Erin Spradlin has never landed in a drunk tank, gotten a DUI or gone to rehab.
Still, she drank too much — usually four cocktails or beers or glasses of wine, pretty much every day. “We would drink at home. We would drink when we went out,” said Spradlin, 39, who lives with her husband in the artsy, restaurant-dense Capitol Hill neighborhood near downtown Denver. “I was drinking a lot.”
More than once, Spradlin gave up drinking for “Dry January,” feeling gross after the heavy drinking and abundant food that comes with the holidays. But it didn’t stick, and she was back to her usual amount in February.
Now, though, Spradlin is in “extended sobriety.” She has been sober for five months, and to help make it last, she started an online group she named “Sober Not Boring.” The first meet-up was in City Park, where a handful of strangers played bocce ball on a June night and planned to meet again for hiking and board games.
The new group is one of several popping up in the city, part of trend that includes “sober bars” — or at least a better selection of nonalcoholic cocktails in regular bars — and even a mobile app to help build a digital sober community. A book called “Sober Curious,” published last year by author Ruby Warrington, asks readers to imagine “how different our lives would be if we stopped drinking on autopilot.”
The sober movement is catching on with people who aren’t alcoholics — or at least haven’t hit rock bottom or joined a 12-step program — but those who want a change of pace from America’s drinking culture. And Denver is a fitting place for it to take hold. The city has the highest rate of binge drinking of any Western city its size, according to a recent study by Denver Public Health.
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“There is a huge gap between people who don’t want to drink or think they drink too much and then people who are actively in AA or have been to jail or hospitals because of drinking,” Spradlin said. “Those people have a very hard time identifying with people who have been to the drunk tank.”
“But they can identify with thinking that drinking is interfering with their life.”
Denver drinks too much, study says
Denver has a drinking problem, according to the Denver Public Health report. The study found that more than one in four adults in the city binge drinks, which is defined as four drinks for women and five drinks for men in the span of two hours. A drink is one beer, 5-ounce glass of wine or 1.5-ounce shot.
The percentage of Denver adults who binge drink — 27 percent — is higher than in any comparable city in the West, according to public health researchers. The study compared Denver County to other urban counties of similar size in Western states, including the counties that include Las Vegas, Seattle, San Francisco, Salt Lake City and Austin, looking at the portion of people who said during a telephone survey that they were binge drinkers. It also looked at fatal car crashes that involved alcohol.
Drinking alcohol is such a part of our lives that “we’re blind to it,” said Dr. Bill Burman, director of Denver Public Health. Alcohol is causing more problems than opioids, he said, questioning why Colorado spends more time discussing ways to fix the opioid crisis than it does to address the drinking culture.
“We have all grown up around it,” he said. “We are so used to it. It’s part of all of our celebrations.”
Graduation parties. Baby showers. Barbecues. Most of them include alcohol.
“No culture but the party culture”
And then there are concerts and sporting events, a whole other level when it comes to social drinking, said Duke Rumely, founder of Sober AF Entertainment.
Rumely started his group shortly after his 20-year-old daughter texted him from a concert at Red Rocks last year. Everyone she was with was trashed. She was letting him know she was taking an Uber, and that her friends were high on Molly.
It rattled Rumely, a 51-year-old dad who started drinking at age 16. At 18, he picked up a DUI and at 20, was arrested in Mexico and his mother had to fly down to bail him out of jail. A year later, he began alcohol treatment.
Rumely has been sober since 1989, when he was 21 years old.
The AF in Sober AF Entertainment stands for words unfit to write in this story, but the acronym spells SAFE. Rumely picked it because he thought it was edgy. “If we called it ‘Sober Entertainment’ no one would show up,” he said.
The group, funded by donations, sets up sober tailgate parties at Rockies and Broncos games, concerts and music festivals.
“I’m really concerned about the drug culture I see in Colorado and how we protect our kids,” Rumely said. “How do we show these kids that we can have fun sober? Nobody is explaining that. There is no culture out there besides the party culture at these venues.”
