Why some Southerners are rethinking what life could look like without alcohol

Maria Clark
Asheville Citizen Times

The day came six months ago when Amanda Jones decided to explore what her life could look like without alcohol.

On August 27, the Asheville, North Carolina, resident celebrated six months alcohol-free. It’s been a deeply personal journey, one that began years ago. She had tested the waters taking monthlong breaks from drinking alcohol during Dry January and Sober October. But those breaks, though welcome, were focused on detoxing and not on exploring the role of alcohol in her life, she said. 

She reflected on the effect alcohol was having on her. Even two drinks would leave her anxious. Research showed her the links between alcohol consumption and depression and anxiety. She was curious about sobriety but at the same time, nervous about making a lifetime commitment.

“This all sparked my 'Aha!' moment. Back in February, I asked what my life would be without alcohol. I got to five weeks and thought I want to keep going,” she said.

For many, the pandemic created an opportunity to reflect on their mental health and wellness. It pushed people outdoors into nature, led many to reconsider their work/life boundaries and many others to look more deeply at choices impacting their mental health. For many, this includes their relationship with alcohol. 

Participation in “Dry January” grew to 35% in the U.S. this year compared to 21% in 2019, according to CGA Strategy, a research consultant for the food and beverage market. The “sober curious” movement, where people take a break from alcohol for mental and physical reasons, has also gained popularity. Sober curiosity, a term coined by author Ruby Warrington, involves not only choosing whether to drink alcohol but also questioning the motivations behind our choices around alcohol.

Amanda Jones holds a nonalcoholic cocktail, the Cherry Bounce, from Jason Pedrick's NOLO at the Uncommon Market in Asheville, North Carolina, Aug. 28, 2022.

It’s important to note that people with alcohol use disorder or physical dependency should seek professional help before stopping or drastically reducing their alcohol intake. This can result in serious, life-threatening side effects, including seizures, hallucinations, and even death. 

Flipping the switch to sobriety

Five weeks went by, and Jones started seeing the effects of her experiment: mental clarity, the ability to focus on tasks and more energy. With more time on her hands, she bought a piano and started teaching herself how to play. 

Her approach has been to remain curious about her motivation for drinking. 

“That flipped the switch for me. What’s been helpful for me has been looking at my beliefs about alcohol. Why do I have to drink at this wedding? Will I really not have fun at this party without it?” she said. “I am learning to recognize my values and boundaries and not compromise them.”

Since moving to Asheville in 2021, Carly Wild has organized a handful of hikes and picnics that did not include alcohol. The gatherings generated a sense of community for people seeking a social outlet not involving alcohol.

Amanda Jones holds a nonalcoholic cocktail, the Cherry Bounce, from Jason Pedrick's NOLO at the Uncommon Market in Asheville, North Carolina, Aug. 28, 2022.

It wasn’t until she stopped drinking alcohol more than three years ago that Wild started noticing its prevalence in society.

“Even yoga classes sometimes end with a drink,” she said. 

Through therapy, she recognized the role it played in her life and how she was using it to mask underlying issues such as social anxiety.

A month sober kept getting extended. She tapped into resources like Recovery Dharma, an approach to recovery using Buddhist principles. Leaning on community and finding other sober people to talk and relate to have also been important. 

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“I think a lot of people are realizing there is no one way to get sober. The narrative that those who struggle with alcohol is black and white is breaking down — people are realizing it is more of a spectrum. The more ways we have to talk about it and the way alcohol doesn’t work for everyone, the better,” she said. 

Seeking sober spaces

And as these conversations have become more normalized, the beverage and entertainment industry has started to respond with a growing variety of sober spaces and nonalcoholic alternatives. Even in cities notoriously linked to alcohol like New Orleans, options have popped up in recent years for people choosing not to imbibe.

Rhaddell Green, the owner/operator of Sober Bar Babe, has been serving nonalcoholic drinks and snacks out of her mobile bar in Louis Armstrong Park since 2018. After returning to New Orleans post-Hurricane Katrina, Green worried about the lack of sober options in the city.

“For people who wanted something more than just a Shirley Temple, there was nothing,” she said. “How can you have a choice when you have no choice?”

Being so close to the French Quarter, she sees a mixture of tourists and locals, some of whom are skeptical of her efforts. But she tells them all regardless, “Stay sober, stay hydrated.”

“Sometimes they say, “yeah, right,” and I tell them at least stay hydrated.”

Jason Pedrick's NOLO tent at the Uncommon Market in Asheville August 28, 2022.

In June in Knoxville, Tennessee, Frog Greishaw and Ben Clingner opened The Boocherie, a sober bar that is completely alcohol-free. They also own and operate Frog Juice Kombucha, which is served at the venue. They wanted a space to offer live music, comedy acts and burlesque shows in an environment without the trigger of alcohol. 

“When I got sober, I wanted an option for people who wanted to go out, but they don’t have to go to a place where there is alcohol. That can be triggering for people,” Clingner said.

They are very intentional about what they serve. They don’t serve nonalcoholic beers, for example, which can be triggering for some people in recovery.

So far, they said they've received a lot of positive feedback about their effort.

“We’re excited to have a safe space for people who want to feel connected to others without having to worry about triggers,” Greishaw said.

Frog Greishaw (left) and Benjamin Clingner, opened Frog Juice Boocherie in June in Knoxville, Tennessee as a non-alcoholic venue. This sober space serves up mocktails, Frog Juice kombucha and snacks for people who want to see live entertainment in a venue without the trigger of alcohol.

Is a sober nightlife possible? Sober nightlife is sparse in Knoxville, but a no-alcohol bar by Frog Juice is coming soon

While some nonalcoholic drink alternatives can be triggering for some people, especially in early recovery, for many, these options help them find a balance between staying sober and staying social.

In Asheville, Jason Pedrick launched NoLo, a nonalcoholic beverage distributor and online bottle shop, almost a year ago. He has been sober since 2011 and said that he struggled early in sobriety when he lived in New York City. It was harder to meet people, and entertainment options that didn’t include alcohol were minimal.

Jason Pedrick pours a nonalcoholic cocktail, the Cherry Bounce, with spiritless bourbon, muddled cherries, lime, honey and blood orange bitters at his NOLO tent at the Uncommon Market in Asheville, North Carolina, Aug. 28, 2022.

“If people found out you don’t drink, they treated you with gloves, like something is wrong with you,” he said.

He now wants to accelerate the normalization of nonalcoholic beverages in his adopted city. He currently distributes to 15 venues and restaurants in Asheville. In the long run, he also wants to help people in recovery develop healthy hobbies — whether it’s fishing, running or disc golf.

Jason Pedrick at his NOLO tent at the Uncommon Market in Asheville, North Carolina, Aug. 28, 2022.

“I want to start Asheville’s first group run that doesn’t start or end at a brewery,” he said.

He added that COVID-19 has had an impact on the general mindset about wellness and more people are coming around to the fact that alcohol is bad for you.

“I’m not preaching sobriety. I know that not drinking is great for me and that it’s fine for many other people. But there are other options out there. Whether it’s cutting back, completely abstaining or becoming sober curious, this is not just some trend that’s going to fade away.”

Maria Clark is a general assignment reporter with The American South. Story ideas, tips, questions? Email her at mclark@gannett.com or follow her on Twitter @MariaPClark1. Sign up for The American South newsletter. Follow us on Instagram, Facebook and Twitter.