Health

How to Party Without Drinking or Using if You Got Sober During the Pandemic

Carry a rocks glass, check in with a friend if you feel tempted, and other tips from expert partiers.
June 17, 2021, 2:13pm
Illustration of a person holding a seltzer arriving to a party where people are drinking and smoking weed
Illustration by Cathryn Virginia

If you reassessed your relationship to drinking or drugs during the past year-plus, you’re not alone: One of very many downsides of the pandemic is that a shitload of people fell deeper into active addiction. But a ton of people rose up out of it, too: Therapists suddenly had more than full caseloads. AA meetings, now on Zoom, were flooded with newcomers counting days.

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With vaccinations in full swing and America opening up again, newly sober folks are venturing back out into the world, and some of those people might feel a little tentative about how to do that without it fucking up the progress they’ve made. It’s easy to be afraid of what we don’t know, and loads of people have no clue how to attend social gatherings without a drink or drug.

I’ve hit a lot of parties over the many years that I’ve been sober. In that time, I’ve learned some simple tricks that make sober nights out easier, and compiled even more while making a free downloadable zine I just released with resources-for-artists site The Creative Independent called Sober 21. In it, 21 sober musicians—like Nile Rodgers; Moby; and members of Hole, LCD Soundsystem, and Chastity Belt—share insights intended to help newly sober/sober-curious musicians, but also recovering party people of all stripes. And sober musicians’ advice might be particularly helpful now, ’cause it sounds like everyone is gonna be partying like they’re on their first-ever tour over the next few months of America’s reopening!

A bunch of the sage advice from Sober 21 is applicable to non-musicians, as well. So, my fellow soberinos: Just as parties begin to kick off again, here are some hot tips on how to enjoy your long-overdue sober nights on the town. I promise they can be way more fun this way—plus, you’ll actually be able to remember them now. 

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Ask yourself if you’re truly ready to hit a party.

This is a fundamental question that you have to be honest with yourself about as you consider your first forays back into nightlife. Do you legit think that you can go to a party and come home still sober? If not, you’re not ready, and there’s no shame in that. Don’t let negative fear rule your decision-making, but know that the small voice in your gut is real, and if it’s saying “stay the fuck home,” then stay the fuck home. Even if you've been staying home for the past year and are more than a little sick of it, remind yourself that that’s worked for you so far. 

Recovery takes time. But if you’re pretty sure that you can go to a party and stay sober without white-knuckling it/having a panic attack/drinking and snorting and smoking and popping every intoxicant there, read on! 

If old running buddies’ drinking or using drugs around you is triggering, avoid hitting parties with them for a while.

When I went to rehab, they told me that I only had to change one thing to stay sober: everything! While I initially took umbrage (fuck them, maaan!), upon reflection, I couldn't really deny that my way of living had run my life into a brick wall at 90 miles per hour. 

Over the following months, I gently cut ties with a lot of people that were just using friends. But I’d also used with a handful of people I’d been friends with since grade school, and really valued those relationships. I quickly realized that redefining how we spent time together was key, so instead of going out at night together, I’d suggest we grab lunch instead. Fucking game-changer! They weren’t wasted, and I wasn’t at a party surrounded by relapse triggers trying to tamp down a rising panic attack. 

Being around intoxicants at a party can feel triggering enough, and seeing folks you used with consuming said intoxicants can be a bit too much. “The weird thing about me when I got sober was that I could watch anybody do anything, but I couldn't watch me friends,” wrote Joy Division and New Order’s Peter Hook in Sober 21. “I couldn't bear it. It used to fucking send me nuts. But anybody I didn't know, it never bothered me […] As soon as me mates did it, it used to scare the shit out of me.” Prioritizing avoiding the trigger of being in the same places with the same people while trying to do things differently enables more of the peace and centeredness we need to build up our recovery muscles. Save your partying for nights when your old friends won’t be there, and enjoy your lunch! 

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Bring a sober buddy/have a text pal to check in with.

What we can’t do alone, we can do with the support and community of other sober folks. Having a sober buddy along will make you feel SO much more comfortable, while also building up your accountability to stay on the beam. If you can’t take someone with you in person, lock in a sober friend beforehand that you can reliably be in touch with throughout the evening. Text them when you head in, keep ’em on low-key standby throughout the night in case you feel like drinking/using and need someone to talk to about it, and text or call again to let them know you’re leaving—and still sober.

Have an answer prepared in case anyone asks why you’re not drinking. 

Your sobriety is your own, and you can share as much or as little about it as you like. Any level of detail, from “I’m not drinking tonight” to “I fell down the stairs and broke my nose and put a full Amy’s pizza still in its box in the oven and nearly burned the house down” can work. You don’t owe anyone explanations; only share what you’re comfortable with. 

In our interview for Sober 21, Cait O'Riordan, the bassist of the infamously hard-partying band the Pogues, said that she prefers to be straightforward with people when they ask her why she's not drinking. “No thanks, I can’t handle it—once I start, I can’t stop.”  For O'Riordan, it feels better to be open about her alcoholism, in part because, “It opens the door for anyone who wants to talk about their own problems with drink and drugs.”

