sober questioning

‘I Feel Awkward Not Ordering Wine With My Mom Friends at Dinner’

Photo-Illustration: The Cut; Photos: Getty

Dear Ana, 

I was sober for a year but recently have felt pressure to have wine when I’m at a dinner where all of the other women are ordering a drink, mostly because I feel like when they all get a little tipsy and I’m not, we are in different worlds. I am alone on an island in my lucid state, and they are off in a world of blurry laughter. It’s a terrible feeling. 

That pressure is so much that I’ve agreed to have a drink poured and then have to find a way to take a pretend sip or pour it out in a bathroom so that at least it isn’t so obvious that I’m not on the same “level.” 

I recently made new mom friends, which comes with ordering red wine at dinner out. There are only four of us, and unless I declare some dramatic sobriety story, it is just plain awkward to not order a drink at dinner too. What can I do?

Lonely, Lucid Island

Dear Lonely, Lucid Island,

I have some ideas on how to tell people you’re not drinking in a way that doesn’t invite a “Just one won’t hurt you”–style response. We’ll get to those. But first, let’s talk about the more subtle, but just as pervasive, phenomenon you’ve touched on: being sober when other people aren’t — what it feels like to not be having the same experience as everyone else.

Like you, I think it sucks.  And it can suck even when people are just “tipsy,” not sloppy drunk.  Let me be clear here: I don’t mind people having a couple of drinks around me — if they’re okay to drive, I’m probably fine hanging out. What sucks is being among people who are noticeably altered.

“Stranded on lucid island” is a beautiful way to describe the sensation — or being the only one not walking around in a personal fogbank. My hard-won emotional clarity, honed through recovery and therapy, only makes it more obvious that others’ sense of me is muffled in chemical batting. I’m not getting the person I usually deal with. Instead, it’s an increasingly fuzzy outline of that person — usually more distracted and less compassionate, less intellectually agile.

Being not-drunk when others are is the rare situation in which the standard resist-a-relapse question “Would drinking make things better?” can earn an affirmative answer. I mean, eventually, it would be worse. But I started drinking to deal with feeling socially awkward.

I’m not sure if this sense of itchy isolation is the experience of every sober person. I’ve heard that you grow out of it; you discover the ability to grant grace and tolerance to drunk folk. Or maybe you just stop thinking about it. After all this time, certainly, the scale of my reaction varies. Sometimes, I barely feel the imbalance; I just feel different and slightly off, like I know my underwear is on inside out even if no one else does.

Sometimes, it’s merely annoying. During those times, I fall back on what helps me in any social situation in which I feel uncomfortable: I take the focus off my own feelings. I try to talk less and listen more, a challenge made even easier because even just mildly smashed people tend to be more interested in themselves than others. That’s one of the reasons the interactions can feel so disappointing! But if I set out with the intention of listening, tipsy solipsism is a feature, not a bug. It’s possible a good time can be had!

But sometimes, the distance from my dry and lucid island to other folks’ sodden shore is almost unbearable. Then I leave. Like when I got to a brunch late and found my friends a little too far down the bottomless-mimosa well. IIRC, I said I had “a work thing” come up. Sobriety is a kind of work, right? Right! Of course, you can’t always leave — once, I was stuck on a party bus for a three-hour trip back from the party. That wasn’t great! I wound up watching college football on my phone while the White Claw crew raged on. (And Tracy, hi — it was a great party, and I was fine, I promise.)

The good news is that leaving (or becoming immersed in your phone) is probably not going to be a big deal to a group of people already enjoying their own company. Indeed, one of sobriety’s few lasting disappointments is the growing awareness of the gap between how big a deal your sobriety is to you and how much it matters to literally anyone else. We are always the lead protagonist of our own story — when we take on a legitimately dramatic narrative arc (such as trying not to drink), that sense of being the center of attention grows. We feel like we’re not just in the spotlight but also under a magnifying glass. And we don’t have alcohol to deaden our nerves.

I promise that everyone around you thinks they’re onstage too.

Non-sober readers may be starting to spiral out right about now, going over every buzzed interaction they’ve ever had with a sober person  — please don’t! Part of recovery is taking responsibility for it. If I’m in a bad spot, I have to either request a change or do something different or, at the very least, tell you. You’re not in charge of reading a sober person’s mind.

Second, not all “Aw, come on” cajoling is about trying to get a friend to drink. In that moment, you maybe just wanted a friend to join the ritual that our culture frames as the very definition of intimacy. That’s just not necessarily how it feels to someone trying not to drink.

You didn’t know that, and now you do. So you’ll avoid pressing the issue in the future, right? Great.

Now let’s circle back to the more basic question “What do I do if I feel conspicuous for not drinking?” What you do is remind yourself that if anyone is showing a persistent, direct interest in whether or not you’re drinking, they are the weird one. And if you are being guilted by someone (or someones) for refusing a drink, that’s part of their story. Something is going on for them that what you’re doing has taken hold of their attention. But most people don’t care! They just don’t!

And even the people that seemed to care will get caught up in the sticky trap of their own feelings after a round or two. The only person who will remember that your highball glass contains Diet Coke is the bartender. (Oh, right, a pro tip: You can ask to get your Diet Coke/whatever in a highball glass if the usual pint glass screams “NOT DRINKING” a little too loudly for you, even though, I assure you, no one really cares. Or have them put ginger ale in a Champagne flute. You get the idea. Just be sure to keep track of it.)

As for how to beat back the initial queries and prompts (“One won’t hurt,” “Join us!,” etc.), I have in the past used the whitest of lies — more like the truth with a misprint — “I’m allergic.”

End of sentence! It can be a new allergy! People develop new allergies all the time! “Oh, what does it do?” “My body reacts badly.” Technically, 100 percent true! My body reacts by wanting more, which is bad for me (and everyone around me). You can amp up the shade on the lie if you want — I won’t tell. Most people don’t want details after “It makes me sick” unless they are a morbidly inquisitive toddler.

Or, for the truly persistent, try flipping the attention back on them: “You seem really curious about my choices tonight! I’m flattered!”

If someone pries just a little too far and you lose your patience, there’s always the line I heard from the great reporter, and even greater drunk, David Carr: “I’m allergic to alcohol — I break out in handcuffs.”

Don’t like any of these? Try “Maybe later.”

Who can argue with that? What’s there to be curious about?

“Maybe later” is how I live long-term sobriety; I’m only ever aiming to not drink one drink at a time. Somehow “later” has now lasted for almost 11 years. For you, it can just happen to be true all night — or at least until the point at which people lose interest in other people’s drinking, which is, I repeat, almost immediately.

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