Something I didn't take into account when I quit drinking: other people's questions! Once I slowly waded back into social situations, I realized that I had underestimated how much sobriety would come up in conversation. Even if I didn't disclose my new-found identity as a sober citizen, I would inadvertently stand out because I wasn't drinking at events. The truth is, our society has normalized drinking so much that teetotalers do stick out. Whether or not you want them to, people will ask about your drinking - or your not-drinking.
The certainty that someone will ask you about such a private, sometimes painful, situation can be a panic-inducing suggestion to someone who is newly sober. If you're reading this and feel the pit of your stomach turn to lead at the prospect of having to talk to a co-worker or family member about your sobriety, you aren't alone. The aim of this blog is to be frank about what it's like to quit and, in doing so, to de-mystify the process for those who aren't afflicted.
So what DO you say when people ask about your sobriety? Or ask about your stint in rehab? What if someone comes to you to ask about advice for a friend, having heard that you struggled with addiction? What if someone, well-meaning or not, outs you as being a 12 Step Program member? When I decided to write about disclosing your status as someone in recovery, it occurred to me that consulting with (for lack of a better word) non-addicts would be a way to learn more information about why people tend to pry about this subject.
I conducted an informal poll on Facebook - hey, I'm a comedian, not a sociologist - in order to dredge up some questions that people might be too afraid to ask. As I'm online friends with hundreds and hundreds of comedians and a good deal of sober people, I thought I would get a few jokey questions and some insightful commentary from sober people. Instead, I was blown away by the thoughtful questions that my non-addict friends and acquaintances posted - both on my original status and via private message. In fact, each personal typically asked four or five questions!
As I mentioned before, I am not a therapist, counselor, psychiatrist or any kind of -ologist. I majored in Theater in college and (due in some part to my own substance abuse) barely passed high school. I am primarily an alcoholic but my heavy drinking caused me to use drugs frequently, too. These questions are mostly framed for alcoholism - other kinds of substance addicts, feel free to write me if I've gotten anything wrong. As Craig Ferguson said, "I'm not an expert on anything but my own recovery." Hopefully by tackling some basic questions, you, the Sober Person, will begin to come up with some stock responses and you, the Sober Person's Conversation Partner, will have a bit of compassion.
Here are some questions my wonderful friends came up with, ranked in order of appearance in conversations:
1) Why don't you drink?
Wouldn't think this would be number one, would you? Neither did it. I'm going to take a bit to answer this one because I was so surprised at how often I was asked WHY I quit drinking. In the past, whenever I encountered a sober person at a drinking event, I approached them as if they were a dangerous creature. I was so in denial about my own drinking problem that I didn't consider myself an alcoholic, so being around someone who was sober made me feel deeply self-conscious. Often, people react defensively about YOUR drinking problem because your sobriety inadvertently makes them question their behavior. So in a sense, their adverse reaction is impersonal.
What motivates people asking such a personal question, right out of the gate? Sometimes people are curious about having met an alcoholic or addict in real life because they haven't (to their knowledge) met one. I naively thought that to be a Real Alcoholic or Genuine Drug Addict that you were someone who had lost everything - no job, no family, no friends, living on the street. (Not only was I in denial, it was reductive to think that you had to look like a Dickensian street urchin to have a substance abuse problem. In reality - loss is a lot more complicated than that.)
Sometimes people are asking because they have family members, friends, co-workers who have a problem and they aren't sure how to help them, so their perceived rudeness actually has more to it. What if you DO want to be honest with someone who asks? I'd just say, "I can't really talk about it now, but I'd love to tell you more later." That way, the person may understand that their question was inappropriately timed but won't feel totally rebuked.
Taking into account how difficult it is to even address your own problem, you DO NOT have to use this impromptu teaching opportunity to explain all things recovery to a near-stranger. Nor do you have to explain it to people close to you, not right away, anyway. The way you talk about your sobriety is up to you. What are the real world responses me and my friends have used? Some people, when pressed, say "I can't", "I'm just not drinking today" or "I have an allergy" to ward off any further questions. Only under duress will I, personally, say the dreaded "recovering alcoholic" line to cut the conversation short. I try not to bust out the big guns unless someone's truly being rude.
2) Do you mind if I drink (/smoke cigarettes/do drugs in proximity to you)?
This is a bit of a loaded question - sometimes it is asked by someone who is genuinely concerned about your comfort level, other times the person might as well have said, "Whoops, I'm drinking a giant margarita in front of you! And I'm going to keep doing it! Does that make you feel terrible? I'm kind of sorry!" Unfortunately, people who are defensive about their drinking might be kind of shitty to you. (A mantra a sober friend mentioned is "bless them, change me." What a novel concept - not to feel resentment towards that person but to instead encourage yourself to react positively! Even if you aren't religious, this notion seems pretty enlightened to me. A mantra more my speed would be "don't let the bastards get you down.")
