How to not drink when everyone is drinking

By: Laura McWilliams, Industry Health

Getting comfortable being a non drinker in a room full of drinkers takes time. It can be intimidating to just jump right in there alone. If there is a friend, coworker, family member, sponsor, or other member of your recovery group who you trust and can ask to join you on a few outings, that’s perfect. Do it! For lots of people, though, that isn’t an option. On my very first time out sober, I think it was day 1 or 2, I went to a going away dinner for a friend at a nice restaurant. It was with her parents, who are not big drinkers, so I wasn’t expecting it to be an issue. I arrive a teensy bit late, and there was already a wine glass at my place. The server had just brought the bottle of wine that they ordered and was pouring, he started pouring my glass as I was sitting down. Seriously! I put my hand up to my glass and said, no thank you, I was going to have coffee actually. It was fine, someone else poured the wine from my glass into theirs, the server took my glass away and brought coffee, no one asked why I didn’t want wine, but still. It happened, after I had spent the entire drive over convincing myself that it would never happen. This was an odd situation to be in because it was a celebration dinner, so her parents who don’t usually drink were having wine to celebrate, and I am sure she felt very comfortable ordering a bottle because of how many times she and I had killed a bottle of wine at dinner. But anyway, I had my coffee- which was super helpful, i’ll get into that later, and I had an amazing meal, and I didn’t have to worry about drinking at all. I know that sounds crazy, with the wine on the table and the people drinking it around me, but not drinking was incredibly liberating. At a usual dinner, I would have had so much of my attention focused on that bottle, on my glass, on how fast I was drinking compared to everyone else, on how soon I could pour more into my glass, on the level of wine in the bottle, whether it would be appropriate to order another. Instead, I focused on the people around me and the conversation, and the fact that the server and I had chatted a bit on some dating site before he had disappeared out of nowhere (awkward). I got to participate, I got to be present. I did not have any desire to drink that night, the only feelings I had were mild uncomfortability, and freedom.

Before I get too sidetracked, let’s talk coffee. Dude, coffee helped. I am only now starting to wean myself off of an afternoon coffee habit that started in early sobriety, but it was totally worth it. You know that feeling, yes you do, of just wanting something? Anything? Well, coffee was that thing for me. And cigarettes and sugar, but that’s another story. Coffee is a drug, it is a stimulant, it alters the way that you feel. When you go from altering the way that you feel everyday to altering the way that you feel never, it is a harsh transition. Coffee is a way to help soften that. There is a reason that you see coffee at every meeting you go to, no matter what program- we are used to a feeling, and getting to have a little bit of that feeling sometimes without having to partake in a real mind altering is nice. It’s comforting. If the caffeine is too much for you, order a decaf. It still works.

One of the great prizes of sobriety is that you get little treats now. This was a revelation to me, after years of trying to diet my way out of hating myself, to sit down at a table with friends who all order cocktails and beers, and I order an americano and a piece of cherry pie. Am I feeling left out or deprived? No way! I’m stoked! I can see the faces of the people around me rethinking their orders. Everyone is jealous when my coffee and pie arrive.

Feeling like you are treating yourself is an important part of maintaining this lifestyle. When you go out, don’t get a water, get a drink! It doesn’t have to be coffee. Pick something nice, something exciting. I very rarely find myself at a bar, restaurant, anywhere that doesn’t have at least one nice non alcoholic selection. Sparkly water with a lime or with bitters, soda, espresso, tea, maybe even a virgin cocktail or two on the menu? The world is really catching up. My favorite place in Bellingham, where I live, has a few non alcoholic mixed drinks on the menu, and they change them seasonally and they are delicious. And they cost $3.50! The bill at the end of a sober night out is almost worth the whole thing. I often get food, a drink, maybe even dessert and I spend less than I would have if I had gotten a few drinks. It’s fabulous. And then I drive myself home.

