The sun is creeping slowly down to the horizon on a typical clear and dry Denver evening. On the secluded patio at the back of one of the restaurants on South Gaylord Street, the mood is festive as we are gathered for a business cocktails and appetizers event. There are several familiar faces, but many people are new to me which makes the purpose of the gathering – a meet and greet for our new team members – so very appropriate.
Everyone in attendance seems adept at balancing a plate of hors devours along with their beverage of choice and still managing to shake hands as we mingle. The women are mostly drinking wine while the men have various pint and pilsner glasses in their hands. I notice a margarita to my left and a clear cocktail garnished with fruit across the way. The setting sun highlights the condensation drips weaving slowly down the sides of the beautiful and shapely glasses. Classy. Elegant. The essence of adulthood.
The server politely interrupts the conversation I am enjoying with five of my colleagues to hand me the drink I ordered. She presents me my soda water with a lime in a 32 ounce red plastic cup with Coca Cola scribbled on the side and a straw sticking out of the top. Nice. She might as well stand on a table to get the attention of everyone in the room and announce that I am a pathetic loser who can’t handle his booze. I’m surprised she doesn’t bring me a bib and some crayons I can use to complete the maze on my kids menu.
I notice a few quizzical looks but receive no comments from my new friends about my tub-of-bubbles as I use both hands to manage it. The fact is no one much cares what I am drinking, but that’s not the point. In early sobriety, this scene is devastating to my confidence and my resolve to abstain. If you’ve never been there – if you don’t have an addiction to alcohol – this all might seem trivial and insignificant. But if alcohol has ingrained itself as a key component of your life and you are trying to leave it behind, you know the shameful feeling of inadequacy and defeat that a jumbo red plastic pizza parlor Coke cup brings.
Drinking for the non-drinker in a social setting where adult beverages are free-flowing is hard – especially when the non-drinker is new to non-drinking. On several of my failed attempts to quit drinking in years passed, I strategized about fitting-in on boozy occasions. For a while I even tried to become a non-alcoholic beer connoisseur (that was a disaster). I scoured the recovery community on the internet and found little or no help. So, now that I have been sober for a while and my brain has adjusted to my new reality, I offer here the advice I so desperately longed for when my sobriety was as comfortable as sandpaper underwear.
Tip 1: You’re Not as Strong as You Think You Are
Early sobriety is much more a mindset than it is a period of time. Crossing the threshold into something more solid and comfortable and less about struggling and battling to abstain required a change. It required a change in the way my brain understood alcohol and its role in my life. This topic alone is huge and daunting and will require numerous posts and thousands of words to explain properly. For now, understand that I had to convert my belief that alcohol delivered joy, relaxation, pleasure and stress-relief to an understanding that there are no redeeming qualities to alcohol in any quantity ever…unless I am performing emergency surgery and I need to pour whiskey into my victim’s lacerated abdomen before I try to figure out what his appendix looks like.
Booze is a poison to my brain. Period. Considering moderation management as a solution lets doubt about the evils of alcohol creep in. I now firmly believe that moderate alcohol consumption is as good an idea as trying to figure out how much antifreeze I can drink without dying. It is pointless, super-dangerous and counterproductive to my goal of a long and happy life.
In early sobriety I was jealous of people who could drink socially and only have a couple. Now I secretly, privately pity people who drink in any quantity or frequency (I guess not privately anymore).
What does my change of mindset have to do with drinking for the non-drinker in a social setting? Until my perspective on alcohol had fully transitioned, my culture and environment were my enemy. For a while, I just had to avoid situations where everyone else would be drinking. Kind of a long while, actually. My wife, Sheri, was very supportive as we declined invitations to parties she really wanted to attend.
I’ll never forget the date night we spent at a grocery store. We left the house for a dinner at a nice restaurant. As we stopped by the market to grab something, I expressed apprehension about sitting in a restaurant full of adults consuming adult beverages. We wandered through the grocery store aisles for an hour. Sheri could sense that being immersed in drinking culture that night would have been a mighty blow to my psyche, so she led a guided tour through the fancy cheeses, initiated a debate about the best brand and heat level of salsa and encouraged me to find a wierd smoked or pickled meat for the kids and I to taste-test the next day. We sat by the Platte river across from REI in LoDo and ate grapes and cheese and crackers washed down with a bottle of Black Cherry sparkling water. I didn’t feel like I was missing out on anything that night. My wife made sure of that.
