Sober Gay Socials crew marching in the Manchester Pride parade

Dry January has ended, temperance is no longer topical. However, taking a break from booze or stopping altogether is something which is increasingly talked about, with one third of under 25s choosing not to drink at all, it seems abstinence is here to stay for some.

Alcoholism and addiction transcend age, class, gender and sexuality although how the condition is treated varies according to these differences. When I met Stephen Wilkinson, the founder of Sober Gay Socials, at Manchester Pride in 2022 the sentiment of sobriety seemed a million miles away from the hedonism that was taking place on Canal Street just a few metres from his stall on ‘Charity Street’.

Sober Gay Socials has grown in popularity and recently won an ‘I Love Manchester’ award for ‘Most Loved Community Organisation’. They organise activities where alcohol isn’t the central feature such as art walks, bowling, paddleboarding and roast dinners. It proves a life of sobriety can be enjoyed rather than endured, as well as providing the all-important support for those who have quit.

Stephen set up the group after recovering from alcoholism himself but quitting drinking is only the first step; adjusting to your new life is just as hard. Stephen said “We’re about building social connections which is what I missed most when I first got sober. Because you lose your identity. When you were drinking like I was, my identity was tied to it and when I stopped, I didn’t know anything about me – what I liked, didn’t like. A group like ours provides opportunities to get to know themselves again without drink”.

Sober Gay Socials logo

Stephen didn’t go to rehab, he used his willpower. This sounds difficult but rehab isn’t the golden ticket to a life without alcohol – despite its hefty price tag. In the SGS podcast Stephen speaks to Dan, a member of Sober Gay Socials who had health insurance from work which paid out £20,000 for a 28-day stay at the Priory in Hale. Dan told the podcast “You don’t see the light when you leave rehab, and most people relapse because they think it’s going to be different having spent all that money – but actually you walk out the doors and it’s real life again and you go back to what you’re doing and get sucked back into it”.

Despite rehab not being the golden ticket, Stephen thought he’d be able to fund rehab for group members. “My first idea was we could have raffles to raise money but when I found out how much it was I realised we would have to have a lot of raffles to raise that kind of cash!”

Without work insurance (which only pays once) or rehab no longer available on the NHS, where do alcoholics go for treatment? The council offers funding for rehab but you have to prove you’ve been sober for 6 months. Yet as Stephen rightly points out, “the whole point of rehab is because you can’t get sober and if you’re in the grips of addiction you’re not able to jump through hoops and do everything that’s required of you, so a lot of people do end up paying for it themselves”.

So Sober Gay Socials is more about maintaining sobriety rather than treating it. Alongside the group’s activities, SGS offer discount prices on a sober coach, with members paying a £50 starter fee and the group funding the rest.

Members of Sober Gay Socials on an activity day

With the extortionate cost of rehab the added cost of activities aren’t in most people’s budgets, but Stephen says if someone can’t afford to pay for an activity, they can ask him for help. This informal approach is taken even though the LGBT Foundation offered money for the group. Stephen felt there were more deserving causes and because most members of the group are working and earning good money, funding wasn’t necessary – although not having a fund ready for those that can’t afford it does narrow the clientèle somewhat.

After addicts have run the gauntlet of going through overpriced or underfunded rehabilitation they still need the resources (emotional or financial) to maintain their sobriety. Money only goes so far, but having the support of those facing a life without drink is unquantifiable.

So as someone who has given up drinking through sheer willpower and proven it can be done, what advice would Stephen give someone who wants to get sober? “If you’re a heavy drinker like I was, seek medical advice before you stop, because it’s one of the drugs that if you detox from it you can die.” But thinking about today he says “When I’m tempted by that first glass of wine, I ask myself what would be the benefit of that? And I’ve never been able to answer that.”

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All images: Sober Gay Socials

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