Booze Free Hero: Holly Whitaker


Back in January, when I was still struggling with the “Dry January” challenge I was doing with my sister, Jill, I was not thinking I’d never drink again. In fact, I was counting down to the end of the month, when I’d have my next drink. So when Jill suggested that I check out a website called Hip Sobriety, owned and authored by Holly Whitaker, I thought what does “Hip Sobriety” have to do with me?

Be warned before you navigate that way. Hip Sobriety is a portal into another world and another way to think about alcohol. I started reading on my phone that afternoon and did not emerge from under my afghan until I read every section of the web site—and many parts twice. At the end of this binge, I thought, “Oh, god. I might become one of those sober people. Those sober people maybe have something figured out that I don’t.” Holly Whitaker reprogrammed me.

On Hip Sobriety, Holly writes with equal parts passion and expertise. She’s now been sober for more than four years and in that time she has devoted herself to research about alcohol and addiction. She runs Hip Sobriety School several times a year. It’s a holistic, online recovery program. Holly does this work because she understands first hand that the most well-known programs and approaches don’t work for everyone. She has a dramatically different take on the subject than you’ve likely seen before.

For one thing, she suggests that the question of whether you are or are not an alcoholic isn’t useful. Instead she encourages readers to ask themselves if alcohol is getting in the way of their dreams and living their best lives. That single question really got under my skin because I knew immediately the answer was yes. The most powerful thing about Holly’s work is her ability to rapidly and persuasively reframe both the experience of drinking and not-drinking.

In a nutshell, Holly convinced me that my problems with drinking were not because I was defective, but rather because alcohol is a powerful, addictive drug and a poison. As a result of her work, I started to routinely call “wine” or “a martini” (at least to myself) by the name of its active ingredient: ethanol.

But even more important than reframing alcohol as something undesirable, she recast sobriety as a wonderful gift for yourself, a way to enjoy your life more (not less), and an all-around good time. She painted a picture of sobriety I could see myself in—traveling, doing yoga, making media projects, enjoying great food, being with friends. Before that, the word sobriety brought to mind stale doughnuts, church basements, being pitied, and feeling left out.

It was Holly’s essays like “19 Awesome Ways my Life Changed in 19 Sober Months” and “12 Fabulous Things About Sobriety” that helped bring about the massive perspective shift that made me not want to drink anymore. I started to want something else instead.

A former accountant, Holly has changed careers. Today she is dedicated to the business of Hip Sobriety full time. For her, a turning point was actor Phillip Seymour Hoffman’s death.

“I posted a long blog about it, and I outed myself. I hadn’t told people how much I had been drinking. I didn’t tell people how sick I was. The post was about how horrified we are when something like that happens, but we ignore [addiction] in our own lives. We wonder how something like that can happen, and then we don’t do anything about it.”

By taking what had been a secret blog public with that post, Holly was doing something about it. Though she was then thinking about finding another accounting post, she realized as her blog went a bit viral that she might have made herself less employable. But by then she was dreaming of using the holistic techniques that made her own recovery possible to help other people.

“Whatever I had done worked. I spent a lot of time trying to figure out what I had done differently, why I didn’t seem to struggle as much as other people. I was developing something replicable. I started doing the group coaching,” she says. She’s currently coached more than 800 people through the often-harrowing process of quitting booze. There’s no doubt how much she’s helped me, and it seems every time I meet someone new who is dedicated to not drinking, Holly has helped them, too.

Here’s Holly’s Q&A:

When did you first realize that life could be better without booze? 

It was a sneaking suspicion. The specific night I got the clear message, I was out with a girlfriend in San Francisco. It was depressing, the same night I’d had a million times before. I wanted out of it. We got drunk. I got kicked out of a cab. I was bloated the next day. I was done. I couldn’t wait to quit. I started drinking again after that, but the moment of clarity was that night. I thought, what am I holding on to here?

What do you most enjoy about not drinking? 

How much space is in my world. How much I can do. I feel invincible. It’s so expansive. There’s this idea that it’s a smaller life [without alcohol]. Your life force wants to be big, but it gets pushed back by alcohol. Removing it allows an expansiveness I didn’t know was possible. I feel like a kid, I have the joy and wonder that I thought I’d never get back. I thought you lost that.

Do you have any advice for people who might be considering taking alcohol out of their lives?

Everything is figure-out-able. There’s not one person who can’t stop drinking.

What is your favorite festive nonalcoholic beverage?  

Hot lemon water. I drink coffee. I will literally cut you if you stand in the way of me and good cup of coffee. I drink fizzy water. But I don’t celebrate with beverages. It used to be such a thing, to enjoy a nice drink. I have a lot of things I enjoy, and that’s not one of them. At first, when I went out, I would drink Diet Cokes. In the beginning, I needed something in my hand.

What is one assumption drinkers have about the dry life that you think they’ve got wrong?

That there’s a sacrifice involved. It’s an exchange of value. You trade in something of lower value for something of infinite value. People think there’s deprivation involved but there isn’t. Alcohol gets in the way of everything. Maybe you have weird first dates, maybe there are some things you’re going to lose, but it’s a small exchange in value for everything you want. It’s an exchange. You’re trading up.

joy manning