Social Anxiety in Recovery, Part 2: What the Hell am I Supposed to Tell People?

I went to a work party about six months before I quit drinking. Nothing dramatic happened, but it stands out in my memory of drinking related episodes toward the end, when I was trying so hard to drink like a normal person. I was in the midst of one of my many moderation plans, and I actually thought I had it this time. This particular plan was entitled: “I’m removing alcohol from normal life activities.   I only drink on special occasions now.” And I hadn’t had a drink in a month or so, since the holidays! Success! See? No problem, I’ve got this drinking “issue” under control. Now, I knew I would want to drink at this thing—it was a work party, after all. But I was really trying to be purist about “special occasions only,” and decided before going that this did not qualify and I would not drink. That lasted less than 5 minutes. As soon as I walked in the door, a friend from another department bounced up to me and said, “Yay! We get to drink wine together!” I looked at her like a deer in the headlights and the poor thing was so confused, looking concerned and asking, “What’s wrong?!” I quickly recovered and determined that there was no f-ing way I would be stumbling over “Oh, I’m not drinking tonight.” And furthermore, there was no f-ing way I would be doing this event without wine, period. So I went straight to the bar with my friend and got my wine, and what a relief. Soon I ordered a second, and I was so pissed that they were serving those tiny wine glasses that actually hold 4 ounces. I forced myself to drink at half the speed I wanted to and tried to focus on conversation with my colleagues. After dinner, I went to the bar and got a third glass, wondering if anyone would notice that I was still drinking wine while everyone else at my table had switched to coffee. When I got home, I drank more, of course. After that, “special occasions” became ever more loosely defined, and I was back to my old habits in no time.

The same annual work party came around again recently, six months onto my sobriety. This time I skipped it, even though I love opportunities to socialize with the people I work with, and there aren’t enough of them. So why didn’t I go? It wasn’t because I was afraid I would want to drink. It was because I couldn’t think of a single thing to say that I felt comfortable with if someone were to ask me why I wasn’t drinking. My friend Joe says, “Just get a glass of something and carry it around. Nobody gives a shit what you’re drinking except another alcoholic.” Maybe. But still. I knew it wasn’t rational, to be that concerned about whether anyone would ask, and what I would say. I guess it’s because I really don’t want people from work to know, and I’m not a very good liar. The fear is that no matter what I say, they will see through me and know.

I don’t know what to say in lower-stakes situations, either. A few family members and very close friends know why I don’t drink anymore. What to do about the more casual friends and acquaintances I’ve drank with in the past? A few times, I have been asked directly and even probingly why I’m not drinking. I have said things to the effect that I’m getting older and I started getting headaches the next day after just a couple glasses of wine, so I experimented with giving it up and found that I feel better not drinking at all. I like how that all sounds, but it’s a lie. I have said I’m on some Paleo no sugar, no grains, no alcohol nutritional cleanse thing. Another lie. I’m a pretty up-front, straight shooting kind of person. What you see is generally what you get. Not now, not with this.   I really hate that. I want to tell the truth. I suspect at some point, I won’t care anymore and I will. But not for a long time.

There are the people I’ve met since I quit, and those I knew before but who never saw me drink. They are mostly other moms who I’ve only socialized with through kids’ activities during the day. No problem, unless you go to a mom’s night out or other evening occasion where there is alcohol. I may be getting to the point where I could actually say, simply, “I don’t drink.” Even a month ago, that felt like a joke. “I don’t drink” implies that I’m one of those bizarre people who don’t like the taste or (gasp) don’t like the feeling or something.   It’s hard to imagine saying it with a straight face.

