Even as a trained sober coach and someone with almost six years of sobriety under her belt, there are still situations that feel awkward to me as a sober person, and last weekend I experienced one of them.
I went to a birthday dinner for someone I adore. In addition to my husband and I, the birthday guy and wife, there were two additional couples that joined. I was only slightly acquainted with them. We went to a great place with a beer hall-type atmosphere and sat at a long table. It was restaurant week in Chicago, so our whole table shared the pre-fixe meal. The menu included two Gruvi NA beers and an amazing zero-proof old-fashioned made with alcohol-free cinnamon whiskey. All good.
When the party guests arrived and saw my beautiful old fashioned, they asked, “Is that an old fashioned?” "Yes, it is!” I replied proudly. “It’s delicious. I don’t drink alcohol, so it’s the zero proof version.” No one heard me after I said, Yes, it’s an old fashioned. Most attendees then ordered an old fashion. I was the only one to notice my orange peel garnish compared to their dried orange and black cherry garnish. I appreciated the subtleness. My drink glassware was adult and sophisticated, unlike the plastic children’s cups I’ve been served. Also, when I ordered my second, I was confident the server heard me correctly and that it was the alcohol free version. A rookie mistake that has also happened to me is that I was served and sipped alcohol I did not ask for. The slight change of garnish was comforting and appreciated.
The other three couples participated in the wine pairing with dinner. My husband and I did not. I am okay being the only non-drinker at a table full of drinkers. I am in this position often, and it’s no big deal. In addition, on this evening, I also had my husband, who was not drinking alcohol and was in solidarity with me. Not to mention he was also the designated driver, getting up at 5:45 am for our daughter’s early morning soccer game the next day and then heading to Ireland for a big work week.
I am not an expert on other people’s drinking, but as far as I can tell, everyone was drinking "normally.” “Normal” meaning a drink or two before dinner. Three drinks of wine paired with dinner. Two or more drinks at the bar after dinner. Totaling seven drinks or so in five hours. The CDC defines this as binge drinking or excessive drinking. As a drinker, I would define this as just starting to hit my stride. I am not here to judge other people’s drinking. Trust me. I never want the spot light on my drinking either. Not as a drinker and not as a sober person. I am not here to point fingers or count drinks. The rounds of drinks served with food were just very obvious in this case.
These couples had 80-hour work weeks, and they were looking to let off some steam on Saturday night. Alcohol was a part of the conversation. I am assuming a bit more than usual, but what do I know? The thing is, when it comes to casual conversation about alcohol, I am not into it. It repels me. The other thing is the concept of normal. Having a large percentage of the conversation be about alcohol is considered normal. As a drinker, I did all the talking, and I loved talking about alcohol. As a sober person, I have new eyes to see. I do not want to talk about what everyone was drinking, how badly everyone needs a drink, how much everyone is drinking, or exactly what each drink (that I won’t be tasting) tastes like. It doesn’t interest me. To be clear, I don’t want to do that with my own zero-proof drinks either. I want something deeper. To be fair, the party guests didn’t know each other; only the guest of honor, and conversation about alcohol seems to be an easy connector. Hence, I always used it myself to become immediately likeable at a group gathering.
I felt a bit out of place because I was a non-drinker, but I also felt out of place because I left the corporate world, and all the women in the group, except me, were in very high-up leadership positions at very well-known companies. I felt less than. I don’t know why. I am proud of my work; there’s nothing I’d rather do. I don’t think it would impress these particular people, and I like to impress. I think that was an issue for me.
It has been so long since I have been in corporate energy. I hated those corporate networking events in the past, and I wanted to drink through them because they were so out of alignment with me and my social work heart. In the past, I didn’t want to drink too much at company functions or embarrass myself, so I would drink fast and leave early to drink more in the comfort of my own home. The energy reminded me of those days. I felt repelled by that, too. Not because there was anything wrong with the crowd, but instead because of the reaction this elicited in me. I didn’t like it; it made me feel some type of way.
As a previous drinker and recovering people-pleaser, I thought it was my job to like everyone. The past me would have drank too much and made it my mission to get the most abrasive woman in the group to soften. I would spend all night trying to find a quality that I could find redeemable about her. I would want to know her story. I would have tried to take the reins of energy from her. I would have tried to get her to like me. To love me. To respect and admire me. I would try to get myself to love her. I would nearly demand it. Force it. Make it true because I willed it so. I would sink my teeth into the hardest project, person, or challenge and try to conquer it in some way. I would have taken responsibility for being the cruise ship director of this dinner party that was not my ship to sail. I was just a passenger on this boat, but drunken me would have commandeered the sails nonetheless.
I recognized these familiar patterns bubbling up within me. I chose to do something different. I decided to let it go. To let everything go. To not make it my mission to do anything to prove anything. I didn’t have to conquer anything. I didn’t have to make it my mission to get anyone to like me or demand that I like them back. I only had to take care of the way I felt inside. I prioritized myself instead. I didn’t beg for attention, affirmation, or love, as I have so many times in my past. I am proud of this change. It is still a new neuro pathway under construction after years of conditioning otherwise.