Colorado’s craft beer, marijuana and now psychedelic mushroom culture give young people the message “we don’t care what they do as far as drug-use and alcohol,” Rumely said.
At one of Sober AF’s first events, a sober section at a Rockies game, Rumely watched as more than 100 young people stood around trying to talk to each other at a tailgate party — with no alcohol. It was clear to him they didn’t know how to act while they sipped soda and water. “I was watching these kids who are super awkward, newly sober and trying to figure out how you reenage in life,” he said.
“They don’t have a sober environment at fun places they can go,” he said.
Rumely’s daughter, now 21 and a student at Colorado State University, occasionally stops by his sober parties, sometimes with a few of her sorority sisters. She calls the tent the “dad zone,” a place where no “whiskey-drunk guy is going to come up and be inappropriate with her,” he said.
Today’s well-crafted mocktails aren’t boring
Bartenders have noticed the sober trend, too.
At Death & Co., which opened in Denver’s RiNo neighborhood in 2018 and bills itself as one of the best craft-cocktail concepts in the nation, there is just as much effort poured into the nonalcoholic cocktails as the alcoholic ones, because customers are demanding it.
Consider this item, called a Dunmore. The key ingredient is a nonalcoholic spirit from London, distilled with baking spices including nutmeg, cinnamon and clove. Add to that pineapple juice, lime juice and a housemade tonic syrup.
“The food and beverage industry as a whole is starting to pay a little bit more attention to how we can take better care of ourselves, and through that, how can we take better care of our guests,” said Alex Jump, one of the head bartenders at Death & Co., which is in a hotel lobby.
The nonalcoholic drinks are so well composed that Jump and other bartenders will decline to add a shot of alcohol when asked by a customer. It would mess with the flavor, she said. They’re not just “putting pineapple and grapefruit in a shaker” and making up a nonalcoholic drink, she said.
Just because customers don’t want to drink alcohol doesn’t mean they should drink something boring, Jump said.
Nonalcoholic drinks are listed along with the rest of the drinks on the menu, with only a tiny symbol to signify they have no booze. Death & Co bartenders double check when customers order one of the three mocktails to make sure they don’t want alcohol.
“It’s about 50-50,” Jump said. “Half the time, people are like, ‘Absolutely, that’s what I want.’ And the other half say, ‘Oh, no, no.’”
Alcohol is ‘biggest substance abuse problem’
Extended sobriety, or avoiding heavy drinking altogether, has better potential health outcomes than giving up alcohol for the month of January or any other month, according to health experts.
A heavy drinker who gives up alcohol for one month but drinks the other 11 isn’t reversing organ damage already caused by excessive alcohol, said Dr. Richard Radcliffe, professor at the Skaggs School of Pharmacy and Pharmaceutical Sciences at the University of Colorado Anschutz Medical Campus.
“It doesn’t matter,” he said. “For a heavy drinker, one month of sobriety will definitely not reverse any alcohol-mediated organ damage, at least not completely, but the reversal process could at least be starting.”
However, if giving up alcohol for a month or any extended period causes a person to consider their drinking habits and decrease alcohol consumption over the long term, that’s a good thing, Radcliffe said.
According to one study, from the University of Susex, people who stayed sober for Dry January 2018 resumed drinking in February but were drinking less than before. By August, participants were drinking one fewer day per week, on average, and getting “drunk” less often.
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Denver could change its drinking culture if it had the funds to spend on a public awareness campaign, similar to how drinking while pregnant and drinking and driving became taboo in the span of one generation, said Dr. Burman, from the public health department. Instead, the city has focused on opioids, which don’t cause as many problems as alcohol, he said.
Burman noted that 30,000 people visited the Denver Health emergency department last year for substance-related issues. Most commonly, the substance was alcohol.
“We need to come back to what is arguably the biggest substance abuse problem in our community,” Burman said.
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