It’s the question everyone in sobriety asks themselves: Will my friends still want to hang out with me if I’m sipping Perrier instead of Laurent-Perrier?
It’s crazy, but telling your social circle you don’t drink is sometimes harder than not drinking in the first place. Sobriety is so much more than a decision about your physical health and emotional well-being—it has a huge effect on your social life. And as I found out when I gave up drinking, that doesn’t just mean suffering awkward moments every time you hit a bar with friends. It wasn’t drinking in bars that was my downfall—it was drinking too much, period. It was affecting my relationships, my parenting, my career. It was sucking the life out of me. So I stopped.
Throughout my life, alcohol was integral to all of things communal: spanning from family dinners, weddings and BBQs to holiday get-togethers, networking events, birthday parties, and impromptu catch-ups with neighbors. It was only when I stopped drinking that I realized how many social occasions revolve around booze. It’s everywhere. Or at least it was for me, a heavy drinker whose social world revolved around…heavy drinking. Going from that to not drinking at all, I had no idea what to expect and I feared the worst.
After seven months of sobriety, I still avoid alcohol-heavy occasions as often as possible. Not because I’m worried I’ll succumb to temptation, but because watching other people rack up a line of tequila shots on the bar just doesn’t appeal anymore. I still only have a toe in sober waters. But I’ve learned a lot about socializing in sobriety over the past few months. Here are some tips that may help.
More from Tonic:
Don’t expect everything to be the same
Your social life is different now—but that’s a good thing. You’re different, too. A huge turning point for me was accepting that this is a big deal, and as much as I might want to brush it under the carpet, I can’t. It’s huge. I used to self-medicate with one of the most addictive drugs in the world, and I don’t do that anymore. I’ve gone from being one of the drunkest people at the party to being (frequently) the only sober person. Of course things are going to be different.
Know that time will build confidence
Alcohol used to be my security blanket in any social situation I felt anxious or uncomfortable in: dates, family parties, nights out with lots of women, work mixers, etc. I met my fiancé before I got sober so I’ve never had to navigate sober dating, but the mere thought of it gives me the worst kind of goosebumps.
Toward the end of my drinking days, the fear of losing that security blanket was my main reason for not quitting. I won’t lie: I was anxious and uncomfortable a lot at social events in the early days of sobriety, so I had to act like everything was cool. I still have the occasional belly-clenching moment when I walk into a party sober, but as my confidence in my decision grows, they’re few and far between.
Trust your friends to be there
Your real ones, at least. Sobriety can have a fascinating impact on friendships. Some of my friends have needed a little time to adjust to my significant life choice. That’s cool with me. A couple of others have drifted away without any trauma on either side—I suspect my sobriety may simply have accelerated an inevitable growing-apart process. My true friends were there for me when I was passing out at parties and throwing up in the back of taxis, and they’re there for me now.
I’m also forming new friendships, because I’m devoting the time I used to spend drinking or nursing hangovers to other things: yoga, swimming, writing, blogging—what John Mendelson, professor at University of California at San Francisco and clinical addiction expert, calls “a new social world where drinking is not the only function of the party.”
“Former drinkers may need to search for and join this world,” he says. “Dinner, work parties, and any explicitly alcohol-related events can be a challenge to newly sober people so you need a plan if you are going to attend these.”
Make a backup plan
Mendelson has more advice for making those awkward social occasions a little easier: Take your own alcohol-free drinks with you wherever you go. I like to have pink lemonade or ginger beer on tap at all time—I keep a stash in my car because, yes, I’m also now the designated driver. And maybe take a sober friend with you for moral support. (Note: Nobody has your back like a fellow sober sister or brother.)
Planning ahead is crucial, and if a situation is likely to be high risk, it’s absolutely fine for the plan to simply be to opt out, says Mark Willenbring, who led the Division of Treatment and Recovery Research at the National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism (NIAAA) from 2004 to 2009 and was responsible for overseeing research on alcohol use disorder at universities around the United States. Otherwise, every plan should include an escape plan. “If you’re feeling more than a little tempted, immediately leave,” he says. “There’s no advantage to testing your willpower.”
Have a response ready to the drinking question
At several points during early sobriety, you’re probably going to get asked why you’re not drinking. Willenbring recommends having a quick phrase at the ready, such as, “I just find I feel better if I don’t drink.” Boom. “If someone is persistent, consider replying, ‘Does my not drinking make you uncomfortable?’” he adds. “My patients have found that usually ends this line of inquiry quickly and respectfully.” If that doesn’t work, or if you feel under pressure from friends to drink, this is the point where you have to question those relationships.
“For many people, sobriety is the norm and there is little to no stigmatization of non-drinkers,” Mendelson says. “Members in these groups are friends, because they have similar work, recreational, and professional interests. If your social group is built around drinking it can be hard to gain acceptance for a behavior not practiced by the group. For people contemplating a sober lifestyle they will likely need to develop new peer groups and activities. They are there—all you need to do is find them.”
If all else fails, just stay home. Seriously. Take your time with this whole sober thing, and keep the focus on yourself. In the first few weeks of sobriety, when I was turning myself in knots trying to figure out how to tell people I was no longer drinking, the only other sober person I know IRL told me, “The only conversation you need to have is with yourself.” It’s a pretty good mantra for the newly sober.
Read This Next: How Do You Tell if You Have a Drinking Problem