Before I got sober, I couldn't envision being social without a drink in my hand. I had discovered in high school that my shyness and introversion would melt away after a drink or two.
Sometimes to disastrous results, of course. Too many times I'd hear about myself the next day and be blown away at what I'd accomplished while blacked out.)
Since that magical discovery, virtually all of my adult interactions requiring any kind of mingling with groups of people were preceded by a drink or two. Visiting with friends? Let's meet at the bar! Outdoor concert? Whiskey in purse. Theatre premiere/art reception? After party! Business networking events at hotels and city chambers? Free booze, whee!
It wasn't until I quit drinking that I realized just how intertwined socializing and drinking were for me. Even now as a person who stands on stage under bright lights and readily jokes with strangers, I realized that having to improvise conversations without being loosened up by liquor was a skill I hadn't strengthened. Same with handling Human Feelings in real time.
A sober friend explained it like this: while drinking, he had put a 2 ft distance between him and anyone else. Alcohol provided an invisible buffer, both in a physical and psychological distraction. It loosened up his thought processes and made him more likely to open up.
Not sure what to say? Go to the bar. While waiting for a drink, you have something to talk about with anyone else loitering, too. Momentary lull in the conversation? Have a few sips. Figuring out how to interact with people was an immediate problem when I quit drinking, no matter the scenario.
Even going to my first couple of 12 Step meetings as a sober person was beyond nerve-racking. While I was in an allegedly judgment-free zone, I was baffled by how people behaved. Why were people friendly? How could they laugh and be silly in such bleak circumstances?
I was too aware of noises and sounds and facial expressions that I'd undoubtedly missed as a professional drunk person. Most of my recreational events as a sober person were not exactly a nightmare, but definitely not fun.
Early on, I joked with my friends that I could do an hour and a half of any social event before I had to bolt; it was as if I had an internal timer on how much I could fake enjoying events where there was booze.
When I started a new job, two months into sobriety, they threw a surprise welcome party at the end of my first day. Everyone was quick to take a glass of wine or have a beer, mid-day, and I found myself scrambling to say anything but "I.. used'ta.. drink.. but.. now me... no.. booze... okay?"
I was also on the verge of tears because of how grateful I was to be employed by such generous people. Overall, though, instead of feeling liberated by shedding a toxic addiction, I felt exposed and clumsy, off my game entirely. It was as if I had to start over with the fundamentals of social engagement.
Why IS the ol' social lubricant such an essential part of socializing? If you guessed "science!", you're right. Drinking and socializing go together because of how alcohol alters brain function.
As I understand it, alcohol inhibits several chemical functions that facilitate fear and anxiety and triggers the reward mechanisms of your brain. You're more likely to feel relaxed, look happier and take risks, which is appealing behavior to other people.
In an article about drinking and introversion, I read some interesting commentary from a psychologist about how some people (especially addicts) think of their social anxiety as a problem to be overcome; to go a bit deeper, some people think of their personality as a problem ("I am boring") and drinking ("They look they're having fun so if I drink, I'll BE fun, too") as the solution.
While some people can have a beer or drink some wine and enjoy an event without incident, I learned from talking to other addicts that social anxiety and alcohol abuse often go together.
So, whether you're someone who has embarrassed yourself at a Christmas party last year or a full-blown, recovering alcoholic like me, how do you handle being sober at events where people are drinking?
I'm inching towards my second year of sobriety so I'm by no means an expert, but as someone who engages in public speaking every other night for comedy, and in an industry where networking is essential, I have acquired some coping mechanisms for existing in boozy situations as a sober person.
1) Have a drink in your hand. No, NOT Red Bull and vodka. Grab a water, ginger ale or soft drink. To go full incognito mode, ask the bartender to put a lime in it. Any sober person will tell you that merely holding a drink will often stave off people's attempts to fetch you one.
Many sober comedians I've met intentionally drink things that look alcoholic so that people are less likely to inquire about what they're drinking. If someone insists they get you something, be bold and ask for a refill of the non-alcoholic drink - your forward friend will likely get the picture. It's a big joke among sober people that LaCroix will become your best friend.
2) Be punctual. I like to get to events early to see what the layout is like. The worst moments I had as a newly sober person centered on the feeling that I was trapped in a room with drunk people. By arriving early, you can plan an exit strategy if you feel overwhelmed.
One of the first questions I get when people ask about sobriety is "but what if people pry?" Unfortunately, even well-meaning friends can sometimes say the wrong thing. Arriving early helps you map out a strategy for surviving the event, whether that's the ability to leave early without being noticed or to find a quick path to the bathroom so you can decompress for a moment.
3) Be tardy. If you're the type that would panic at the realization that you're the first to arrive for a party, arrive a little bit late. If you're fashionably late, people will already be mingling when you get there and you will be more likely to have groups to join without having to initiate conversation. There are downsides to this, though. Should you arrive after a board game or collaborative event has started, you may feel singled out, which can increase feelings of isolation.
4) Make sober friends. Asking a friend who drinks to not drink with you for an event can be difficult for you both. This is where 12 Step groups can come in handy. Meeting fellow sober people was a game-changer for me. I was able to build a network of people who both didn't drink and also empathized a lot with why I wasn't drinking. (What up, fellow addicts!)
If possible, invite sober friends (who are comfortable with socializing) to boozy events. If your friends all drink, you can still ask someone if they'd step outside with you for a bit or they wouldn't mind leaving at a specific time, so you don't stay late into the event when people are likely to be drunk.
5) YES, EXIT. As my boy J.P. Sartre said, "Hell is other people." Understand that if you feel overwhelmingly bad being the odd one at out drinking events, get the hell out of there! If you're attending a mandatory work event where you're expected to drink, talk to your boss ahead of time.
If you don't feel comfortable disclosing such a thing to your boss, find co-workers or even event guests who you can confide in if you're feeling overwhelmed. Even having someone to call can be a big help. (Yes, the oft-parodied resource of having a sponsor to call is definitely a plus of being in a 12 Step program.)
This can be tough if you're in the hospitality business, a performer of some kind or a guest at an unditchable event, such as the dreaded wedding. Honestly, almost any event is leave-able. If you're risking a panic attack or emotional outburst by staying, get out of there. If all else fails, use the trick socially anxious people have been enjoying for years: hide in the bathroom for a bit.
Very early in sobriety, I felt like Benjamin in The Graduate, who opted to sink the bottom of the pool in his scuba gear to avoid his own birthday party. I felt beyond fish out of water - I thought I was the only one who didn't drink at any given event and that I would never, ever have fun again.
In reality, I was a self-pitying recovering addict who turned down opportunities to hang out with friends, sober and non, because I felt like sober living was meant to be solitary and pious.
As it turns out, lots of people aren't social drinkers, whether they're on medication that discourages alcohol use, want to be as sharp as possible at a work event, or are simply someone who never started drinking.
In my experience, I found out that I already knew a lot of people in recovery. Acquaintances reached out to me once I opened up about my substance abuse problems. Many times now, I've gone to events and can spot the sober people, which makes me feel better about being there.
Even if you're in a place right now where you're feeling raw, ashamed and alone, if you begin to open up to people, you WILL find community. I know it's hard to believe, but eventually, you may even be the one reaching out to help someone who is newly sober.