Is sobriety ready for a rebrand?

The term “sober” sounds solemn and unsmiling, but talk to some of the Alaskans who choose to live without alcohol, and they’ll tell you their lives are anything but dull.

As research continues to associate alcohol use with health risks, and movements like “Dry January” and “sober curious” grow in popularity, there’s some indication that drinking less -- or not at all -- is becoming a more common choice, and not just for people who experience substance use disorders.

What does life without alcohol look like? According to these three sober Alaskans, it means answering questions about your choices, learning to navigate social situations -- and feeling better every single day.

Dating while sober

Cortney Foos doesn’t consider herself an alcoholic. But one morning about four years ago, she woke up and realized she didn’t want to drink anymore.

“You know, in your early 20s, everyone's going crazy, college or not,” Foos said. Then, she added, “you get older and you realize: ‘People just aren't getting as crazy (anymore), and I am.’”

An outgoing, social person who loves a good time, Foos said alcohol used to be a part of that persona.

“Everyone thinks of me as this super extrovert,” Foos said. “I love a busy social life, but I didn’t realize how much anxiety I had.”

Drinking was a band-aid for that anxiety. Since she stopped using alcohol, she’s learned -- with the help of a therapist -- to manage her feelings without it.

“The best part of it, although it is hard sometimes, is just feeling every emotion, and having to cope with that,” Foos said.

While her friends are supportive of her sober lifestyle, she finds it comes up a lot in one particular area of her personal life.

“It’s kind of difficult being single and dating,” she said.

Meeting for a drink is kind of a default first date, she said, and while she’s perfectly comfortable meeting at a bar and ordering a non-alcoholic beverage, she’s found that her dates sometimes get hung up on her choice.

“Some people are like, ‘Oh, OK, you don’t drink,’ and other people are like ‘I could never do that,’” Foos said. “Other people like to ask a lot of questions.”

It can be a little awkward to go that deep into personal choices when you’re first trying to get to know someone, she said. But she also recognizes that her sobriety is going to be a factor in her relationships from now on.

“If you choose not to drink the rest of your life -- that’s a long time,” Foos said. “Whoever I decide to date is going to know me only as being sober.”

And, she added, that’s a net gain.

“I’ve grown as a person a lot and put a lot of time and energy into figuring out what I want,” she said. “I thought I was a good person before, but overall I think that having more clarity has been helpful.”

Being sober -- and never being hung over -- has made more room in her life for things she enjoys, like skiing, hiking, meditation -- and yes, an active social life. She’ll still join friends for a night out, but now she spends the evening clear-headed (and she can safely drive herself home anytime she feels like leaving).

“Sobriety’s not boring,” Foos said. “Your life can be just as fulfilled and fun. It’s kind of beautiful showing your true self.”

The blanket toss

More than 30 years ago, Gregory Nothstine had what he refers to as a “Divine Wondrous Intervention.”

“It’s an acronym for another thing,” he said -- the kind of DWI that lands you in an alcohol treatment program.

Sober since May 10, 1988, Nothstine is comfortable making sly jokes about his past, although at the time, it was no laughing matter.

“We always have to find the silver lining behind every cloud,” he said. “I think I was looking for one when I had my experience. This journey was one that was fraught with some skepticism, but every turn I took, there was some sort of benefit for staying on the course.”

Nothstine’s sobriety is deeply intertwined with his Alaska Native culture. Soon after he stopped drinking, he was asked to make a blanket to be used in a blanket toss at a celebration in Anchorage. He’d just been expelled from a rehab program in which he felt his culture was disrespected, and he was feeling at his lowest. As he worked on the blanket, reflecting on how and why it would be used, he began to gain a sense of purpose. It was a vision he kept to himself for a long time, and then, encouraged by an Elder, he started to share.

Nothstine became a leader in the Alaska Federation of Natives’ sobriety movement in the 1990s, helping to collect thousands of signatures for a statewide sobriety pledge and drafting language that eventually became a state law recognizing Alaskans who choose sobriety.

For Nothstine, it’s important that those efforts were not about stopping drinking but encouraging sobriety, a difference he says is significant.

“Whatever you place the focus on by name, you give it the power,” he said.

Apart from his work in the community, sobriety has brought personal benefits to Nothstine. He has an adult daughter and a son in middle school, neither of whom has ever seen him drink. He believes that quitting saved his life.

“For me, to drink is to die,” Nothstine said.

