I became the poster girl for sobriety, then returned to big nights on the lash

Sobriety was a lonely place when Jill Stark wrote High Sobriety 10 years ago. Teetotal again, life is much easier in the sober curious age

It’s a dizzying experience to go from inveterate binge drinker to poster girl for sobriety. In my defence, I never asked to be the spokesperson for a modern-day temperance movement. My breakup with booze was always meant to be a year-long personal experiment. It came after more than two decades of epic partying. The hangovers were starting to hit harder and last longer. It felt as if I was drowning in a drinking culture that used alcohol to celebrate, commiserate and commemorate. In the shadow of my 35th birthday, I decided it was time for a spell on dry land.

I wasn’t prepared for what happened next – which is also, coincidentally, the question I’ve been asked most since the book about that journey came out 10 years ago. High Sobriety documented the triumphs and trials of my alcohol-free odyssey and examined the wider culture that had swept me and so many others up in a tide that felt impossible to swim against. Drinking was not only socially accepted, it was socially expected.

At the end of that tumultuous, revelatory, and ultimately rewarding year, I tentatively went back to drinking. It was a decision that disappointed many readers who felt personally invested in my story. Some were downright furious. There was a quiet panic in their emails: How could you have so many revelations about alcohol and welcome it back like a toxic friend? How do you drink now? Have you mastered moderation?

It was unsettling to realise so many strangers had tied their relationship with alcohol to mine. The pressure was intense. People approached me in bars, an eyebrow raised towards my glass of wine as they asked: “Didn’t you write a book about sobriety?”. It felt as if they wanted my story to have a neat, redemptive ending that offered hope for their own salvation. Life is rarely that simple.

For a while, I was doing a pretty good job at moderation. I was a more mindful drinker. Alcohol was something I enjoyed sparingly, not something I used as an anaesthetic to numb difficult emotions. I could happily take part in social occasions without a glass of liquid confidence.

But as the years progressed, old habits crept back in – something I’ve since discovered is fairly common for many who try their hand at moderation after a lifetime of excess. Alcohol by its very chemical makeup will always leave us craving more.

Jill Stark
Jill Stark, author of High Sobriety and Higher Sobriety. Photograph: Jill Stark

And with the return of my big nights on the lash, came those wretched hangovers. Only this time, they were accompanied by crippling morning-after “hangxiety” that became so debilitating it forced me to make a change. I quit drinking on 28 June 2019 and haven’t had a drink since.

Sobriety has been easier this time around, largely because so much has changed since I first gave it a crack. It was a lonely place to be back then. Some friends stopped inviting me to events and I soon realised they weren’t friends at all, merely drinking buddies. Without alcohol as the social glue, some relationships disintegrated completely.

Mistrust and defensiveness were also common reactions. I was told I was a “wowser” or “Un-Australian”, while one colleague joked that the sequel to my book about my year with no booze could be called, “My year with no mates”.

Another isolating factor was how few venues catered for teetotal customers. It was almost impossible to find palatable, grown-up, alcohol-free options in pubs and restaurants. Soda water or sugary soft drinks and mocktails were usually the only offerings.

Over the past decade, there has been a tectonic shift in the drinking landscape. We now have profitable alcohol-free bars, the “non-alc” drinks sector is Australia’s fastest-growing beverage category, and we’ve seen an explosion of online sober communities, podcasts, “quit lit” books, and even “conscious clubbing” dance parties celebrating alcohol-free living.

While drinking is still the societal norm, the culture is evolving in ways I couldn’t have imagined. This is the sober curious age. And the most curious are young people. Many are choosing to drink less or to not drink at all, as a volatile world with an uncertain future makes them more health conscious and has them searching for a sense of control over their lives.


This trend can also be explained by the substantial makeover sobriety has undergone. While once viewed as a dull and friendless existence, it’s gradually being rebranded as a sexy, subversive and socially acceptable path.

They say you can’t be what you can’t see. There were few sober role models when I first quit drinking. Now, influencers and public figures are taking to Instagram and TikTok to prove that life without alcohol can be a fun and fulfilling, rather than a sad consolation prize.

The pandemic also changed the way we drink. Alcohol sales soared during lockdowns. While that led to an increase in the number of Australians drinking to excess, and a tripling of calls to drug and alcohol helplines, it also forced many people to confront their relationship with alcohol. Drug and alcohol service providers told me that they were finding women in their 40s to 60s – those perhaps most affected by the juggling act of work, caring roles, home schooling and the domestic load – were among those increasingly drinking to alleviate stress. The subsequent boom in sobriety coaches has largely been led by women in this age bracket who have quit drinking and have lessons to share, turbo-charging a sober curious movement that was already on the march.

Higher Sobriety cover
Higher Sobriety. Photograph: Scribe Publications

A seismic once-in-a-century event tends to concentrate the mind on the way you’re living. The pandemic reminded us life is short and you never know what’s around the corner. Why waste it being hungover?

Sobriety does not remove your problems, it illuminates them. For me, that’s meant having the courage to confront difficult issues head on, rather than blurring them out with booze. It’s given me a clear-eyed view of myself that is empowering and liberating, allowing me to feel joy, strength and connection in a deeper way than I ever have.

I can’t categorically say that I won’t drink again – if the last few years have taught us anything it’s that there are no cast-iron certainties. But I can’t see a future in which alcohol adds anything to my life. I’m still not the pin-up girl for sobriety, but I’ll always be grateful for where it’s taken me.

  • Higher Sobriety: my years without booze by Jill Stark is published 10 January (Scribe $35)


Jill Stark

The GuardianTramp

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