Sober-Curious Summer: How Cincinnatians are Navigating the Complexities of Summertime Sobriety

Sober curiosity is a noncommittal practice that allows people a chance to test out sobriety or even adopt new attitudes around how alcohol impacts their health and social lives.

click to enlarge Hiking in Burnet Woods - Photo: Shae Combs
Photo: Shae Combs
Hiking in Burnet Woods

This story is featured in CityBeat's June 28 print edition.

Walking into the monthly High Vibe Dance Party at Alice in Over-the-Rhine feels like walking into any other club experience: there’s dancing, laughter and an infectious urge to join the party. The energy is so captivating it is hard to believe it’s an alcohol-free event. The only drink allowed on their dance floor is water, but participants don’t seem to mind. In fact, for some, this rule allows them the freedom to enjoy their night without the pressure to consume alcohol. 

The term “sober-curious” has been trending in recent years. Defined as a mindfulness practice around alcohol consumption, sober curiosity involves taking a break from drinking alcohol. Sober curiosity is a noncommittal practice that allows people a chance to test out sobriety or even adopt new attitudes around how alcohol impacts their health and social lives. Those who choose to live sober fully abstain from alcohol in all forms, sometimes for personal or religious reasons, and sometimes because they have an alcohol addiction. Sober-curiosity is not a binding oath to giving up alcohol forever, it is a lifestyle choice that encourages people to explore cutting back on alcohol. 

The sober-curious community in Cincinnati is growing across all demographics, and it welcomes anyone curious about living alcohol-free. That’s part of why Erica Esham and Karley Willocks started hosting High Vibe Dance Parties. 

The main focus of the dance parties is to create a safe, substance-free environment. These rules are enforced for all participants because High Vibe knows wonderful things can happen when connection and music are the focus. For Willocks, showing others that it is possible to have fun without alcohol is one of her main goals with the event series. 

“I think they're shown the same model over and over again — if you want to have fun with your friends, it has to involve alcohol,” Willocks tells CityBeat. “I've seen what else is possible. I'm like, ‘Oh my god, I actually have so much more fun when I'm focused on actually connecting with other people,’ and even just as far as how much more fun it is to dance when you don't have a drink in your hand.” 

Willocks herself is not fully sober, but likes the freedom she feels not drinking.

“Getting drunk isn't what makes the night. I think people are searching for something deeper and they don't even know it and they're just using substances because that's the only thing that they've been shown,” says Willocks.

click to enlarge Karley Willocks - Photo: Emma Segrest
Photo: Emma Segrest
Karley Willocks

For many, alcohol can be a way to combat social anxiety. But for some people this can take away from genuine socializing and relationship building. Recent University of Cincinnati graduate Anya Grieze chose to quit drinking around her graduation. She noticed that heavier drinking felt normal in college, but began to hinder her health and social life. So she decided to quit drinking and shift her focus to deepening social connections. 

“I like not being hungover every weekend and not having to worry about things that I did or said and also just feeling better in general,” says Grieze. “I think I didn't realize how much [drinking] was making me just kind of feel crappy overall.” 

Grieze’s drink of choice when she goes out now is a Red Bull, and she still enjoys going out to bars occasionally. She gravitates toward bars like Mecca that offer ample outdoor space. Outdoor spaces make it easier to focus on the company versus the drinking. Similar bars, like Somerset, allow for socialization in a relaxed environment where it is easier to focus on conversation rather than consuming alcohol.

“I think I am stronger than I thought. I have more self-discipline than I thought I did,” says Grieze. “I think that's reassuring; it’s given me newfound confidence just in general.” 

Ashley Cook first tested out sobriety when they were 26 years old, and eight years later, at 34, are still maintaining a sober lifestyle. Cook never intended for sobriety to be a permanent fixture in their life, but was eventually inspired to make the change. Cook even attributes sobriety to how they met their now-husband. They approached him after a DJ set to strike up a conversation.

“I went up and started talking to him afterward and I had a bottle of water,” says Cook. “He was like, ‘Is that vodka?’ because it was just a clear liquid in a bottle and I said ‘No, it's just water. I don't drink,” he's like, ‘Oh, cool,’ and now we're married.” 

Cook likes to frequent music venue bars like the Comet in Northside, which offers alcohol-free beers, sparkling waters and sodas. The Comet is an easy place to go, according to Cook, because music is usually the focus instead of drinking, plus it offers a quieter outdoor space. Cook says they often won’t go out if there is not some sort of live music available. Live music offers a shared point of interest and natural conversation starter. 

Cook is also a member of a queer drag burlesque troupe called Smoke & Queers which recently performed at the Cincinnati Fringe Festival. Cook also started a Facebook group called Cincinnati Sober Fun to help foster Cincinnati’s sober community and share events that might be more accessible to the local sober community.

“It has been hard to find sober friends but that's why I made the Facebook group so people can maybe meet some people in there or post events that they're trying to get people to come out to,” Cook told CityBeat. “I've always told people if you're interested in not drinking or having  a sober friend, I'm willing to be there.”

Brian Garry has been sober for almost 40 years. After enduring a difficult childhood, drinking became a means of escapism for Garry in his youth. But he has found at 58 years old that sobriety has given him a fulfilling and entertaining life. Garry praises the park system in Cincinnati, noting a special love for Eden Park for its views and tranquility. Exploring nature is one of Garry’s favorite sober activities. Garry also likes to take in the local arts scene as well. Recently, he and his wife went dancing at The Main Event and enjoyed the play Trouble in Mind at Cincinnati Shakespeare Company. The choice to not drink wasn’t a simple one for Garry; it came down to sobriety or life.

click to enlarge Brian Garry (front) enjoys kayaking on the Little Miami River. - Photo: Brian Garry
Photo: Brian Garry
Brian Garry (front) enjoys kayaking on the Little Miami River.

“I would probably be dead if I was still drinking because I had no plans for after I was 18 years old,” says Garry. 

Garry went on to get a music degree from Northern Kentucky University and now dedicates himself to his family and volunteer work. Garry recalls that while experiencing alcoholism, he had only been searching for a sense of community. Now he spends his time giving back through organizations such as St. Francis - St. Joseph Catholic Worker House, which helps him create the community he was searching for all along. 

Garry encourages anyone reflecting on their alcohol consumption to give sobriety a try. 

“I can do the same things as anyone drinking, and have the same feelings and connections through sobriety,” says Garry. 

Support for alcohol addiction can be found by calling SAMHSA's National Helpline at 1-800-662-4357. 

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