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Sobriety as self-care?

Updated: Jul 24, 2023

Since the turn of the 21st century there has been increasing popular engagement with the phenomenon of self-care. By this I mean those (sometimes everyday) activities that individuals carry out to manage and restore their own health, both mental and physical. This is how self-care has been most commonly understood within Western healthcare and clinical settings (Levin and Idler, 1983). However, themes of self-care have been co-opted by consumer brands within marketing campaigns, particularly targeted at women. Products and services are sold with the promise of relaxation, fulfilment and wellness – sometimes with a substantial price-tag attached, and with the expectation that consumers are able-bodied. Alcohol brands have also been found to draw upon similar, feminised themes of respite, reward and time-out within their marketing in order to present a healthful interpretation of alcohol-consumption. Wine or gin is sometimes portrayed as a key, constituent part in a woman’s self-care routine (Atkinson et al., 2021). Indeed, this is quite the departure from the self-care that was practiced within radical feminist circles of the Women’s Liberation Movement (Dudley-Shotwell, 2020) and Audre Lorde’s writings on living with cancer: Lorde described her self-care as ‘a political decision as well as a life-saving one’ (1988 [2017], p. 130).


This rise to prominence of self-care has coincided with the emergence of women-founded, UK-based online sobriety communities that utilise social media platforms to help people change their relationship with alcohol, such as Club Soda, Sober Girl Society and Sober & Social. These communities primarily facilitate peer to peer support and sometimes provide additional services, including coaching and social events. The majority of their members are women, compared to men, who are less likely to utilise traditional, evidence-based treatment programmes (Davey, 2021).


In a recent open-access, peer-reviewed article (Davey, 2022), I explored the ways in which women, who utilise or lead online sobriety communities, conceptualise their sobriety as a form of physical and mental self-care. I found that women draw on discourses of wellbeing to position sobriety as a practice of individualised, embodied self-care whereby they experience improvements to their physical, mental and menstrual health. Women used sobriety as a strategy of care for their minds and bodies when medical assistance was lacking or not forthcoming.


By way of example, research participant Donna (not her real name) spoke of her sobriety as a way to manage perimenopausal symptoms:


“I started having quite bad perimenopausal symptoms and drinking was just exacerbating those really badly, so they were kind of like, two things together that were just not helping at all so you know – poor sleep, and palpitations and hot flushes and all magnified – they were all so much worse when I was drinking”.


Similar to other research participants, Donna’s sobriety was a final-straw attempt to feel better when no useful answers or suggestions were forthcoming from medical professionals. In Donna’s case, it took months of pursuing tests and for her GP to declare that she had ‘ovarian failure’, a term which she then translated to the menopause. None of the women I interviewed said that their GP or gynaecologist had suggested alcohol moderation or abstention to be a useful tool to mitigate menopausal symptoms and thus it became a self-prescribed practice of self-care that was usually subsequently combined with medical prescriptions of Hormone Replacement Therapy (HRT). 


Women can feel isolated and alone in the self-care of their (peri)menopausal bodies but are increasingly utilising online sobriety communities for support. Some participants who used a particular community told me that they had created a specific support group to offer dedicated time and space for women who were struggling with, or wanted to discuss, their experiences of (peri)menopause and sobriety. Indeed, joining a private peer-to-peer support group is an act of self-care itself when there are few public-health-funded alternatives. Furthermore, sharing of (peri)menopausal stories within these communities contributes to consciousness raising across the membership more broadly.


This growing discussion by women regarding (peri)menopause, and the role of alcohol in exacerbating symptoms, echoes the feminist consciousness raising and self-help circles during the Women’s Liberation Movement. These sought to provide women with knowledge of their own bodies (particularly their cervixes), and to resist the monopoly that men in medical professions had on reproductive health (Dudley-Shotwell, 2020). Lorde further advocated the feminist importance of sharing ‘with each other the powers buried within the breaking of silence about our bodies and health’ (1988 [2017], p. 117). Unlike the self-help movement of the 1960s, there is little evidence to suggest that women within online sobriety communities conceptualise their self-care of menopausal symptoms as a form of politicised collective action. They did, however, frequently speak with discontent and despair about the medical attention they received for this issue, and in one instance connected this to society’s dismissal of women’s ageing bodies.


With recent greater awareness of mental health and its alleged reduced stigmatisation, this reframing of sobriety as self-care can be interpreted as an accessible and easy way to invest in one’s own health and boost resiliency in times of strife. As such, it reinforces ideas of individual responsibility – a common feature of the neo-liberal socio-economic and political model which links market forces with individual contribution and the shrinking role of the state (which includes health provision in the UK). However, it would be too reductive to interpret these experiences of sobriety as self-care as merely individualised, neoliberal investments in wellbeing. The impact of sobriety on the self-care of these women is tangible, life-changing and long-lasting – often a radical choice in moments of desperation and pain.

 

Image credit: Maddi Bazzocco

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