I digress. The short answer is "no, it doesn't bother me. My drinking problem is only a problem if I'm drinking." The long answer has to do with how people are feeling about being sober. To a person who is a week into quitting drinking, the work party they're standing around at might feel as comfortable as a medieval torture device. (This one, perhaps?) To someone who has twenty-six years of sobriety, it might be laughable (to them) to think that you having a glass of champagne at an engagement party would offend them. So anyway, it's nice to be asked but don't make a scene of it and put the sober person on the spot.
It's also worth mentioning that some people who quit drinking don't necessarily quit doing everything else. When I was a teenager and older folks quit, I noticed they started smoking more marijuana. People nowadays have the option to consume edibles, smoke oil, etc. to relax. I personally don't do the marijuanas, since I'm an all-or-nothing person - any kind of fun substance would ship me right back to Messville. Some sober people don't quit cigarettes. The stereotype of people smoking outside of churches/VA halls/rec centers because they're trying not to drink is fairly accurate, but nowadays people mostly vape. It is funny to me to see a gathering of world-weary, grizzled-looking men standing around, smoking whirring and blinking electronic devices. So futuristic!
3) How did you quit?
When I was ready to quit, I was one hundred percent embarrassed, physically wounded (sick as a dog, bruised, couldn't hold down food) and generally exhausted by having done the same things over and over again. I was so desperate for a change that I went to a 12 Step meeting. If you know me well, you know I loved drinking. It was my identity, pastime and life source. Never in a MILLION YEARS would I have envisioned myself going to a group.
The only reason I had any familiarity with 12 Step groups was because, before leaving Arkansas, I had called around trying to find resources for a fellow alcoholic. The people I spoke with on the phone were so nice and ready to help that I thought they might be able to help me in Chicago, too. Out of PURE luck, I went to a meeting in a sunny church (a CHURCH!) on the north side and it changed my life. The meeting itself didn't fix me - it started a chain reaction of healthier behavior.
Initially, I went to four or five meetings. Then it dwindled to about three. Now I feel pretty good with one, though I will occasionally pop into an extra meeting if I'm in a bad spot. Some people, many years into sobriety, go to meetings every day. They don't go daily because they have shaking hands and feel like relapse is around the corner - those daily meeting attenders told me that they should be in a meeting as often as they drank. If you drank daily, why not sit your ass at a meeting? Makes sense to me.
Unfortunately, sitting at a meeting doesn't grant you serenity via osmosis, as much as it can feel like it will in those early meetings. In addition to a few meetings a week, I got a sponsor (thanks, M, for being my first sponsor!) and talked to her. I then did a terrifying thing and introduced myself to other sober people and let them call me ON THE PHONE. I asked other sober people (note: everything I knew who was sober, not just 12 Step-goers) if I could call them, and did. I went out for coffee with sober people and - very unlike me - told them about how I feeling scared, alone and still embarrassed.
If you're reading this and thinking, "well, she went to a 12 Step group and that's absolutely not for me" that is absolutely fine. This blog is not a pamphlet for those kinds of meetings and I have my own issues with the big, alliterative, popular group you're thinking of right now and the next question is devoted to those. Who you talk to and where you go when you first get sober doesn't matter - what mattered (for me) is this realization: reaching out and asking for help (still not my favorite thing) is the key to getting out of your self-absorbed, glitchy loop of self-defeating behavior. Even if you are in an online support group or communicating long distance with one single person, having an immediate connection with another person will begin to fill the void that you were trying to fill with drugs, sex, the plethora of risky behaviors you previously deemed enjoyable. Recovery is a process but you gotta start somewhere.
4) Yeah, yeah, yeah but what about God being a big part of, like -- how do you even BEGIN to navigate the idea of a Higher Power when you're not --
A lot of people are turned away from that big popular, alliterative 12 Step Group because of the mention of God in all of its literature. If you're an LGBTQ+ person whose religious family was hard on you, for example, or you're Jewish or Muslim or Buddhist and you can't get down with all the blue-eyed, blonde-haired Jesus talk that can come from groups like that, don't write me off yet. I was raised an atheist and had little to no religious influences in my life. I am not even a spiritual person now, dammit.
Without giving my own ironic sermon about why the idea of a higher power doesn't bother me, I will explain it this way: the main book (the Big Book, as it's called) talks about finding God as you understand him/her/them and instructs you to turn to a power greater than yourself. The idea behind this is that you, a solitary, independent person, have tried to tackle sobriety on your own and it hasn't worked. Addiction is often fueled by shame and secrecy. The book is asking you to try, just experimentally, looking outside of yourself for the answers to why you're having such a problem. This is revolutionary thinking for some people - that you don't have to shoulder the burden of your all-consuming addiction by yourself.
That said, a lot of people do use the Higher Power to mean their idea of god/gods/God. If they don't choose a god-type thing, they choose their Higher Power to be that feeling you get when you meditate, that kind of runner's high feeling you get when you're feeling serene as hell, or whatever feeling you have when you're out in nature, off your cell phone, and the world gets quiet for just a moment. Hell, my dear friend chose Harry Potter (HP!) as their higher power because the acronym fit.
