Jill Stark was the 'poster girl for sobriety'. Then her drinking problem returned (2024)

When Jill Stark saw her face on the front page of a UK newspaper in 2013, she did a double take.

The headline beneath her photo read: "The poster girl for sobriety".

"That is not a headline I've ever wanted to see," she tells ABC RN's Life Matters. "[I] didn't ask to be a role model for the temperance movement."

The author and journalist was well-known for her 2013 best-selling book, High Sobriety: My Year Without Booze, which chronicled her tumultuous years-long relationship with alcohol and her decision to give up drinking for 12 months.

After her foray into sobriety, she began drinking again — this time, in moderation.

While she'd never promised that she'd be sober forever, she was met with outrage and betrayal when others found out alcohol was part of her life once more.

"It was really unsettling to realise that a lot of people had tied their relationship to alcohol to mine," Jill says.

"[Fans] would message me saying, 'Why are you drinking again?'

"I'd be sitting in a pub having a glass of wine with friends, and it happened several times when [other] people were like, 'Aren't you that woman who wrote a book about sobriety?'"

Jill Stark was the 'poster girl for sobriety'. Then her drinking problem returned (1)

But poster girl or not, Jill's journey with alcohol wasn't over. For the next few years, she grappled with her sense of self and her relationship with drinking.

Then, she decided to give sobriety a "second crack".

Now, a decade on, she's updated her book — renamed Higher Sobriety — to paint a fuller picture of that time.

Living a double life

Growing up in the 80s in Scotland — where, she jokes, not drinking was punishable by death — Jill had her first drink at 13.

She hoped it would make her more confident and less beholden to her anxiety.

"In the early days, I really loved the idea of alcohol," she says.

"It was freeing; it was liberating. It felt like I could be a more open version of myself."

Jill Stark was the 'poster girl for sobriety'. Then her drinking problem returned (2)

She first ventured to Australia as a backpacker in 2001, and moved to Melbourne permanently in 2003.

Binge drinking accompanied her, as her journalism career took off.

"I had a complete double life," she explains.

"I was literally winning awards for writing about Australia's binge drinking culture, and then on the weekends, I was writing myself off."

But the crutch she'd been relying on began to falter.

"Alcohol is a terrible therapist. It might take the edge off, but the next morning those edges are sharper, and they cut you deeper," she says.

"The sense of regret and dread and shame, wondering what you did and what you said — that started to get more and more profound."

It was a particularly crippling hangover on New Year's Day2011that pushed her to "get onto dry land for a little while".

She began with three months of sobriety in 2011. It was a prospect that seemed daunting at first, but eventually stretched out to over a year and inspired her first book.

In 2013, "quit lit" was in its infancy, and High Sobriety made a splash.

Suddenly, Jill became the yardstick for alcoholism in many circles — and somewhat of a social outcast among her old drinking buddies.

"People often ask me, 'How much were you drinking when you quit?', because people want to place their drinking on this continuum. They want to know if my drinking was better or worse than theirs. They want to know if I was an alcoholic, if I had to go into rehab," she says.

"One [friend] in particular said to me that I was judging the way that they drank because I used to drink like them."

Meanwhile, as Jill's success grew, she was forced to reckon with old wounds.

"I was literally living my best life and had this dream book and my dream job — I had everything I'd ever wanted. But then quickly, things kind of fell apart," she says.

Her drinking became less moderate. Soon, the big nights and wretched hangovers were back.

"Alcohol does not remove your problems; in many ways, it illuminates them.

"It shines a flashlight on the things that perhaps you were too scared to look at," she says.

So, in 2019, Jill gave up her "old mate booze" for good.

"There's a certain amount of grief that comes from giving up alcohol and saying goodbye to this part of yourself that you identified with so strongly," she says.

"Drinking gave me that sense of belonging … so giving that up was a process of realising that I don't actually need the approval of anyone else to live my life. The only approval that really matters is my own."

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An Australian obsession

Jill has written a lot about her experience of drinking culture, both in Scotland and Australia.

Only when she quit, she says, did she realise her motivators for drinking were "red herrings".

"I didn't really need alcohol for confidence or to fit in, it's just the way that we've been conditioned," she says.

In 2021, an international survey found Australians were the heaviest drinkers in the world, getting drunk about 27 times a year. That's almost double the global average.

Sociologist and associate professor at La Trobe University Sarah MacLean says drinking has traditionally held a "central place" in Anglo Australian culture.

"Alcohol was certainly in the past and still for many people continues to be an important way of signalling that they're part of a social group, and it's really kind of knitted into many of the events that we celebrate as Australians," she says.

"There's a lot of pressure to drink, and the alcohol industry is using every single opportunity that it has to promote its products."

Jill Stark was the 'poster girl for sobriety'. Then her drinking problem returned (3)

Despite her openness about her struggles with alcohol, Jill doesn't call herself an alcoholic.

"We sort of think that we are either a healthy drinker or an alcoholic, and there's nothing in between," she says. "We get bogged down in labels that I don't think are necessarily that helpful.

Dr MacLean agrees that the term can be stigmatising.

"Alcohol researchers tend to talk about people being alcohol dependent rather than alcoholic, because it comes with a lot of baggage," she says.

"[Alcoholic] is a term that's useful for some people if they feel that they have little control over their alcohol consumption … but I think there are other ways of talking about alcohol that promote a capacity to change a little bit better."

Making sobriety 'less lonely'

The ranks of the "sober-curious" are growing, with pre-pandemic government statistics showing a decline in the proportion of daily and weekly adult drinkers, from 54 per cent in 2004 to 43 per cent in 2019.

Dr MacLean says there's also been a global trend in young people drinking more moderately.

"Our research would suggest that really heavy drinking, for most people, isn't the rite of passage that used to be a generation ago," she says.

"Reflecting on your own drinking and whether it's serving you well seems to have become a lot more mainstream and a lot more acceptable in Australia."

In the time she's been writing about drinking, Jill has seen a dramatic change.

"Ten years ago, I spoke to a senior member of the hospitality industry in Australia to ask him about non-alcoholic venues … I said, 'When are we going to see this in Australia?' He literally laughed at me," she says.

Now, with the proliferation of alcohol-free bars, and hashtags like #sobercurious and #soberlife trending on TikTok and Instagram, she says it's "less lonely" to quit or reduce drinking.

"Perhaps if I'd seen that when I was growing up, I wouldn't have been on the trajectory I was on," she says.

Jill Stark was the 'poster girl for sobriety'. Then her drinking problem returned (4)

Jill's local pub has even named a non-alcoholic co*cktail after her, fittingly named "the stark reality".

"That's what sobriety feels like. It's raw, it's real, it strips you bare and allows you to see yourself close up and in sharp focus," she says.

"Sometimes that can be confronting, but it also brings a sense of fulfilment and clarity.

"So yeah, having a co*cktail named after me, that does not bring me the same drama and headaches that alcohol used to, is a very nice place to be."

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Jill Stark was the 'poster girl for sobriety'. Then her drinking problem returned (2024)

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