Are sober and sober-curious Instagram influencers helpful or harmful for people struggling with addiction?
In April 2013, Austin Cooper followed his boss into what he thought was a work meeting at their engineering firm. Instead, the now 31-year-old Ohio native was met by his family, who were staging an intervention. “It was the scariest moment of my life,” he says now. “But in hindsight, it was the greatest moment in my life.”
In rehab, Cooper realized he had to give up drugs and alcohol, and that his life was going to change dramatically — as was his social circle. “One of the most important things I learned while I was in treatment was to associate myself with people who were living the kind of life that I wanted to live,” he says. That meant cutting out certain individuals — in real life, and on Instagram. Cooper says he unfollowed toxic people and started seeking out and following those who were sharing their positive lifestyles. “It was just interesting to see people having fun in their sobriety,” he says. “And it’s like, ‘Okay, if they’re doing it, I can learn to do it too.’”
Cooper soon decided he wanted to share his own sobriety on the platform. He began reading personal development books and posting quotes he found powerful. From the simple act of quote-gramming, Cooper’s Sober Evolution account gained a following that now numbers over 57,000. His Sober Evolution website has also become a popular online resource. “People would tag their friends who were also in recovery, or they would share an image and my story. Pretty much off the bat, it exploded,” he says.
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Cooper is part of a growing legion on Instagram: sobriety influencers. Whereas your typical IG-famous celeb documents an enviable lifestyle of indulgent partying and fancy cocktails, sobriety influencers post before-and-after sobriety photos, memes pointing out the amusing side of a substance–free existence, and sponcon for sober-branded lifestyle products. It’s your standard influencer fare, but with a specific agenda that says: The sober lifestyle is cool.
“I think ‘cool’ is a good word,” says Cooper. “It’s almost rebellious in a sense because of how glorified alcohol and drugs have been for so long.” The rebellion is growing: The World Health Organization says the number of drinkers in the world is decreasing, and that teens and young adults (a.k.a. the Instagram generation) are a significant part of this pivot. What’s more, even young people who do drink aren’t binge-drinking. (There are suggestions that alternatives like vaping and legal marijuana are related to this shift.)
A recent Atlantic article found that while there are limited statistics to quantify the decrease in millennial drinking, there is a developing cultural shift wherein social lives aren’t as alcohol-centric as they once were. There’s a feeling that this change — coupled with the emergence of trendsetters who see their sobriety as an asset — could hugely change the role booze plays in our social lives. At the same time, there are valid concerns that it glosses over the complicated and nuanced processes of giving up alcohol. So is it a benefit or a deterrent to the sober movement? As is often the case when talking about internet-bred cultural moments, it’s likely both.
There is a difference between people who need to get sober and those who want to get sober, but social media tends to conflate the two. Instagram hashtags like #SoberCurious, #SoberLife, #SoberAF, #SoberSaturday, and #SoberIsSexy are connecting those who are actively recovering from their addictions and those who are “sober curious” and simply interested in exploring the benefits of sobriety. To be clear, there is a difference between “sobriety” and “recovery”: The former applies only to those who have given up alcohol (and, for some, recreational drugs), while the latter is for those who are actively addressing any underlying addiction issues through therapy or treatment programs.
Jennifer Gimenez was arguably one of the original sober influencers. Before pop culture’s lifestyle icons lived on the internet, they lived on reality television. Shows like The Real World, The Challenge, and Flavor of Love capitalized on the drunken antics of their casts. It made perfect sense, then, that shows like Sober House and Celebrity Rehab followed, documenting the consequences of all that “fun.” In 2008, Gimenez, a model and actress who was sober two years at the time, was asked to be a coach on Celebrity Rehab; the following year, she appeared on Sober House to live with castmates like Andy Dick and Guns N’ Roses drummer Steven Adler during their recoveries. Gimenez says she didn’t think she, Dr. Drew, or VH1 knew exactly what they were getting into. “It was so raw and real,” she says.
Since appearing on Celebrity Rehab and Sober House (as well as on Real Housewives of Beverly Hills, as a friend of cast member Brandi Glanville), Gimenez built a brand as a sober influencer on the speaking circuit. Gimenez is more connected to the IRL recovery community than she is the online sober-curious legion, but her Instagram is dedicated to talking about sobriety, and to showing that “sober is sexy,” a hashtag she often uses in her posts.
