By the time my decades-long chemical spree had ended, I had published a memoir about my exploits that a sober friend called a “drunkalogue” – a reference to AA shares that painstakingly detail every gutter puked in, stranger punched, and bedsheet peed upon throughout a person’s drinking career. I’d written a sex column in a lesbian magazine that the publisher was concerned had too many drugs in it. Strangers phoned me wondering if I could sell them ecstasy. I wasn’t what my mother called a “quiet drinker” – one of those sad sacks who drank alone in their rooms, hiding their inebriation. No way! I had hitched my inebriation to both my queer liberation (It’s party time!) and my feminism (If men can get wasted, so can I!) and put on quite a show of it.
To be fair, I put on quite a show of it in general. I’m a fairly open person. I’m honest with my friends, and as I tend to mistake vague acquaintances for actual friends, that means I’m forthright with pretty much everyone. Even still, telling people that I’d gotten sober was terrifying.
When you first get sober, you are a mess. Pure and simple. Anyone who finds that they need to quit alcohol has not had a swell run of it lately. You don’t give up the booze because of an errant drunk text or a nip of the cocktail flu. You stop because you’re frightening yourself. You’ve noticed how the alcohol’s affects on your body, mind, and spirit have been increasingly harsh. You don’t recognize yourself when you’re drunk. You feel like shit. You’re humiliated. You’ve ruined relationships. You’re losing self-respect. You quit because it’s just not fun anymore, and it hasn’t been for a while. You quit because you’re afraid you can’t. You quit because, as bad as it’s been lately, you know that it could get worse, and you wonder how awful you’ll let it get before you’re willing to make a change.
But when you’re first sober, all this wisdom, a basic understanding of your condition, is elusive. You’re fucked in the head. Why are you quitting? “I thought you loved drinking!” friends exclaim. Well, yeah – I sure did. “Isn’t it hard?” others ask, making you want to punch them in the neck. Hard? I was quite sure no one had lived through anything as grueling. “But you’re so fun drunk!” pout those who miss your conviviality at the bar but have never observed what you looked like long after last call, sobbing in your bedroom, puking in the water closet, fighting nonsensically with your date. Doing a line in the bathroom at work the next day to make it through your shift.
When people come at you with their questions, you are likely to wonder, “Yeah, why did I stop drinking?” Because sometimes it will seem like the stupidest thing you’ve ever done. You’ve lost your best friend, your primary coping skill, and your identity in one fell swoop. Other times it will seem like there is no way they could understand what you’re going through. Either way, it’s likely to be a frustrating exchange.
The general public does not understand alcoholism. They don’t understand drinking problems, and they don’t understand sobriety. People think you can just cut down. They don’t get why you can’t at least have a glass of wine at dinner – as if you’ve ever done that! They’re baffled as to why you can’t smoke pot or pop a recreational Xanax. At first their lack of insight may be painful. But as you become more familiar with your situation, you won’t need their understanding as much. The only important thing is that you understand that you can’t drink. It is nice to be around folks who get it, of course, which is one reason people turn to 12-step meetings. Occasionally, I really need to be able to sit in a room and vent about how, though our culture sometimes appears to revolve around alcohol, understanding of alcoholism is scant. It’s great to watch people bobbing their heads in agreement, rather than tilting them in a puppy-dog huh?
Am I painting a bleak picture of telling your friends about the new you? Maybe it’s because I’m remembering that time I tried to quit for just a week, and a friend responded by slamming a whiskey soda down in front of me and demanding I drink it. Of course I did. That was the first time I tried to quit. The more serious I became about wanting to stop, the more protective I became over who I let in on my fragile new reality.
Part of the problem is, you probably weren’t drinking alone. And if you were drinking alcoholically, chances are so were some of your friends. If you need to stop what does that say about them? It’s too much for most people to look at. Your sobriety can feel like a judgment on them, and what’s even worse, it may be. One of the most annoying things about getting sober is having to pretend you can’t spot a fellow alcoholic across the room. It’s poor form to “take another’s inventory” – decide that someone has a problem. That’s for them to decide. And it is really good practice to keep in mind that it’s none of your business how much anyone else drinks. But really – no one can read a drunk like another drunk. And if your friends aren’t ready to take a look at their partying they’re not going to appreciate your newly clear eyes upon them.
Truthfully, you’ll probably lose some friends when you get sober. What’s remarkable is that you get to see, very drastically, who is a true friend and who, in spite of how much they like you, just doesn’t have your best interests at heart. When I got sober there was a deep division between the people around me who embraced it, and the people around me who didn’t get it. The friends who right away knew that me getting sober was only an awesome thing are to this day my very best friends, almost a decade later. Maybe they were also the ones close enough to really see the shit I was doing: my ex, who saw how insane alcohol made me; my sister, whose bedroom I once destroyed during a drunken visit; a friend who drank with me until she got sober; and another who was hurt by the ways I’d prioritize getting wasted over spending quality time with her. They were 100 percent down with me swearing off the booze.
Other friends, not so much. “I thought you were just going to quit drinking but not go to those meetings,” said a friend who caught me on my way to an alcoholic support group. It was enough for her to get her head around not sharing coke with me in the bathroom, but now I was doing something secret and culty. It was too much.
Real friends are going to support whatever you have to do to stay sober, whether that is to stay away from the bar, not allow drinking in your house, or going to weird gatherings where you hold hands with strangers and say prayers. It’s probably going to take you a while to not feel like a major nerd for requiring that your rendezvous be at the tea house and not the ale house, but after your sobriety sinks in, you’ll be confident enough to ask for what you need. The only people who think bars are the only acceptable places to meet up tend to be alcoholics. If your friends aren’t capable of hanging out before midnight, they probably don’t care that much about your friendship. Take note.
Eventually, you might be fine meeting up at bars. I love dive bar ambience, and have also found that fancier places generally know how to mix an awe-inspiring mocktail (“Can you make me something amazing and nonalcoholic??” is what I ask). I do serve alcohol when I entertain, and I cook with it, too. People’s ignorance about alcoholism doesn’t make me quite so crazy (usually); I have a sense of humor about it. This might not be your path – I have friends who have been sober longer than I who hate being around drunk people, while I sort of love it. Only time will tell. But for sure you’ll be able to stand behind what you need to be sober and sane, and happy.
My social calendar is as full as it was when I drank, the main difference is I actually choose to stay in some of the time, because I’m no longer chasing the good-time-dragon. A revelation of sobriety is that you’re not really missing anything. The friends who were phased out don’t leave a chasm in your life, because the people who support you take up more of your time, and you’re meeting new people, too. And every now and then, one of those friends from back in the day will find themselves needing a sober friend to have a confusing conversation with, and you’ll get an opportunity to connect on a much more profound level than the drunken bar bonding that didn’t really make it outside the bar.