When I visit a restaurant, it is inevitable that I will hear two phrases. If there is a wait, the host/ess will ask, “Would you like to sit in the bar and have a drink while you wait?” and then once seated, the server will ask, “Would you like to start off with a cocktail or some wine tonight?”
These questions used to strike fear in me. I would get nervous and anxious waiting for these questions. I would answer almost apologetically, as if my not having a drink would make them think less of me or cause them great harm. I felt compelled to explain why I would not order a cocktail, a beer, or a glass of wine; otherwise, they would think I was crazy. I would curtly reply, “I don’t drink” and then order something non-alcoholic, never making eye contact. Poor, poor, pitiful me.
Wine glasses would be removed from the table, along with wine and cocktail lists, and my order of iced tea or a soft drink taken. I would feel ashamed. Ashamed of what I knew: That I could not, under any circumstance have a cocktail or glass of wine. You see, with me, one cocktail would turn into two or three; and one glass of wine – Wait, what? One glass of wine? Let’s be honest – one bottle of wine would turn into two, followed by a few ports with dessert, and then drinks at bars on the way home.
That method would bring out the best of my worst characteristics. At first, I would be funny, joking, laughing, and talking. I would progress to talking too loudly (usually about people nearby), slurring, drinking more, feeling compelled to pick up the tab (especially if in a large group), and berating others at their expense. That would evolve into self-consciousness, self-doubt, paranoia, defensiveness, and ultimately anger. I would stumble my way to a cab and either head some place to drink more and hook up, or head home and pass out.
The question “what do you want to drink” also arises in social situations, like dinner parties, cocktail parties, or other events. I had been home from rehab for two weeks when I attended a BBQ at a friend’s Brooklyn apartment. After the door opened, I received a quick apartment tour and then a tour of the booze and mixers. This was a group of friends where drinking together was a pastime. It is what we did. We would eat, drink, talk, laugh, and drink some more. There was confusion and amusement at my response.
“You don’t want a beer? How about wine? A mojito?”
This was my first time in a situation where I had to say no. I was frightened and nervous and felt sick to my stomach. I had not told many people, this group included, that I was in rehab. Saying no felt like a confession of all I had done wrong in my life.
“No. I don’t feel like drinking tonight,” I said.
What it felt like I said:
“I just got out of a 28 day in-patient rehab program in Minneapolis. I have been sober for a little over two months now. I can’t drink or do drugs anymore. I can’t have even one drink. Not wine, not tequila, not gin, not port, not scotch, not rum, not even beer. If I have any of those, I fear that I will fall back into old behaviors of drinking to excess, drugging to excess, and hating myself for every bad decision I have made in my life because I can’t control myself. Now I hate myself even more for having to say no, because I know you think that must be crazy. Who refuses a drink? Only alcoholics. And now you are thinking, ‘Oh my god! You are an alcoholic!’ And now I am thinking that you hate me and I should just go. I am no fun anymore. I am a bore. I can’t even laugh at your jokes. Not only because you are slurring your words, but because I can’t really understand the point of the joke, because I am not drunk. Regardless, I am no longer fun and I will never be or have fun again. I hate myself for not being able to drink.”
And I did.
I was ashamed and afraid that I would no longer fit in. I drank and did drugs to feel comfortable in social situations that made me uncomfortable. Drinking helped eliminate my social anxiety. The recovery community calls it “Social Lubrication.” I could converse, laugh, joke, feel connected, and feel like I fit in when I was drunk. That is, until I no longer fit in. When that happened, things got messy.
I would go out alone to get drunk. I would maybe throw up, maybe not. I would get home and drink some more, or do a few lines, smoke some weed, or hit the pipe. I was alone, a mess in my own apartment and life. What started as a way to be more social became an isolating and lonely necessity to get through a hard week, a rough emotional time, or just a regular Tuesday. When the haze would clear from my head, I would cry. I always loved that moment when the tears started to fall. It confirmed that I actually did have feelings. Ironically, I was using to excess to block out feeling anything at all.