Before sober was sexy for Gimenez, partying was. “It was crazy. It was awesome,” she says. “I mean, I drank and I did drugs and it was fun. And then it wasn’t.” Up until then, she thought treatment was for “losers.” After rehab, she even hid her sobriety. “I’d be like, ‘Oh, my god, I can’t tell anyone that I’m sober.’”
There are other reformed famous types as well, including Vanderpump Rules’ Lala Kent. The model/actress and influencer with 1.1 million Instagram followers first found fame as a cast member on the reality TV show where she, like the rest of the cast, was often shown partying. During the current season of VPR, Kent experimented with sobriety and, since the season wrapped, has revealed she’s in AA. In a December Instagram story, Kent celebrated 60 days sober. On March 18, she announced she’s five months sober.
Since Kent began her sober journey, her life and image seem to have improved: She’s now filming a movie alongside Kate Bosworth and Al Pacino. Kent’s reputation on Vanderpump Rules went from that of hard-partying antagonist to relative voice of reason (or at least, to the only cast member refusing “blow job shots” at the reunion). Of course, her Instagram continues to be a montage of parties, private jets, yachts, and red carpets. It is the stuff internet envy is made of. If anything, getting sober has strengthened her personal brand.
As Kent seems to prove, the perception that giving up hard partying means giving up fun is dwindling. “It’s kind of weird, like, the Snooki days are over, you know what I mean?” says Gimenez.
As sober curiosity and sobriety influencers spread across the social web, so too do entrepreneurial opportunities. There is a growing interest in experimenting with sobriety, whether for wellness reasons or substance abuse concerns, and it’s creating a demand for ways to get there. This has not gone unnoticed by Holly Whitaker, the founder and CEO of Hip Sobriety, a lifestyle community and alternative sober coaching program. Hip Sobriety describes its appeal with phrases like “sober is the new black,” “drinking is basic,” and “we are the anti-Rosé All Day.” It even has its own online trade magazine called the Temper, featuring articles about popular nonalcoholic cocktails, being an ally to addicts, and how to use astrology in recovery.
While Hip Sobriety is decidedly trendier than AA, the biggest deviation has less to do with its cool factor and everything to do with how the program and its followers think of themselves — they reject labels, a tenet of sober curiosity. Not everyone needs to consider themselves an “alcoholic” or “addict” to seek treatment; Whitaker acknowledges that for some, the distinctions are necessary, but for others the labels can be damaging.
“[These] words are loaded with baggage that implies a moral failing,” she told me in an email. “It defines an entire person by an experience (you are an addict versus you are experiencing addiction), it robs individuals of agency; you are no longer the one who knows what is best for you.”
Dr. Paul Earley, an addiction medicine physician, is cautiously optimistic about these new approaches. “There’s a really good side of it, that it develops this notion of saying, ‘Well, might I have a problem?’” Earley says consumers’ cultural relationship with alcohol can make it difficult to tell when someone is struggling with alcohol, and the degree of that struggle. Some people are genetically predisposed to alcohol dependence and addiction, while others have issues with substances and self-control. The simple act of analyzing and questioning your drinking instead of accepting it as normal is undeniably good.
Tessa Jorgensen, a fan and follower of Hip Sobriety (though not a member), quit drinking in 2013 at the age of 23. “I was a habitual social drinker, and it was getting in the way of me enjoying my life,” she says. Even today, she fights the assumption that she’s an alcoholic. (Another nonalcoholic sober friend told me people often assume she’s pregnant when she declines a drink.)
When Jorgensen began to look into sobriety, she didn’t feel AA was for her; she wanted to stop drinking, yes, but she didn’t consider herself an alcoholic. At the time, she says there weren’t many other resources, but that’s changing with the accessibility of non-AA options like Hip Sobriety and beyond. These extremely online, social media-savvy programs could be reaching a new, younger demographic.
