It was my first experience being among people at a gathering where drinking alcohol would be assumed, almost mandatory. This was also my first experience with people that had no idea I quit drinking, had no idea of my disease of alcoholism, and certainly had no idea of the roller coaster of a life I had lived in the past year. This was my first time being with co-workers at a social happy hour and work/dinner conferences since getting sober. My brain started to worry days ahead of time. My default way of thinking started my racing patterns long before I should have been worried about the event. My past habits, dysfunctional thinking, and excessive thoughts caused me to fixate on a tiny event in my future that should not have even been a thought in my mind.
As the first day of conferences wound down that afternoon, my coworkers and I all went back to our rooms to take off our work attire and get ready for the upcoming dinner. Shortly after getting to my room, a co-worker texted the group. “Meet at the bar in 15 minutes…I’m buying the first round.” Three others in our group replied. “Hell yeah!” “I’ve been craving a beer all afternoon.” “Let’s get our drink on!” I instantly started to worry. Should I reply? I wondered if I should go. Maybe I should just drink. No one in my personal life would have to know anything about it. I impatiently and anxiously paced around my hotel room. I finally texted the group after many crazy thoughts spun through my mind.
I don’t drink, but I’ll be there.
When I got down to the bar, three of my coworkers were already straddling stools with cold draft beers in front of them. There was a seat open, so it would have been awkward if I didn’t sit next to them. The draft beer handles were right in front of me, just sort of teasing me. The smell of beer, the sight of frosty-cold glasses, the sounds of socializing, the bar stools clattering, and the hustle and bustle of a happy hour filled my senses. My out-of-town coworkers were ready to let their guards down because they were in a hotel with a free night’s stay, a free meal with an open bar, and only some stress-free, boring meetings to attend the next day.
So I sat down at the bar with my heart racing. I didn’t know what I was going to say. The bartender came up to me and asked what I wanted. I said, “Do you have any N.A. beer?” He said, “Heineken 0.0.” I said, “Great. I’ll have that.”
I stared straight ahead, afraid to look at my co-workers. I waited for the comments. The remarks. The questions. The weird looks.
I grabbed my beer after the bartender put it down, and I took a nice big swig like I would have if it was a regular cold beer. One guy asked, “How does the N.A. Heineken taste? I’ve seen it, but have not tried any N.A. beer before.” I responded, “It doesn’t taste too bad – pretty close to regular Heineken actually.” The other guy quietly asked, “No drinking tonight?” I simply said, “I’m taking a break from drinking.” He responded, “That’s cool. I wish I could do that.” The third guy didn’t even notice. He was already on his second Jack and Coke, and he was talking too much to notice or care.
Just, like that – in approximately 30 seconds – it was over.
I was worried about that moment for days prior, worried about it for hours leading up to this event, worried about what I was going to say, worried about what to do and how to act. While in my hotel room, just five minutes prior, I was petrified about even going down to the bar at all. I was anxiously making my mind race, getting nervous and unsteady over something that lasted half a minute. And my coworkers didn’t even care one ounce about what I was drinking. They didn’t even flinch when I said, “I am taking a break from drinking.” Other people throughout the larger crowd and around the bar area – all with some type of alcoholic drink in their hands – couldn’t even tell that I was holding a N.A. Heineken in the green bottle.
I ended up having a couple N.A.’s and having good, normal conversations with my coworkers just like I would have if I had been drinking. There was nothing different, weird, or difficult about it.
After happy hour, the entire group went into another room for dinner where there was an open bar and a buffet-style meal. The guys I was with continued to hit the free drinks pretty heavily. I sat at the table and enjoyed my water.
Not one person said a word.
Not one person asked a question.
Not one person even gave a weird look.
The sights, sounds, and smells of beer, vodka and whiskey were awfully tempting. The free, open bar was awfully tempting. The out-of-town hotel stay, with no one that knew of my situation – my crazy story of anxiety, alcoholism, divorce, etc. – was awfully tempting. I was tempted to just to say, “Fuck it!” I could have drank, and my friends and family that have supported me in my recovery wouldn’t have known. I could have drank and my kids would never have known. I could have drank and never talked about this story to anyone.
I could have, but I enjoyed having this experience for the first time in 20 years – the experience of being the person that was not drinking. I observed, I listened, I sat patiently enjoying my meal, I enjoyed my dessert – not worried about the bar, the choice of drink, or keeping up with others.
I just sat and let the experience be whatever it was going to be without me consuming alcohol.
With my anxiety, this tiny situation seemed like a big ordeal to me. And my normal way of thinking and worrying slowly kept making the situation seem more dreadful, more awkward and more challenging than it ever needed to be. My brain wanted to make myself go into panic mode over the stupid small decision to drink or not to drink. My anxiety created worry inside of me – wondering what other people were going to think. My alcoholism was telling me to drink, telling me to say, “What the hell, no one will know.”
But I thought about my support group a lot in between my moments of confusion. I thought about all that I’ve learned about my disease and my mental health. I thought about all the hard work I’ve done for ten months in sobriety. And I remembered to just let the emotions come over me, to accept what I’m feeling. It’s not right or wrong – just feel it, just handle it calmly. I remembered cravings don’t last that long. I remembered, who gives a shit what anyone thinks of me?
I remembered how proud my kids are of me for not drinking.
It was a good feeling to text my support group the next day that I “survived” the incident, and that I didn’t drink. I say “survived” like it was something that was going to kill me, but I guess that’s because some days sobriety and recovery does feel like survival. I know for sure that my anxiety definitely makes it feel like sobriety will kill me! But on my challenging road of recovery from both alcoholism and poor mental health, I’ve learned how to deal with it all so much better now.
What if I had answered differently? What reactions, responses, or weird looks would I have received if, in response to the question, “So you’re not drinking tonight?” I had said, “No. It gives me crippling anxiety. No. It has caused a dark depression inside of me that I couldn’t understand. No. It’s caused me to be alone and cry myself to sleep many, many nights.”
Would someone want to talk to me much if I replied, “No. Alcohol destroyed my marriage and I’m about to be divorced,” or if I said, “Drinking alcohol put me into a dual-diagnosis treatment center and required me to undergo months and months of therapy.”
What would people think if someone struggling with anxiety – someone that used too much alcohol as his medication – really told the truth?
Do people really want to know the truth about why someone is not drinking? Or because drinking is such an accepted, normal and praised occurrence, do people not really know what else to ask?
The fear of not drinking in a room full of drinkers is real. If you are ready to make progress toward your understand that, “No one cares,” we hope you’ll join us in SHOUT Sobriety.