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So go with whatever works best for you—just decide on your answer before you leave the house to avoid feeling put on the spot and/or freezing in the moment. 

Don’t hang by the weed smokers/line snorters. Do your thing and let them do theirs.

No one ever got drunk just by standing next to people who were drinking, but weed’s a little different. While it’s harder to catch than your grandparents would have you believe, a contact high is a real thing. Plus, what newly clean person wants the trigger of watching folks puff, puff, pass all goddamn night? 

In the same way, watching people cut lines and snort powder isn’t really an activity that promotes serenity, well-being, or centeredness in the sober viewer. If that shit starts up, bounce to another area of the party. Those folks are there to do their thing, you’re there to do yours.

“I never tell people to not drink,” Nile Rodgers told me in Sober 21. “I never tell people don't do drugs because I feel that that would be hypocritical. I stopped doing it because it wasn't right for me […] If I didn't have a problem drinking, I would drink. But I clearly have a problem, and so I choose not to drink. And I choose not to drink every day.”

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Knowing what you now know about yourself around addiction, you can live and let live today, and hang out away from drug use at the party. 

Put your drink in a rocks glass/red Solo cup. 

Jenn Champion shared a great story in Sober 21 about drinking from the same type of glass everyone else is using. “I was working as a bartender and this guy came in, I think he was on an internet date,” she wrote. “He came up to the bar and ordered a soda water with a lime—‘But will you put it in a rocks glass?’ So I did, and I wondered if he was sober. He came in a few more times, and every time it was the same thing [...] And he’d go back to his internet date and nurse the drink. He didn’t seem creepy or anything; he was just protecting his story,” Champion said. 

One night, the man came in with a date, and it seemed like things were going well. When she came up to the bar with him, Champion wanted to reassure him that she had his back—but he already had his own, because, as she wrote, “He said something like, ‘I’ll have another of the same.’” It really can be that easy.

Having a drink in your hands is a wonderful disguise—who knows what’s in there? Plus it gets ahead of anyone asking if you want a drink, or if you’re not drinking.

At bars or clubs: For max fly-under-the-radar-of-sobriety-snoops effectiveness, put your drink in a rocks glass so you’re not conspicuously carrying around a can of Diet Coke like a seventh-grader at a school dance. 

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At house parties and DIY shows: People who are mixing drinks, or who have a keg, will likely be using either glasses or big ass red plastic cups. Either way, BYONon-alcoholic beverage and pour it in one of those vessels. Stay on top of keeping your own drink refreshed. That way, if anyone asks if you need one, you can say you’re cool.

If a temptation comes up, share it.

Get out of your head. One more time, for the back of the room: GET OUT OF YOUR HEAD!! Trying to combat temptation on our own is so often a heartbreaking losing battle. On the other hand, sharing our urges with another recovering person—in person if it’s your sober companion, by text or phone call if not—can, as if by fucking alchemical magic, remove that temptation from us and get our heads back in the game. 

It’s a difficult state of mind to explain to someone who’s never experienced addiction, but every addict knows that sinking feeling of knowing that, even though you don’t want to use, you’re certain that you’re imminently going to. 

I experienced that once on a night out in early sobriety, and had nearly resigned myself to the fact that I was throwing away my sobriety that evening when I saw my sober friend Todd in a crowd. I really, really wanted to stay clean, so got out of myself and went over to speak with him. I reminded myself of what sober people had taught me: You can’t save your face and your ass at the same time. “Todd, I know I’m gonna use tonight, man,” I said. He didn’t even answer—didn’t utter a word, just gave me a huge hug. The urge to use was immediately and completely lifted. Because I reached out for help out in my time of need, I’m still sober today. 

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Remember why you’re there. 

It’s sometimes a good idea to remind yourself why you’re at a party and putting yourself in the situation of being around a lot of people drinking and getting messed up. It’s absolutely not because you’re there to drink or use. It’s because human connection is one of the fucking greatest things in the world, and screens are not an adequate substitute for IRL interaction. You’re there for LIFE, not the hardship and accelerated death that active addiction brings with it. That perspective can really help keep us on the beam. We didn’t get sober to be boring as hell—we want to enjoy life to the fullest. 

Bounce before the stupor descends. 

There’s a time at many parties when there’s a palpable shift, and people are suddenly reeeeally fucked up. (At least, at the parties I go to?! Is this something I need to look at?) When this moment hits, enjoying conversations as a sober person talking to some poor blasted bastard brings diminishing returns, and it might be time to say thanks for having me and g’night. 

Remember that you can leave whenever the fuck you want to. 

Be gentle with yourself. If you made it to the party but find yourself overwhelmed by urges to drink and use, or feel too much anxiety about being there sober, you can leave whenever you want to. Ease into sober life; don’t force it. Protect and nurture this beautiful gift of sobriety that you’ve discovered. Keep yourself healthy and on the path of sobriety—it’s the ultimate way to be ready for all the other amazing parties that you’ll be hitting soon enough.

Follow Elia Einhorn on Twitter.