Earley also points out that reaching younger people (who are perhaps only curious about giving up alcohol and do not have alcoholism) before it’s too late would be a huge step in helping them. “If you have younger people who are trying sobriety before the illness has taken hold, we might prevent some people who are on their way toward alcoholism,” he says. The hashtag #SoberCoach leads to profiles of users who combine sober coaching (whereby a “coach” helps clients avoid triggers and make positive choices, similar to an online AA sponsor) with general wellness and life advice. Many of these profiles include links to coaching programs, some of which come with a disclaimer explaining that the account holders are not licensed therapists but are using personal experience to coach. (Some also sell actual products, like skin care items, on their profiles.)
Austin Cooper, like AA, believes that everyone’s path to sobriety is different and multiple sources of support are a benefit. “I still see people saying everybody who doesn’t do 12 steps is going to die,” he says. “And it’s just not true. I haven’t been to a 12-step meeting in five out of my six years of sobriety. There’s not one way for everybody, so I think it’s great when people can be an influencer and be able to provide resources for all walks of life.”
When asked for comment, a representative for AA said the organization doesn’t comment on other methods for getting sober: “AA is not trying to convince anyone that AA is the only way to stay sober; we have just found a way that works for us that we share with others.” Note that Cooper doesn’t consider his Instagram account to be a substitute for a treatment program; like many other sobriety influencers, he presents his platform as an aid for recovery (or for non-addicts, simply to promote sobriety).
But what happens when people who truly need help with addiction become overly reliant on sobriety influencers? Dr. Nancy Irwin, a clinical psychologist and trauma specialist at the Seasons rehab center in Malibu, California, cautions that the majority of sober influencers aren’t trained in resolving trauma. “You really need to do that with a trained professional, and it’s certainly best one-on-one,” she says. Irwin also says it’s impossible for sober coaches to do their jobs remotely; that relationship has to develop in person.
The sobriety field would hardly be the first to have its mix of bad actors on Instagram: There have been numerous instances of Instagram coaches failing to deliver on their promises, from fitness personalities whose online class packages never come to influencers whose expensive courses in successful brand creation cut serious corners. But it becomes decidedly scarier when the promises involve addiction, and when Instagram-helmed programs conflate getting sober for health reasons with getting sober for addiction issues.
Kati Morton is wary of these blurred lines, despite being a wellness influencer herself. Morton is a licensed marriage and family therapist who has built a following on YouTube and Instagram, where she talks about mental health and general wellness. She says she has no problems with people who use Instagram to share their stories — it helps break down the stigma around mental health. The issue, she explains, is when these influencers start getting prescriptive. “[People saying] ‘I offer recovery packages. You can pay for them, it’s like $700, and you can recover like me!’ I’m really hesitant to support any of that … They’re not trained and they don’t understand the nuances. They don’t know what questions to ask,” she says.
And when a specific plan of action is broadcast to reach as many online followers as possible, rather than tailored to individuals, Morton warns it can be dangerous. Social media has a tendency to generalize. She cautions against lumping together sobriety and wellness when it comes to finding help; addicts need counselors, not coaches, and misunderstanding the difference is harmful. “I don’t like it and I don’t think it’s ethical,” she says. “We need to be really careful about who we trust and we need to make sure that people are licensed or certified in some fashion to ensure that we’re getting the proper treatment.” There’s no governing body for life coaches, she says; anyone could claim the title and whip together an online treatment program.
The “sober curious” movement has also led to the launch of booze-free pop-up “bars,” a growing interest in Dry January, and a bump in zero-proof mocktails. For the truly curious, these are an interesting gateway to drinking less; to someone with addiction, they can actually be detrimental. “As an addict, I have to be extremely careful about ever identifying myself as ‘sober curious,’ and this is why this movement concerns me just a little,’” says Missy Pollack, an alumni coordinator for Recovery First Treatment Center.
Pollack sees the allure of “sober curiosity” but emphasizes the difference between addicts and non-addicts. “Whether the problem was alcohol or heroin, addiction is a disease that affects how we think,” says Pollack. “We do things obsessively and compulsively … there is no ‘trying on sobriety’ for us.” She cautions those looking into the sober-curious movement to “tread lightly.”
