As a relative newbie to sobriety, I’ve learned that preparation is key. Most times, when I’m heading to a social gathering, I have time to prepare mentally, physically (I always bring a drink with me) and emotionally.
I think about what I will say when someone asks why I’m not drinking. I think about how deep I want to get in the conversation, because some days I’m ready to go there, and other days I want to talk about anything but that.
This day, I was caught off guard. As I watched the host mom try to pop open the champagne with a towel, I almost said “yes” and thought about just pretending to sip it. Instead, I said, “Not right now, I’m good thank you,” and the conversation veered to something else.
But it came up again about 15 minutes later. And again another 15 minutes later. And I was practically banging my head against the wall thinking, “Why don’t I just tell her I don’t drink?”
But I didn’t. I was afraid she would think I wasn’t fun. I was afraid she wouldn’t want to have more play dates with my kids and me. I didn’t know this woman well. I didn’t feel inclined to reveal to her that I have a very toxic relationship with alcohol. I didn’t know her well enough to tell her that I can’t stop at one drink. In the past, one mimosa easily led to three, followed by returning home to pop open a bottle of wine or whatever else was sitting around, just to keep the buzz going.
I’ve been sober for a year and a half. And I wasn’t even comfortable telling my friends and family for the first year. I wasn’t quite sure where I was going with my sobriety. Is this permanent? Is this a break? Is this normal or am I the dreaded “A” word — alcoholic?
My questions align with a dynamic newly referred to as “sober curious.” More people are opting toward alcohol-free options as the pressure to drink in a heavily booze-oriented culture feels more cumbersome and comes with significant, possibly fatal, consequences. It’s also a decision led less by a “rock bottom” generally tied to alcoholism and more of an alcohol fatigue from people tired of the hangovers, poor sleep, regrets and poor choices that come with drinking.
The sober-curious movement is a welcome departure from the “mommy needs wine” culture that has practically taken over social media and even the local Target with shirts, “This Might Be Wine” mugs and paraphernalia encouraging heavy drinking, particularly for moms.
The “mommy needs wine” memes, the TV shows with matriarchs gripping their wine glass, and the movies — most recently Netflix’s “Wine Country,” starring Amy Poehler — all have a part to play in the significant increase in female drinking. Because, as a society, we are absolutely drinking more than ever.
High-risk drinking, defined as more than three drinks in a day or seven in a week for women, is on the rise among women by about 58 percent, according to a 2017 study in JAMA Psychiatry comparing habits from 2001 to 2002 and 2012 to 2013.
Personally, aside from finding wine references all over my social media to be extremely triggering, I used them as justification to drink, and then drink more. Because, clearly, everyone is doing it. It can’t be that bad, right?
Whether I was just sober curious or dangerously bordering on alcoholic, I wasn’t quite sure when I finally decided to quit drinking. But I did know one thing: I couldn’t parent little kids with three or four glasses of wine in my system. And the possibility of something horrible happening overcame any desire to keep drinking my mommy juice. I knew it was time to end this game of how long can I keep drinking like this before something far more serious than just an ugly hangover occurred.
So I quit cold turkey. I never went to an AA meeting. I never even met with a doctor. I just stopped. And while it took weeks to break the habit of pouring myself a drink before dinner, and even more tenacity to turn it down at social functions, my spirits were lifted, my energy grew, and I found new life in this choice to abstain.
Once I got my sober footing, the hardest part of my journey has been navigating in a society that plans gatherings, holidays, networking and yes — play dates — around booze. Alcohol is the only drug you have to explain not using, and I’m still not sure what my explanation is yet. Am I just sober curious? Am I an alcoholic? And why do I need to explain myself to anyone, especially around something so deeply personal that even I don’t know the answer?
But I do. Because “no” is not a complete sentence when people offer alcohol. They want answers. In my short time as a sober person, inquiries have ranged from “Oh! Really? Not even one?” to “Why not? Do you have a problem?” It’s awkward, it’s demeaning, it’s prying. It’s also very common, and most of the time I don’t think it’s meant to be offensive at all. People are generally curious, even intrigued.
At this particular play date, I eventually did fess up. “Actually, I don’t drink. I quit over a year ago. I found that I can’t stop at one.” The mom was surprised but did not pry further. She was on her second mimosa now, and she could probably hear the angst in my tone. We quickly moved on to other topics.
I read a meme the other day that said, “I choose my kid’s play dates based on which moms I want to drink wine with.” I often wonder if my decision to be sober has affected the number of play dates to which we get invited, and the number of parties for which I get invitations, and the number of friends who reach out to me at all now. And I do feel more isolated than ever with this choice. Because while most people are cordial with my decision to stick with soda or water, I do see fewer party invites. I do receive fewer texts from friends to just hang out.
And I know that is due in part to my decision to quit drinking. But it’s also based on my decision to go to fewer parties in general, to be pickier about with whom I want to spend time, and ultimately, to make social decisions around logistics and not based on whether there will be an open bar. Because while my sobriety has played a role in my changing friendships, social calendar and extracurricular activities, it also has played a role in my health, being more present at home, and an overall more relaxed, predicable and safe environment for my kids. And that makes all of it worth it. Even the awkward conversations.