Find yourself something nice to drink and drink it and order another drink and drink it and keep repeating until you feel like going home. I can tell you from experience that very, very few people are going to ask you what you are drinking. Seriously, I know you think that you are going to have to explain yourself over and over but you won’t. For the most part, people are only worried about themselves. They super don’t care what you are drinking. And the act of having a beverage will help you to feel like you are participating in the social event. Unless you are at something super rowdy, chances are that people came there to do things other than just drink, having a drink is only part of the experience. So you have your drink. It’s like this: a group of people walk into a bar, one by one they order what they want, pay the bartender, take their drink and go sit down or play pool or mingle or whatever. It’s really that simple. Most of the people ordered booze. You did not. They didn’t notice.

Be kind to yourself when you want to go home early, because you will. I love going home early these days, so much so that I have to try to stay out. I would so much rather be home with my book or tea and netfix than out on the town. Such a stark difference. Before, I would have sworn up and down that my going out all the time wasn’t so much about drinking, I just liked getting dressed up and going out to be social with people or see live music, or whatever. But the truth shines through- I don’t want to go out anymore. Hardly ever. And if I do, I have a really good reason like a birthday or a holiday. I have not only lost a lot of my need to live a life that is visible to others, but I have lost a lot of patience for how people act when they are drinking. They are super annoying. I know that people say this all the time,  that once you are sober drunk people are the worst,  because it’s freaking true. I can so, so tell when someone I know well has had a drink or two. And the conversation at a table of people who have all been drinking? Don’t even get me started. They will not shut up! And they say the stupidest things over and over and over. I remember a time when I would wait my turn to give my opinion on whatever idiotic topic was on the table, and now I have to try really hard not to say- you are an idiot or that’s the stupidest thing I have ever heard or please stop talking to me. I think about saying at least one of those things almost every time I am out at a bar. Seriously- people, men and women, wonder why they never meet anyone when they go out to a bar, that is why. Drunk people come up to hit on me and I can’t even. Like, I can’t even.

Being sober in a bar is a whole different world. I notice being noticed now in a way I never used to. I always wondered why no one seemed to notice me when I was out. I spent a lot of years dressing up and going out and being as visible as possible trying to connect with someone, it was so hard to fail at that for so long. Like, what is wrong with me? Well, I was hiding myself, for one thing. Living in hiding, so unhappy and depressed and self critical and critical of everyone. I worked hard at not being noticed, and I wasn’t. It’s very different now. Being present and engaged makes people take notice of you. There is something really special about being the only not drunk person in a place- you are the hottest, for sure. People don’t realize, or don’t care, how much they lose control over how they act or look or carry themselves when they are drinking. I remember last new year's eve, by the end of the night I was the only sober person in the place, for sure, and I could tell that I carried myself differently than everyone else. I made eye contact with people and they followed me around. I was still pretty, with perfect lipstick, and articulate. And then I drove myself home. No, seriously.

Heading into the holidays, there are going to be parties to attend. Family parties, work parties, friend parties. You are going to not drink at any of them, when in the past you would have drank at all of them, right? So everyone is going to notice? Not unless you want them to! You can totally fake your way through a party, and if you are super new to being sober- do it! You are vulnerable enough without having to explain how or why or when you quit drinking to a bunch of drunk people at a party. No go. I always say that a baby sobriety is something to be protected, not flung about and defended. Holiday parties are an excellent example of this. Put sparkling water or cider in your wine glass. Make yourself a virgin mojito. Fill your glass with something delicious and lie if you need to. You can save the world with your sobriety story later. Right now, just stay safe. Wear something fabulous, bring a spectacular dish, prepare a story about something exciting that is going on in your life. Use these things as your distractions. As your conversation starters. I know that it feels like all eyes are on your sparkling water and that everyone is talking about it when you walk away but they really aren’t. If you show up confident and own it, you will slide through no prob. If a few fibs are in order- tell em. If you need to pretend not to hear someone when they ask what you are drinking- do it.

It’s a big, scary world out there. There is no doubt of that. There are people who are going to give you a hard time, there are people who are going to not want you, there are people who are going to disappoint you with their behavior. The only thing that you can do is not be one of those people. Don’t give yourself a hard time. Love and respect yourself. And make sure your behavior is aligned with your values at all times. The world will respond accordingly.

Laura Mcwilliams