That said, she thinks sober influencers (and she considers herself a “baby” sober influencer) who have battled addiction have an important story to tell and share with those who are struggling or simply need to visualize what a healthy life can look like for someone with addiction. She adds the disclaimer that taking cues is fine but seeing influencers as prescriptions is not. “What helps me stay clean is working a 12-step program with a sponsor, being completely transparent and authentic with that sponsor along with a real-life support group,” Pollack says. “Online influencers can be great to get ideas from, and they should really be used for just that — ideas.”
Another troubling problem in the online sobriety community is “body brokers.” Body brokers are not a new concept: As long as there have been alcoholics and substance abuse recovery centers, there have been people who are paid by dishonest organizations to send addicts through their doors. Sometimes the centers are complete shams; other times they’re simply unethical businesses looking for people with good insurance policies who can line their pockets.
This has been happening in real life for years, but Instagram is giving it some new life, and a new look. Cooper has seen sober influencers team up as ambassadors or reps for treatment centers or recovery programs; then if they can get followers to become clients, they get a cut. Cooper says he’s seen people make up to $15,000 for doing this, and that it’s a serious problem in the online sober influencer community.
“I don’t think people ever initially, when they get into sobriety, think I’m going to create this group so I can make a lot of money or something, but I’ve seen people get busted all the time,” he says. “They are willing to do this dirty work, and I’ve seen it happen many, many times when these people are building their social media influence just so they can be [this] resource. It makes me sick to my stomach.”
“We all have to pay our bills, I get that,” says Morton, regarding influencers promoting or sponsoring programs and treatment centers. “But we have to protect our audiences. If our audience is one that is struggling with addiction or a mental health issue of any kind, we should really be protective of them.”
The sobriety influencer economy shares DNA with the wellness movement, another well-represented Instagram genre and a market valued at $4.2 trillion in 2017. A cultural obsession with health is driving the fitness, food, skin care, and self-care markets — anything consumers can buy or do to feel and look better is on trend. “As more people apply a wellness-oriented mindset to more parts of their lives, alcohol consumption is also changing,” wrote Nicole Fallert for Vox. A recent report from Ogilvy on the market concentrated on a few causes of its popularity, basically boiling down to the idea that modern health care is too complicated and slow to change; wellness providers and leaders, meanwhile, can keep pace with current needs. “Ultimately, the wellness movement is a coping strategy for life in the 21st century,” says the Ogilvy report.
Wellness has found a home on Instagram, where you’ll routinely see beautiful people with healthy skin and bright smiles attending meditation retreats and yoga festivals, showing off their cupping bruises, and espousing the benefits of oil pulling. Sobriety and wellness influencers often overlap; many promote themselves as both. (Or as wellness coaches who happen to be sober, or sober coaches who subscribe to wellness ideals.) “Wellness also isn’t the same as sobriety, which is a real, difficult, lifelong choice that people with addiction make every day,” Fallert explained in her Vox article about the booze-free industry, adding that “being sober curious isn’t a recovery method.”
just got a pr email in which the rep referred to a chef’s “sober lifestyle” as part of her “embracing the wellness trend.” i did not know addiction is so out of style!
— Chris Crowley (@chrisecrowley) March 18, 2019
Dr. Earley says he sees the newfound curiosity and popularity in sobriety as a net good, but he still has concerns. “When you take a look at alcoholism, you say, ‘Well how complicated can it be? People just drinking too much.’ But the treatment of it is a very rich and complex specialty, and it requires all sorts of skills, from understanding the physiology of alcohol to understanding what we call the psychodynamics of alcohol, or how you have a relationship with the substance that’s like a relationship with a human being.” There is a huge range of reasons someone develops alcohol dependence, how that illness presents itself, and what treatment or coaching they will respond to best. “I worry that it’s a little bit like going to someone who works on cars and changes the oil in their car over the weekend to then have them work on your Ferrari, you know?” says Earley.
Despite her own concerns, Morton is optimistic about this cultural interest in sobriety and the change in how we talk about it online. It’s becoming more and more common to see Instagram and Facebook posts bragging about #SelfCareSaturdays instead of drunken keg stands. “I think we’ve made a shift,” says Morton. “Not necessarily that we can’t have a good time, but I think we shifted what a good time is.”
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