It starts with a bang — late nights, rounds for the bar, spontaneous karaoke, new friends. Blurred joy. Foggy memories. Inexplicable bruises. Angry words. Regret. More, more, more.
"Any time anything went wrong it was like 'Well, I'm gonna get hammered.' It was a party thing, a social thing, a stress reliever — when I was sad, when I was celebrating something. There was not a time when booze wasn't around."
Brantley Saunders, a CofC alum who lives and works in the Lowcountry, says she never drank so much that she wound up in the Blotter. She never got a DUI or punched a bouncer or fell down a flight of stairs. She didn't even start drinking until she turned 21, when she realized that booze made her more confident and outgoing.
"When I started drinking, I thought, 'OK, maybe this magic potion is what it's all about,'" says Saunders. "As that progressed obviously in Charleston there are far more people drinking and partying than there are not — it wasn't like the outlier where I was the person who drank too much."
This June, Saunders hosted her first Holy City AF (alcohol free) event, a book club at Indaco. Through word of mouth and social media, Saunders was able to reach a dozen people who showed up that Tuesday night. "It was already gaining momentum in my life and people reached out and thanked me," says Saunders. "Charleston is such a hard city to not drink."
Saunders knew her steady drinking habits were not healthy. A few glasses a night became a bottle, became a magnum, especially after a traumatic life event in 2017. Drinking was the answer for all of life's triumphs and tragedies. Then, one day, 14 years after she started drinking, Saunders realized that no matter the resplendence of the first "bang!" the decision to stop for good would end with a whimper.
"It was really scary to think 'never ever again,'" she says. At the beginning of 2019, she decided to try a "96 percent sober" approach, allotting herself one drinking day a month.
A few months in, after getting "hammered" at a friend's wedding and waking up the next day feeling terrible, she decided to cut the cord. "I went to Barnes & Noble's self-help shelf and grabbed a stack of books," says Saunders. "Everyone's story of why they quit is different but we all come to the same place: there's gotta be something else."
One of the books that Saunders grabbed was Ruby Warrington's Sober Curious: The Blissful Sleep, Greater Focus, Limitless Presence, and Deep Connection Awaiting Us All on the Other Side of Alcohol.
It's a growing national trend, this "sober curious" movement that caters to "gray area drinkers" like Saunders and Warrington. Dingy AA rooms and 12 step programs feel archaic, and rehab feels like a last resort.
A New York Times article from June of this year "The New Sobriety," looks at society's evolving attitude toward non-drinkers: "It seems not even sobriety will be saved from enjoying a made-for-Instagram moment, with new hashtaggable terms like 'mindful drinking' and 'sober curious.' No longer do you have to feel left out or uncool for being sober."
- Ruta Smith
And while Charleston has made advances with our own take-down of sober taboos — please see: Wine + Food's proliferation of wellness events and mocktails — we're still at our core a college town and a foodie town, a city held up by the hospitality industry. It's easy to be sinful in the Holy City — far easier than tee-totaling.
"For a city that's all in for events, like the Bridge Run — whether you're running it or not, it's Bridge Run weekend, and during Wine + Food weekend it's food and wine whether you go to the festival or not," says Saunders. "I thought surely someone has done this, surely there's something already in place."
Saunders references Ben's Friends, a food and beverage industry support group founded in Charleston in Oct. 2016 by sober food and bev professionals Mickey Bakst and Steve Palmer. The group, which now has chapters in five other cities, offers "hope, fellowship, and a path forward to professionals who struggle with substance abuse and addiction." In Charleston, groups meet every Sunday at 11 a.m. at the Cedar Room.
Saunders reached out to Ben's Friends when she started pursuing her idea of founding a group that focused on having fun sans libations. They even helped organize her first Indaco event. "They do great things," says Saunders.
- Ruta Smith
- The Macintosh’s Slow and Steady spirit-free drink
But she wanted to do even more — hosting a handful of events every month where those who are completely sober or simply "sober curious" could meet up and have a lively social experience without knocking back a few cold ones. "For me it was important to not feel alone, to not feel like the
only person who had gone through this, the gray area drinker," says Saunders.
Holy City AF is gaining momentum; Blue Bicycle Books now has a Holy City AF shelf where they carry books for the book club past and present. Saunders has book clubs, dance parties, and exercise classes on the docket, and is in the process of securing dates for workshops and events around the city. Saunders is curating a list of restaurants who make it easy to not drink, from the full alcohol-free section on the menu at Le Farfalle to the bartender's mocktail choice at Gin Joint.
"I think that is where my place is — providing the option, providing the space to explore it so that you can realize life is good, and 99 percent of the time it's better without alcohol," says Saunders. "It started with my wanting to build this sober tribe and it's turning into this really exciting thing that I think is just making people feel less alone."
Upcoming Holy City AF events include an Oct. 10 Holy City AF Self-Care Soirée at Wild Craft starting at 5:30 p.m. — "Treat yourself to a luxurious night of pampering at Charleston's best clean beauty shop! $40 covers all your relaxation needs, beverages, and snacks." Follow holycityaf.com to keep up to date.