Did That Kombucha Break My Sobriety?

I firmly support small businesses, but this company’s “minor” brewing choice made me revisit a dark place. But I’m glad I did.

IMAGE: Unsplash — Tim-Oliver Metz

I felt an utter sense of loss similar to being told of the sudden death of a loved one. Or even as though the doctor was telling me I only had a few months to live. While feeling this immense sadness, I could also feel an anxiety attack boiling up that was just around the corner. Before it could get to that point, I laid down, closed my eyes, and did some deep breathing. This allowed me to bring some rationality into the situation while still honoring the emotions behind what caused this intense experience.

Earlier this month I was in Portland, Maine. Similar yet different to Burlington, Vermont, which is another place I love, Portland is a progressive, New England city that millennials are really growing into. Essentially, what Portland, Oregon is known for. I first visited the city the same week last year and absolutely loved it, so I decided to do an “anniversary” trip.

Everything was great. The food was incredible, the scenery was so nice, and I went to a ton of the most amazing small businesses. I got an iced drip coffee with CBD oil and the best avocado toast with hot sauce I have ever had at Little Woodfords, a workers’ rights-focused coffee shop with overt Queer, feminist connections. This is just one example of Portland at its finest. What more can you ask for?

Before going back to the place I was staying at, I decided to stop by a cute market I went to last time I was there and grab a few things. I ended up buying some chamomile tea, a can of Rwanda Bean nitro cold brew (50% of their profits made given to Rwandan coffee farmers), and a 4-pack of canned kombucha. “What a hipster” you might say, and you’re definitely not wrong.

The kombucha I got was made by a local company I was unfamiliar with. Since I drink kombucha regularly, I asked the cashier if this kombucha was alcoholic or not, to which she confirmed that it wasn’t.

For those that don’t know, kombucha has trace amounts of alcohol in it because of the natural fermentation process that makes kombucha what it is. Kombucha can be sold as a “nonalcoholic” drink because, by U.S. Federal standards that most kombucha companies follow, each bottle doesn't have more than 0.5% ABV. In March of this year, I will be two years sober. Since I would have to drink literally 10 servings of kombucha back to back to have the same buzz one would get from a single beer that is on average 5% ABV (light beers roughly 3.2% - 4.2% ABV), I am personally okay with drinking kombucha. Or so I thought.

After a refreshing 20 minute walk through the crisp winter air, I got back to my place and started to drink one of the cans of kombucha while working on something on my laptop. As I took my last sip and put the can on the table, my eyes caught the Surgeon General warning ever so clearly printed on the side. My heart sunk into my stomach with the bubbling kombucha I just consumed. I couldn’t have grabbed the can faster to make sure it was in fact the Surgeon General warning for alcoholic beverages. Indeed it was.

I turned the can around to see if I could find anything else printed on it to confirm what I already knew to be true. Sure enough, printed center bottom, it read “1% ABV” in bold.

Pacing around the room, I was frantically talking to my mom on the phone who this year will be 27 years sober herself. Getting her opinion on whether or not I just broke my sobriety meant a lot to me. I called the store I bought the kombucha from to see if I would get the same answer I got in person, which I did. Needing further input for a sense of comfort, I called my cousin in Michigan who is a brewmaster to get a left-brain perspective on the situation, like ABV numbers mentioned above. I even emailed the kombucha brand itself hoping that since it was a local company I’d get an answer back quickly.

Time was ticking and I needed to gather the situation up in one concrete conclusion so I could determine whether or not I needed to start making myself throw-up into the toilet. Besides the overall anxiety that I was already feeling from possibly relapsing, I was already imagining the texture of the avocado with the burning of the hot sauce hurting like a bitch coming back up. I got off the call with my cousin and just sat back down in the chair I was originally seated in to collect my thoughts.

No, I did not break my sobriety. I did not relapse.

My mother, a recovering or “gratefully recovered” alcoholic like I am confirmed this, and my cousin who works in the alcohol industry confirmed this as well. The kombucha company itself also got back to me saying that the federal government legally requires them to label their kombucha as “alcoholic” because it is over 0.5% ABV, though actually under 1% ABV.

The kombucha did not break my sobriety because I had no intentions to drink the still trace amounts of alcohol of this particular kombucha brand. I experienced no actual intoxication besides minor psychological ones I conjured up in a panic-ridden moment. Weeks later, I still have zero desire to drink alcohol.

About an hour or so after this incident, I both cried and laughed in relief.

You may be thinking, “Max, I knew many paragraphs ago you didn’t relapse. This whole thing was a bit dramatic, don’t you think?” My answer: Maybe a little. But that doesn’t invalidate the thoughts and feelings behind the reaction I had. My alcoholism was already a complicated version that didn’t fit the assumed or stereotypical mold of what the average person thinks an alcoholic to be. The flood of memories came back to me of this gray, yet certainly negative time I used to live my life in.

We don’t educate people enough that just because you are in college doesn’t mean that certain behavioral patterns are then no longer a cause for concern. Though I only went out to drink with friends every other weekend, sometimes two weekends in a row, every time I drank I had no “off-switch.” There was only a handful of times I remember that I didn’t black-out and make even worse decisions each time I did. It’s a truly horrifying feeling to wake up either back home, or sometimes at another person’s place, and not remember at all what happened the night before.

Trying to put the pieces together, I would have hangovers that were significantly more mentally and emotionally painful than physical on top of my already diagnosed depression and anxiety. It’s quite ironic to tell people that I stopped drinking at the age of twenty-one.

In summary, I’m glad I experienced that moment of questioning. Though it was intense and unpleasant, it made me pause for a moment and appreciate how much I like to be sober, and how serious I am in maintaining my sobriety. It reminded me how proud of myself I should be in the progress I have made from where and how I used to be, to where and how I am now.

This event reinforced that alcoholism and substance abuse are much more intricate than people make the subjects out to be. It’s not a black or white situation of “now you’re drinking” and “now you’re not.” What happened reminded me that living in the present moment while acknowledging the past and future is a concept that applies to literally all life experiences. Though silly and exaggerated in some people’s eyes, I’m glad I had the reaction I had because it shook me up a little. We take it for granted when things are going well, but sometimes we need a wake-up “moment” to remind us of the wake-up call we put action into.

I am grateful. This is truly a feeling of content.

Also, if you run a kombucha company, local or not, just go with the 0.5% ABV everyone else follows. Humm Kombucha has “verified non-alcoholic” printed on their bottles which is awesome. Please and thank you.

(They/He/She) Queer rights, progressive politics, sex, mental health, contemplative thought, and more. Shoot me an email: mthm100@gmail.com

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