And considering the overall benefits to society when people drink less, Nothstine says he wishes drinking culture weren’t as accepted as it is, especially among Alaska Native people. If he’s at a gathering and someone asks why he’s not drinking, he’s got his answer ready.

“I just say ‘I’m decolonized now,’” Nothstine said.

He laughs, but he’s also serious -- he sees drinking culture among Alaska Native people as “internalized assimilation.”

“Our culture never included consumption,” Nothstine said. “Any attempt to mix the two only makes the other worse.”

At the same time, he added, sobriety is an individual choice. It’s not one he can make for anyone else, but if it’s one they make for themselves, he wants to be there to support them. That’s part of his culture, too.

“Sobriety is a blanket toss,” Nothstine said. “You can’t do it by yourself. We’re all pullers in an environment of safety for each other. We all have a hand in it.”

‘Real life happens in sobriety, too’

Juneau resident Nona Dimond has been sober since Sept. 5, 2017.

Bubbly, outgoing and seemingly confident, privately Dimond struggled with insecurity, low self-esteem and anxiety. When she used alcohol, she felt her insecurity melting away with each drink.

“That really worked for a while,” Dimond said. “Until it didn’t.”

Eventually, she found herself relying on drinking to get her through every social situation, from birthday parties to sporting events, and then she’d continue to drink when she got home, which just led to more anxiety, guilt, and self-doubt.

“I knew I was not being the best version of myself for me or my child, and that’s why I decided to get sober,” she said.

More than two years later, Dimond says she feels happier and fully engaged in the life she chooses for herself every day.

“I can go anywhere at any time when anyone needs me and not worry about embarrassing myself, or getting a DUI on the way, or being judged for being the drunk mom,” she said. “I still find ways to embarrass myself and my child, but I remember it and can own it, truly own it, and move beyond it now.”

One thing she’s learned: Sobriety isn’t a cure-all for unhappiness. But for her, it’s a better way to face the hard times that everyone experiences.

“Real life happens in sobriety, too,” Dimond said.

Last year her father died, followed by the family dog, and she’s currently going through a divorce. Career changes, health concerns, moves, and relationships have all been sources of stress. The difference now is that she doesn’t stop at the liquor store to try to get through tough days.

“When I get stressed and overwhelmed and feel the feelings that used to make me turn to alcohol, I double down on my recovery and take an extra measure to ensure my success,” Dimond said. “Normally, part of that is reaching out to another person in recovery and asking for help, and then turning around and helping someone else.”

When she’s heading to an event where she knows alcohol will be served, Dimond says she tries to “future-prep” by making sure her beverage of choice is available. She also mentally prepares to make her departure if she starts to feel like others are becoming intoxicated.

“Today my motto for social events is ‘Ginger ale and an exit plan,’” she said.

Pulling together

Dimond has shared her journey openly with friends on social media since the beginning.

“I decided early in my recovery that the shame and guilt was something I wanted to shed immediately,” she said.

Sharing her journey has given her a sense of accountability, and she said her favorite part has been hearing from friends who reach out when they are ready to try sobriety. At the same time, a few friends have distanced themselves since she started posting about recovery.

“At first, it hurt my feelings,” Dimond said. “But I have learned since that people removing themselves from my life has given me the freedom to make my friend circle quality and not quantity.”

Dimond, Foos and Nothstine all pointed out that if they’d stopped using almost any other substance, no one would hesitate to congratulate them -- a sign of alcohol’s unique social acceptability. But they also see attitudes gradually beginning to shift.

“I know people in the community who now, I know, are sober or are choosing not to drink, and I think that's great,” Foos said. “I think it's a very personal decision.”

It’s a decision that all three say has been made easier by support from friends and family. And that support pays dividends; without alcohol, they feel happier, healthier, and more able to be present with the people they care about.

For Nothstine, it all comes back to the blanket toss: One person jumps, but they’re lifted by the people who surround them.

“There is a way up and out,” he said. “We all have to pull together to make it happen.”

March is Sobriety Awareness Month in Alaska. Learn more and find resources and events at RecoverAlaska.org. You can also share your own story by using#AKSobrietyAwareness on Facebook.


This story was sponsored by Alaska Native Tribal Health Consortium, a statewide nonprofit Tribal health organization designed to meet the unique health needs of more than 175,000 Alaska Native and American Indian people living in Alaska.

This story was produced by the creative services department of the Anchorage Daily News in collaboration with Alaska Native Tribal Health Consortium. The ADN newsroom was not involved in its production.