The point is, we are very weak and vulnerable in early sobriety. Just like you wouldn’t try to run a marathon the day after knee surgery, give yourself time – a serious amount of time – even a year or so if necessary – before returning to a routine that finds alcohol literally around every single corner. Act like a shaved cat for a while and hide in the shadows and lick your wounds.
Tip 2: Confide in Your Inner Circle
I play soccer on Thursday nights with a great bunch of guys. I attend the Indy 500 with friends from college. I bring my kids to see their grandparents several times a year. These events have two things in common: I wasn’t avoiding them regardless of how new I was to sobriety, and they all involve lots and lots of booze.
In order to survive sober, I had to tell my family and close friends I wasn’t drinking. At first, I didn’t elaborate. When questioned, I just said, “I feel better when I don’t drink,” and left it at that. My inner circle was full of curiosity and confusion, but for the most part, they kept any questions to themselves. Their respect and patience has been rewarded as they now know my full story – I just wasn’t ready to talk about it in early sobriety.
I still played soccer and even hung with my friends in the bar after the game. I still attended the Indy 500 and drank water and pretended to have a good time. I enjoyed time with my family and took deep breaths and prayed through beer-filled afternoons, cocktail hours and wine-flowing dinners.
As they say in the recovery community, I white knuckled it. I struggled and fought and clawed because these events and these people were worth it to me. There were many other events and invitations that I avoided because, in early sobriety, loosening my grip and letting blood flow through my knuckles in the comfort of my own home was a lot more peaceful and sustainable.
Tip 3: Never, Ever Apologize for Your Drink Order
“I’ll just have some soda water with maybe a lime wedge, please,” I whispered sheepishly to the seemingly judgemental server. In early sobriety I remember being terrorized by the hideous question, “Can I bring you something to drink?” I wondered what the server was thinking about me – what conclusions had he drawn about my pathetic existence – as he wasted the bartender’s time with my embarrassing excuse for a beverage order.
What I have learned might surprise you. The reaction of servers when I don’t drink when I drink ranges from ambivalence to enthusiastic relief. In some cases, the server simply doesn’t have the energy and human curiosity to care. More often than not, however, when I place my non-alcoholic drink order I instantly become the server’s favorite guest at the table. She immediately votes me least likely to be 90 minutes and three drinks from becoming a complete asshole. I become the go-to guy for questions about when we are ready to order our meal, how our food tastes or if we are interested in dessert.
Servers have the highest annoyance tolerance in our society. They don’t think our slurred jokes are funny or our impatient demands are our right as the patron. Servers aren’t trying to make friends with or judge their guests, and they know for a fact that the customer is not always right. They are trying to get through their shift and survive on tips. Sure, sometimes drunks tip big, but more often than not, they forget to tip altogether or can’t do basic math through their haze of booze and attitude.
For a server with his hands full having a long and grinding shift, my drink order makes me a hero. I have learned a lot in sobriety. I now place my drink order boldly and with confidence and, most importantly, without apology. I ask for soda with a lime. I ask for it to be served on the rocks and in a glass because I prefer that to drinking from a plastic cup. I ask for a tall rocks glass or a beer pint or something similar and I do so in a full-throated voice and with pride and appreciation.
If this all seems ridiculous and weak to you, then go enjoy your “normal,” non alcohol-warped brain and leave us alone. For me and millions of alcoholics like me, the terror of living alcohol-free in an alcohol soaked world is real and scary and potentially deadly if not treated with thought, planning and respect.
I have on more than one occasion relapsed and returned to old habits not because of cravings or lack of willpower but because of social pressure and my need to belong. Tribalism, cultural norms and the expectations of our heritage all stem from the need to belong. The intense desire of us pariah alcoholics to need to find our place in our boozy society is nothing more than a longing for belonging, too.
When I was in early sobriety, I needed to hide in the shadows and heal. When I had to face my drinking culture, I held my breath and prayed for strength and peace. And when I was strong enough to emerge from the shadows and order my drink with the confidence of a man who doesn’t care what anyone thinks of how he lives his life, I felt magnificent.
I used to think beer and whiskey tasted good and made me feel great. Now I know what soda on the rocks with a lime served in a tall glass has to offer my taste buds and every aspect of my sober and unashamed life.