By Sasha Novikov
Published in Lumpen Journal Issue Seven
Teetotaling During COVID-19 as a White, Queer, Working-Class, Academic Woman.
I am a working-class, white, queer, and now a recently sober woman who moved from the rural United States to England to pursue a PhD at the start of the pandemic. It is well documented that being working class in academia is awkward, farcical, and exploitative. As a teen, I was encouraged to apply for programmes and grants, and to lean into the meritocratic illusion that we’re all sold as Americans (which is equally rampant in the UK, I’ve come to realise). As a white neurotypical kid, it was an easy role to play. I loved the validation that I got through school: academic success was my one consistent source of encouragement, and continues to serve as a consistent source for funding. Throughout my 20s I’ve been led through the ranks of academia, writing and researching as a means to pay my bills, all the while working part time as a nanny to make ends meet. I recently tried to relate with a friend who is also a doctoral student: ‘I don’t like to lead with the fact that I’m doing a PhD, because it puts up a wall with people, do you know what I mean?’ She didn’t. Being from a wealthy family, and as a biologist in central California where studying ecology is akin to godliness, she wears the elite status comfortably, naturally.
My younger sister is working towards a lucrative career in corporate law; she is brilliant and fierce, with the determination of someone who has everything to prove. For years I’ve watched her successfully shirk off our working-class roots by wearing the right things, driving the right car, and curating a trendy, beautiful apartment. When I visit, she scans me up and down with notable anxiety, critically examining me for signs (there are always a few) that I am betraying her attempts to move up in society.
Drinking has been a conduit to connect with my hometown, to feel anchored to the familiar: slurping cheap beers in the cold of a Pacific northwest winter, the smell of diesel fuel, and the cold, wet breath clouds. Dirty fingernails, oil stains, and smudged Carhartt vests. It isn’t all that different from standing outside a pub on a rainy evening in Birmingham—drinking has, for so long, been a way to come home. Class, and rurality, have similarly eclipsed my queer identity: I don’t identify with pop-culture in general, least of all the upper-middle-class urbanism of the queer world available to me in the bay area of California. Drinking in a dive bar or parking lot has always felt more representative of who I am than the club.
So, when I first moved to England, I fell in love with pub culture. It was a natural space to relate and connect with local people in this otherwise completely foreign environment. But pub culture betrayed me as a woman, and as a queer person. The familiarity of pints became less a comfort blanket, more a source of alienation and discomfort. So, due to a series of negative experiences, and a growing realisation that alcohol consumption had grown more habitual than I would like, I decided to stop drinking altogether. And I leaned into the solitude offered by the pandemic to work on sobriety.
I have always connected sobriety with elitism: thin, beautiful people with ample free time, doing yoga, and performing a wellness that doesn’t feel true for me. I’ve read ‘quit lit’ memoirs and struggled to see myself in those stories. Sobriety is marketed in wellness communities as a source for better health and glowing skin: influencers in felt fedoras, wheatgrass, and namaste… (#sober, so blessed). I didn’t feel this way when I stopped drinking. Instead, I felt tired. I felt angry. I missed the spaces to talk and laugh freely. I didn’t want to demonise a behaviour that has been normalised, beloved even, by my community. I didn’t want to demonise that behaviour in myself.
For so long, I thought that drinking culture held me in a way that the academic world, or the queer world, has failed me, or rendered me invisible. I thought that in a society that exploits the working class, engaging in one’s vice or vices of choice is a small and fitting coping strategy, and a source of connection and community. I grew up with the idea that the end of a hard day’s work should be marked with a beer, or six, with one’s family and friends. However, sobriety has been a liminal space in which I have begun to examine my patterns, assumptions, and some of the false beliefs that I’ve held. I don’t want to leave the working class to never look back, I don’t want to ignore class as such a significant divider among us.
Associating my class identity with alcoholism has been a form of class betrayal as well: we aren’t all belligerent. Socialist activism has long touted sobriety as a tool to stay ahead of capitalist aggressions. I am discovering these things are at war within myself. Feeling my power is different from the capitalistic empowerment I’ve been sold as a young academic. Feeling a sense of belonging is deeper than getting drunk with people who look like me. Being a white ally in a racist society means that I have had to walk away from some of my community, and towards the unfamiliar, uncomfortable, and new. There is a difference between developing oneself and betraying one’s roots. Sobriety has helped me understand this difference, to feel it, and to communicate it with more confidence.
I know I won’t find what solidarity I’m looking for through the pub, the club, or through the academy. I know I’m not alone, either. The working class is diverse, expansive, and strong. We have to build what we’re searching for, what we’re dreaming of, through activism, collaboration, and doing the work of carving out a space in which we can grow. Sobriety has been an unexpected way home.