The other day, I was talking with three other moms, none of whom know whether I drink or not. One of them was singing hallelujah about a recent article saying a glass of red wine is as good as an hour at the gym. I decided to take a stab at participating in the general banter about alcohol (maybe partly to feel them out, because I’m having dinner with them in a few days). So I said, “Yup, the trouble is, three glasses of red wine does not equal three hours at the gym.” Hahaha. Then the second woman said, “Oh, if I ever had three glasses of wine, I’d be so drunk, I’m such a lightweight, cheap date,” etc. And the third said she picks her calories and would rather have dessert than a drink (hmmm…another closet recovery person? I wonder). These are new friends. I have just barely begun getting to know them, and I have no idea what to expect at this dinner. Maybe I will to be able to quietly, simply, have my sparkling water. Or maybe I’m going to be in a position of having to say something about why I’m not having wine. I like these women. I don’t want to start new friendships with lies, or even half-truths. I also don’t want to tell them the real story.

What do you tell people? How often have people actually asked? How has your approach to this issue evolved since you first got sober?

© soberfire, 2015

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9 thoughts on “Social Anxiety in Recovery, Part 2: What the Hell am I Supposed to Tell People?

  1. Such a great read, thank you. I find that in social situations with other normal drinkers, the sparkling water indicates you are hydrated and classy :). The truth is, you owe not one person an explanation. My thoughts about this were slightly obsessive and/or neurotic until I realized about 6 months into recovery that saying less is more. To be a self-possessed person–drink in hand or not–means that you get to carry on with your night without speculating about what someone might think of you. Maybe with your new friends you can stick to more neutral topics until there is some trust and comfort there. Thank you for posting this.

    Liked by 2 people

    • This is so helpful, thank you! All of it–for starters, knowing others have felt stuck here, too, and moved past it. And this especially: “To be a self-possessed person–drink in hand or not–means that you get to carry on with your night without speculating about what someone might think of you. ” Yes, I would like to be self-possessed, not self-obsessed. I don’t want to beat myself up, because on one level it’s an understandable anxiety, and decisions do have to be made. But on another level, it’s very self-absorbed to spend all this time thinking about what all these people think or might think about my drinking situation, when the reality is, most people won’t give it much thought at all. OK. My mantra will be “less is more” for this upcoming dinner and similar situations.


  2. Clover on said:

    just want to say, I also really don’t think people will note whether or not you are drinking, or care why. I know people who don’t drink because they don’t like it (or that’s what they say, but doesn’t matter, really!) it’s personal, and you’re not required to share all this with friends you’ve only met recently. so working on putting it in perspective when you’re in these situations will probably become a habit after time, and then you won’t feel so self-conscious about it.

    Liked by 1 person

  3. Thanks @Clover, I think you are right that I’ll be less self-conscious with time. As for people not being particularly curious about people who don’t drink…hopefully fewer people than I think, but guess what just happened this evening? I just came home from a committee meeting planning a silent auction fundraiser. Here was the conversation I heard going on between 5 different people (I didn’t join in for this one, just listened):

    “The guy doing the drinks used to be a bartender. Oh, and he said he has this mocktail he’s going to make, too”
    “Oh, yeah for the pregnant ladies! And whoever else doesn’t drink…”
    “Actually, HE doesn’t drink!”
    “What?! He used to be a bartender and he doesn’t drink?”
    “You wonder if there’s a story there.”
    ” Yeah, you always wonder that, when someone doesn’t drink, like why is that.”

    Swear to God, this just happened. Sigh. Oh well. I will have to get over it. My mantra for now is “less is more” in terms of what to say if it comes up. Eventually some people will know. Maybe some of them will judge me. I’m sure the sky will not fall then.


  4. Great post! I think most of us have felt this way at some point. We tend to be so aware of us not drinking that we tend to think that everyone else is too. Its’s such a new territory and it’s a bit daunting. But I too found that others care much less whether I am drinking or not. Which is a good news because you will come to a place where it won’t be so difficult, and actually it will become normal.

    Hang in! Sending hugs.

    Liked by 1 person

  5. Thank you! This is all comforting.


  6. Pingback: Social Anxiety in Recovery, Part 3: Everything Old Is New Again | soberfire

  7. Pingback: Eight Months Sober: Blessings and Curses | soberfire

  8. Pingback: What 18 Months Sober Looks Like | soberfire

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