I used to feel embarrassed about being sober. I even tried to hide it. I no longer feel that way. I am proud to be sober. I want everyone to know. It ranges from inconvenient to downright offensive when people don’t know. I want to save them from embarrassment as much as I do myself.
I still struggled with responding to comments about alcohol on this celebratory night out. I don’t want to be a buzzkill. This was a lesson for me. I didn’t realize my desire to not be a buzzkill was so important until now.
For example, a conversation came up about kids.
I got asked the following questions:
What should I tell the kids when I am lying in bed, hungover?
How do you tell your kids that drinking isn’t bad but getting out of control is bad?
How do you tell your kids that alcohol isn’t bad, but too much is?
How do you tell your kids that alcohol isn’t bad but is for adults only?
Just like I didn’t want to participate in corporate networking, I also didn’t want to be the subject matter expert or school everyone on how to talk to their kids about alcohol. They weren’t really asking for my opinion. I am assuming these questions were rhetorical. They had no idea I was an actual expert on the matter. I, too, was having a Saturday night out, and although my work is my passion and it blends into my life, sobriety isn’t my only interest. I want a break from sober talk sometimes too. Especially with people who weren’t exactly asking for it.
I think people might consider filtering their words when it comes to alcohol if they knew they were in the presence of, God forbid, an alcoholic like me.
Part of me felt muzzled. One of my most dreaded feelings. I didn’t realize it at the time, but I muzzled myself for the comfort of others. Looking back, I’d like to say, “Lucky for me, I know how harmful alcohol is, and so do my kids. In fact, alcohol started to take me under, so I don’t drink anymore; I’ve never felt better, healthier, or more aligned. ” and let someone else be uncomfortable instead of me. Or maybe, “To each their own, but I want my kids to know that alcohol is the third leading preventable cause of death in the United States. I advise teaching kids the dangers of alcohol use and addiction too. I wish someone had taught me when I was young; that’s why I became a recovery coach—to change the trajectory of future generations. It’s the most important work I could do on this earth. Tell me again how things are going in the finance department."
I imagine the music stops, the forks drop, and the whole establishment looks at me like an alien just arrived at our table.
I didn’t try to get anyone to like me last Saturday. I didn’t try to own the energy in the room. I didn’t defend my sobriety or laugh along to jokes that I didn’t think were funny. I didn’t do any of that. I didn’t do any of the things I have been doing socially for decades. I wasn’t a buzzkill. I never want to be a buzzkill. Except now, after the fact, I keep thinking about it, and I feel like I wish I was a buzzkill. I wish I would have said something.
At one point, when my husband’s Gruvi NA Lager was delivered in a bright blue can with a pint glass on the side, the funniest guy at the table announced, “I thought it was a Pepsi!” and laughed. Then he repeated, “I thought it was a Pepsi!” to make sure the whole table heard him. More laughter.
When we go out, my husband typically drinks Diet Coke.
I just kept thinking, “So what if it was a Pepsi?"
The joke is on him. This sweet, funny guy would suddenly look like an A-hole, to be honest, for making fun of someone for not drinking alcohol. Someone who is giving the guest of honor a safe ride home. Someone who is supporting his wife in her struggles with alcohol addiction. Someone who is getting up at 5:45 am to take his daughter to soccer and then getting on a plane to fly to Ireland for work. Someone who is making a healthy choice for so many valid reasons. You are going to make fun of this guy? Shame on you. Maybe I am being judgy now.
I like this guy, to be clear. I don’t want him to be an A-hole, and I don’t think he really is. As a drinker, I would have done the same.
But so what if it was a Pepsi???
That’s what makes addressing your alcohol problem so hard. The social stigma of addiction and recovery was such a barrier for me, and it is for my clients too. I don’t think most of the world knows there might be someone in the group questioning their relationship to alcohol. 1 in 4 people want to drink less. Alcohol is the third preventable cause of death in the US. We are not taught that it’s ok to struggle with this or question it unless we want to quit and we want to quit for good, and if we want to quit for good, then we have to call ourselves an alcoholic and let everyone know we don’t drink and we might also be crazy. When we just start to get curious about our drinking habits, we don’t know what we want. We need some space and perhaps privacy to explore and try to figure it out. We want to practice freedom from alcohol and see how it feels. We want to keep it to ourselves because we are afraid. We are afraid we might not be able to quit, and we are afraid of what our lives will look like if we actually do. We are afraid we might have to order a Pepsi and get called out for being a loser in front of a whole table of people. We are afraid of being buzzkills.
I am 47 years old and approaching my 6th sober birthday. I’m a buzzkill, and yet I’ve never felt more alive. I've added more life to my party and more parties to my life. I am soaking up all the nectar this life has to offer. I'll tell you what no longer stings me, and that's alcohol.