive hospitality.
While I probably wouldn’t have considered a non-alcoholic wine or beer in my early days of sobriety, after 11 years of sobriety I noticed more and more adult non-alcoholic beverages entering the market (hallelujah! I had been waiting long enough!). I decided to dip my toes in, but only after doing copious amounts of research first.
When I started blogging in 2015 on alternative recovery, I really thought people had to reach their own bottom to truly comprehend what I had gone through. I thought: How can someone who’s straight edge or observes Halal or is pregnant really get it? Even though I was preaching multiple pathways and inclusivity, I suppose I wasn’t fully walking the walk. Why should someone have to hit a rock bottom to get it, you know? But where I am now, I’m all about any and every reason someone might be alcohol-free, whether it’s just for the night, a month, a pregnancy, or the rest of their lives.
It’s about choosing health and wellness, wherever someone falls on the Venn diagram of not imbibing alcohol.
Q — You’re keeping busy — not only as an advocate and consultant in the alcohol-free space but doing related part-time work (writing, podcast editing, web design, etc.) and a ton of media. What are some of the most fun and meaningful experiences you’ve had?
Oh gosh, I’m still pinching myself about my trip to London in March as a judge for the inaugural World Alcohol Free Awards. Along with a team of some fantastic global alcohol-free / non-alcoholic beverage enthusiasts, we collectively tasted and judged 400 beverages in two days. Pre-pandemic, I collaborated with Chris Marshall of Sans Bar on three separate occasions to bring his pop-up concept to Washington, DC. People really loved the idea of conscious connection coupled with non-alcoholic beverages, without necessarily having to be in recovery (although many in recovery did come to the events).
What means the most to me is hearing from others (whether on LinkedIn, over Instagram, or in real life) about how I’ve given them the courage to embark on their own sober/sober-curious journeys just by sharing my story openly and publicly. To know I’ve affected someone’s life positively and paid it forward is everything to me, since I know just how important it is to have sober role models in my own life.
By the way, all these media mentions are fantastic, but they make it seem like I’m sitting on a pile of money. *laughs* I’m not. I’m hustling over here so if anyone wants a podcast editor, web designer, or wants to consult with me on inclusive hospitality / non-alcoholic beverages, I’m all ears!
Q — I’ve attended non-alcoholic (N/A) events that have THC-infused beverages. And I know there’s a demographic that wants THC but no alcohol. But for many of us in recovery, we’re steering clear of both and would generally not expect to see THC beverages at an N/A event. Is there awareness within the N/A industry that, for some, a THC-infused beverage may be incongruent with what they’re looking for at an N/A event? And to what degree does the N/A industry see the abstinence-based recovery community as a target market?
The non-alcoholic (N/A) industry is so nascent, even though for someone like me, who’s knee deep in it, it seems like it’s everywhere. Someone mentioned to me today that we’ve surpassed the fad/trend phase. We’re definitely in the movement phase, but we haven’t quite reached the mainstream. That means there’s a lot of education and re-education that still needs to happen.
Part of that is recognizing that N/A can be for anyone, and that includes anyone who may practice harm reduction (e.g. those drinking a non-alcoholic cannabev rather than alcohol). Some might find THC beverages at a N/A event out of place, as you say, where others might find that it’s a welcome alternative to alcohol.
Speaking of education, a quick point of context: non-alcoholic beverages are considered by the FDA to contain up to 0.5% alcohol by volume (ABV) while alcohol-free or zero proof are understood to be 0.0% ABV.
The abstinence-based recovery community is certainly one target market for N/A producers, but just one of many. Many people are choosing not to drink for many reasons on any given night or for a lifetime: people who are pregnant, doing Dry January, training for marathons, drinking less alcohol during the week, abstaining due to medical or religious reasons, in recovery, or just deciding that they have no space for booze in their lives. I have a disclaimer at the bottom of Zero Proof Nation’s website, and that’s to encourage people to do their research and drink these beverages responsibly.
Q — Finally, what is your vision for the future of our culture as it relates to empowering recovery and de-centralizing the role of alcohol, marijuana and other substance use?
The more opportunities people have to consciously socialize and the more non-alcoholic beverage options there are available at sporting events, concerts, workplace happy hours, airlines, bars, restaurants, grocery and specialty stores, and on college campuses, the less power of enticement alcohol and drugs will have on society as a whole.
Treatment works. It’s there for the people who want and need that level of care. But not everyone needs treatment. Some people just want to put down the bottle and live alcohol-free. And they can. I hope the way we can truly empower recovery is to recognize that there are so many different pathways to getting well. It’s more about discovering and uncovering elements of ourselves, more about experiencing life wholly. More about accepting anyone who chooses wellness for whatever reason, and not gatekeeping just because they don’t belong to a certain “club.”
I love what She Recovers espouses, and that’s “we’re all in recovery from something.”