In my first six months of sobriety, I told myself that after one year I would be able to drink again. I would not drug, but I would drink. It was my plan. However, in my journey of self-discovery along the path of sobriety, I re-read all of my journals that date back to eighth grade. I was amazed to find that my behavioral patterns as a drinking adult were the same patterns I had as a drinking teenager. More, more, more. Do it to feel comfortable. Do it to feel connected. Do it to mask fear. Do it to fit in. Do it to have sex. Do it to hide how awkward you feel. Do it to hide shame about being gay. Do it to hide shame about doing it. Do it to excess. Get angry. Shout. Yell. Pass out. Have others tell you about what you did when you were drunk because you don’t remember. Remember these as being funny stories. Laugh about them. Start it all over again.
I learned a lot about myself. More than I anticipated. I started to identify as an addict and an alcoholic in meetings, something I was not willing to do before. I accepted it as fact and surrendered.
Now when asked if I want a drink, I simply say, “Yes. I’ll have a Ginger Ale.” Or a lemonade or Coke. I have asked for mocktails (cocktails without booze. Sometimes I get looks, but now they don’t bother me. I owe my life to my sobriety. I honor my sobriety and I work hard at it. When one lives in a society that is alcohol infused, and one does not imbibe, one must set boundaries and stick by them. I have to feel confident in the decision I have made to not use. I have to remain aware of the consequences that will happen if I do drink. I have to honor the hard work that I have done to achieve my sobriety. I have to understand that while others can, I cannot. It sounds simple enough, but it is not.
I have an “awareness challenge” for those who drink (responsibly or not):
- Pay attention to the number of beer or booze commercials you see in an evening or afternoon of watching TV.
- Notice the number of alcohol print ads you see when you flipping through a magazine.
- See how many cookbooks start with a cocktails section.
- Notice how many fun events you attend center around drinking.
- Notice co-worker’s conversations, especially Fridays around 4:00pm or while at work functions.
- Attend a wedding, house party, a dinner party, a BBQ, a tailgating party, or a day at the beach.
- Watch TV shows or movies to see how many scenes involve alcohol, are set in a bar, have dialog based around drinking, or show wine, beer, and booze.
- Notice when you are asked to wait at the bar and have a drink or to have a cocktail or wine with your dinner.
It can be overwhelming for someone like me. I have become comfortable with it. I can be around others who drink, but when it gets messy, or when people start to “melt,” I know it’s time for me to go. I can host people at my house who drink, and I have a decently stocked bar. Drinking just doesn’t interest me anymore. I am more fun when I don’t drink. I am more interesting when I don’t drink. And I love waking up every morning without any trace of a hangover.
But I am smart enough to know that all of that could change at any moment. And that’s what I need to be prepared for. That’s why I attend meetings. That’s why I talk about my addictions. That’s why I am rigorously honest with myself.
As overwhelming as the media and social messaging are, there are unexpected moments of clarity. A friend was visiting from New York City and he, Kirk, and I, went to dinner at a posh Charleston restaurant. The waiter asked if we wanted any wine to start, two of us declined, and one said he would consider it. Two sets of wine glasses were removed. The restaurant manager came to our table offering a complementary bottle of prosecco and noticed only one set of wine glasses.
He looked at me and asked, “You will not be having wine tonight?”
“No sir, I will not.” I replied resolutely, hoping that I had overcome the self-consciousness of declining.
“I’ve been sober for thirty-one years. How long have you been in the program?” he asked.
What followed throughout our dinner and dessert was some of the most scintillating conversation with this stranger about resolve, AA meetings, and sobriety. At dessert, he sat at our table and we all chatted. He shared his story, his love of his business, his love of Charleston, his advice. He hopped up to hug and kiss patrons goodbye. He introduced us to his wife as he left for the evening. He welcomed us into his restaurant and shared with us a slice of his life.
All the while, wine glasses clinked in the background, toasts were made at tables, diners asked about wine pairings, and the hostess asked patrons to wait in the bar and have cocktails. All of this swirled around me, the world rotated on its axis as it always does; life was in motion.
The only thing that was unmovable was my sobriety.