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What It's Like To Be Sober in Austin, Where Alcohol Is Pretty Much Everywhere

Gabriel Cristóval Pérez
Sierra Castedo is the director of the Center for Students in Recovery in Austin.

Alcohol is so ubiquitous in Austin you’d be hard-pressed to find a place where you can’t get a drink. We aren’t talking just about restaurants and bars here. Think of coffee shops, taco stands, bakeries, hair salons, festivals, farmers markets – even workspaces, in some instances.  

For most of us, this is just part of living in Austin. It might even be part of what you love about the city — part of Austin's charm, right? This is a place where you can kick back and grab a beer with friends practically anywhere. But what if you are trying to be sober?

Usually when we talk about alcohol use in Austin, we talk about it as a public safety issue. Concerns about Austin’s party culture got some attention back in 2014, for instance, when a man drunkenly drove through barricades and killed four people and injured many others during SXSW.

But there are other societal costs – particularly if you are sober. Or trying to be.

A Long Wooden Beam

Ivana Grahovac, t​he executive director of Austin Recovery Treatment Center, is in long-term recovery. She says getting clean in Austin is a mixed bag.

On the one hand, there are a lot of treatment centers. Getting help is easier here than in other parts of the state, especially if you don’t make a lot of money. But, this is a college town and a party town. People drink a lot here, and Grahovac says it’s something they talk about all the time, too.

She says even while she’s working out in a group class, people are talking about drinking.

“The Barre studio that I frequent, they constantly make references to ‘and now you can have that tequila, you can go get your margarita, imagine that there is a champagne glass on your leg,’” she says.

"The biggest part of getting sober is really just finding a new group of friends who are your age who you have fun with."

“And it just chips away at my feeling like I am now a part of society,” Grahavoc continues. “I have conquered my addiction and now I am welcomed and back as a contributing member of society – and suddenly it’s like, ‘Whoa.’”

Grahovac has been sober for more than a decade. She says she’s gotten the hang of being around alcohol and not feeling triggered. But not everyone in recovery is there yet. And, she says, Austin’s alcohol culture can be exhausting if you are struggling to stay sober.

“Imagine that you are holding up a long wooden beam,” Grahovac says. “And if you were to carry that long wooden beam above your head all day you would get very, very tired, if you had to do it by yourself. In many ways, that’s what trying to achieve sobriety and maintain sobriety and a life of recovery is like."

Grahovac says when someone in recovery asks other people for help, it’s like having someone help hold up that beam.

“And when you are in environments where they are constantly beaming out messages of drinking, partying, boozing, inebriation, it’s as if suddenly people around you are pressing down on that beam,” she says.

Getting Neutral

One of the first things people working on sobriety are told is to find other people in recovery — people to help hold up that beam.

This is why being in recovery in Austin is actually a good thing.

“The great thing about Austin compared to other cities, you know, it’s a young town. It’s a party town," says Austin Berry. "But what that brings is a lot of young people,” 

Berry moved to Austin from Houston in 2010 to get sober and finish his degree – and it really changed his life. (His full name is Austin Travis Berry — how’s that for fate?)

Despite the party culture here, Berry says, you’d be surprised how many young people are living a sober lifestyle in Austin.

“Normally, across the country you see in recovery, there’s young-people groups,” he says. “In Austin, there is really no such thing, because every group is young people.”

“So it’s pretty easy to find people your age – you know, I got sober at 22 – that are trying to do the deal and get clean and stay clean," he says, "which is huge because the biggest part of getting sober is really just finding a new group of friends who are your age who you have fun with.”

Berry says he found his way into a group of guys in recovery he could relate to. They had professional goals, and they also had a lot of fun. Berry says they went to dinners, movies, concerts – they were in volleyball league and a football league.

“I had a lot more fun sober than I ever did drinking and using,” Berry says. “For me, drinking and using was just I go to the bar ​–because that is the typical college thing. Everybody goes out and they binge drink, but it just didn’t look like that for me.”

Credit Jon Shapley for KUT

“I would start drinking, and I was gone,” Berry explains. “So, I really didn’t have that much fun because I ended up alone most of the time. So, being in recovery, I was always surrounded by people.”

Berry found his support group at Center for Students in Recovery at UT Austin. He now helps others get clean and says he’s at a place of neutrality with alcohol. He says he can walk into bars and concerts, and he’s just not thinking about the fact that there’s alcohol around him and he can’t have any.

It’s like that for other people, too. Sierra Castedo, the director of the Center for Students in Recovery, has been sober for three and a half years. Like Berry, she says she’s happier, more social and just better now. She says being surrounded by alcohol doesn’t get to her.

“It’s just not an issue," she says. "And it’s a nice gentle reminder that my relationship with alcohol, my relationship with any substance, just wasn’t like that. It’s just fundamentally different. It’s just how my brain chemistry is, and it makes the acceptance of that a lot easier.”

A Safe Space

The only little thing Castedo wishes, though, is that restaurants and bars would have more options for people not interested in alcohol – like mocktails. She says there are a lot of reasons people choose not to drink, and it would be great if that were represented on menus.

And that’s the long game that Grahovac is looking at. The way we talk about addiction is slowly changing. Grahovac says substance-use disorders are slowly becoming less secretive and less stigmatized, but there’s more work to be done.

“It’s time to evolve in consciousness and say, ‘Hey, we are aware that there are 20 percent in this population who are either struggling with some substances or they are acutely dependent and trying to recover, so let’s make room for them, too,’” she says.

Grahovac says there are two big things that need to happen: One, people in recovery should start being more open about their sober lifestyle — to make their existence in the community known; and two: People not in that lifestyle should make room – safe spaces – for people in recovery.

In the long run, she says, she’d like to see ally training in schools, health care and workplaces. Then, the city’s sober and not-sober communities won’t really feel like two separate Austins anymore. 

Ashley Lopez covers politics and health care. Got a tip? Email her at Follow her on Twitter @AshLopezRadio.
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