You don't have to be a religious or spiritual person to attend those meetings BUT if anyone is mean to you about not being religious or being LGBTQ or talking too little or talking too much or not subscribing to whatever THEIR idea of a sober person is, switch meetings. Don't feel like opening up was a mistake - it wasn't. Humans (especially people in recovery) are flawed and damaged and selfish creatures and this is all rough stuff, especially at first. There are many alternatives you can try. There are Buddhism-focused recovery groups (Refuge Recovery comes to mind), local and online secular meetings (SMART Recovery) and even a group called Quad-A, which uses the tried and true 12 Step program but takes the religious elements out. There is recovery (and trauma-informed) yoga, mindfulness meditation meetings geared toward recovery and a wealth of crisis hotlines that can give you tips on where to go next.
Reaching out and building a network will make your new lifestyle way more palatable. I was blown away by how generous, open and vulnerable sober people were towards me - you will be surprised to find that you may already have friends in recovery that would be happy to help you.
5) Was it lonely when you quit? How did your relationships change? How can I be helpful without being intrusive?
I lump all of these together because after people have asked why I don't drink and if I go to meetings and the whole Higher Power thing, they usually find a fairly breezy way to ask how I'm doing. They're also, I think, asking what it's like, hypothetically, to be a sober person, perhaps because they're considering it or because maybe they know someone who has a drinking problem and want to talk about it. They're asking probing questions because the idea of not drinking is so hard to envision for them. Again, having drank from sometime in the middle of high school to age 29, I never thought I'd be in the position I am now. I'm relieved that I'm not a miserable alcoholic. I'm happy so I'm happy to talk about it.
Now, in my continuing trend of honesty, let's get to the unpleasant stuff: Immediately after I quit, I cried a lot. I slept a lot. I gained weight. I binged Netflix. I consumed media about sober people and judged them and felt like I'd never have what they had. I got phone numbers from nice sober people and didn't call them. Broke and a mess, I had to drop out being in the bridal party for a friend's wedding, out of state. I lost friends. I was short-tempered and cryptic to my boyfriend. Feeling raw and misunderstood and unloved, I had an emotional affair. My boyfriend and I broke up and lived in seething, bitter silence with each other. In general, just because I'd quit drinking didn't mean I'd magically shed the shitty alcoholic behaviors - a tendency towards secrecy, torrential, stormy feelings of shame, avoidance of confrontation due to an inability to accept responsibility. Even with support from sober friends and my family, I was crushingly lonely. I'd spent so much time at bars and drinking at home that I had no idea what to do with my time. I sunk into a bad depression and couldn't even self-medicate like I used to.
However, slowly but surely, things improved. After the nightmarish but short-term effects of withdrawal followed by a month of tossing and turning, I slept like a baby. I lost weight. My skin cleared up. I woke up each day feeling energetic. Waves of relief that I didn't have to be a drunk mess caused me to have more good days than bad. Clear-headed and for the first time ever, RELIABLE, I began my job search in earnest. A perfect angel/college friend recommended me for a job. I aced the interviews and started my first, earnest, Big Girl job, with insurance and benefits. I took on side gigs to begin to rebuild my barren bank account. I saved money to pay for a therapist. My boyfriend and I saw a couples therapist and got back together. I went to meetings. The comedy show I was producing, despite my shaky, sober sets, flourished. I got accepted to festivals, took time off work, and went to them. I performed at comedy clubs. Friendships that I thought were lost were resumed. Little by little, with luck, hard work, and a good support system, I got my shit together
Understand that recovery is a long, messy process. Addicts tend to be obsessive, driven people, which means that we also want instant results. Addicts want that delicious, instantaneous gratification that we got from drugs and drinking. Sometimes you don't even know what you want, since everything is different now. As a sober person, figure out what works for you and stick to it. Forgive yourself a bit - this is uncharted territory. As I tell my friends who are really struggling, throw everything you've got at sobriety - try everything and put in all the effort to really make it stick and if you mess up, don't be so hard on yourself that you regress back to where you were before.
To friends, family, coworkers of someone who is newly sober - treat them like a human. Ask how they're doing in the same way that you always would. If you see someone visibly upset in public, write them privately to see if they're okay. Sometimes processing emotions, early in sobriety, can be a bit of a mess. At the same time, being confronted in public can be bad, too. Honestly, give your friends a wide berth when they're newly sober. If you find out that one of your friends is relapsing, reach out them in the way you normally would, or let them reach out to you. It's a dicey thing to try and be supportive but not intrusive - this is something I'm learning as I go along, too.
As for being supportive in other ways, having a supply of non-alcoholic drinks for your sober friends is always such a nice gesture. If you're going out, suggest a coffee shop or restaurant before your friend has to be the one that declines a bar invite. A lot of times in early sobriety, you just want to fit in, so if you know your entire friend group is going to a bar and you aren't sure if your sober friend would be comfortable, just talk to them separately, casually. I'd make moves to include them in your regular plans, just treat them gently. If you're planning big parties, especially for work or family events that are highly structured, consider scheduling a natural break in activities so that people who don't drink can leave before the evening partying begins. These subtle choices that take people in recovery into account will be massively appreciated. Overall, remember that recovery is different for everyone - when in doubt, be respectful and ask questions.