How is it possible to get through social functions, alcohol-free?

…This was one of my big worries when I gave up alcohol 3 and a half years ago. It plagued me throughout all my preparations for quitting. That’s because where big social functions were concerned, alcohol was much more of a necessity than a compulsion or indulgence.

I wondered what on earth would replace it. What could possibly substitute for alcohol at wedding receptions, say, and networking conferences and college reunions? I literally couldn’t imagine what I would do at these sorts of occasions; how I would feel during 4 hours of sitting or standing around chatting.  I imagined myself in a sweat of self-consciousness, my mouth resisting all attempts at a proper smile, straining under the pressure to fix a look of sincerity at yet another painfully dull anecdote.

In the past, alcohol was my rock at all such functions, helping me feel normal, washing away the self-consciousness and boredom. And from the moment I arrived at these do’s I would assess its availability around the venue and start planning how I would keep it close to me all evening.

Don’t get me wrong, I would make an arse of myself at most of these functions – with varying degrees of awfulness, thanks to alcohol. I’m just saying that of all the situations where I felt alcohol was needed, social functions were in the top 10%.

When I opted for an A/F life, I didn’t fear that temptation would somehow get the better of me as soon as I had to mingle in a room of quaffers. It was that I had nothing to replace the reassuring sense of detachment from reality that booze offered on these occasions. What I feared was that I would hate every single long minute of the night. I feared that panic might set in mid-sentence, and I might have one of those out-of-body moments where you suddenly become conscious of your own voice, as an observer. I feared that I would have to stop going to social functions altogether. And it was this that made me wonder if I really was ready to quit.

The first time I attended such an occasion in sobriety was 3 weeks into my A/F life – on my own 50th birthday – an event that was planned before my decision to become A/F! I knew that having an alcoholic drink just simply wasn’t an option for me anymore, so my trepidation was nothing to do with combating temptation.  It was how to endure a night of sober chit chat.

Being sober that night did however have an unforeseen consequence, which was that I was able to concentrate on what people were saying and I could keep up with the conversation, without repeating myself embarrassingly. I could think of sensible questions to ask my guests, all about their lives. And as the people around me got more and more intoxicated, I realised I didn’t actually need my confidence boosted. It was just fine as it was. All I needed was to try and keep myself entertained, which I managed to do quite well up to 10.30pm simply by getting around as many guests as I could. OK, after 10.30, it got more difficult because I was tired and I wanted to go home. But overall, I succeeded and I got a great first glimpse of what to expect from functions of this sort.

I can’t say that I enjoyed it much – that would come later, once I had become more accustomed to these situations, and learnt when to arrive (later than most) and get away (earlier than most) and learnt how to get the most from them. But for now, I had done what I needed to do. I had got through it successfully. Driving home – yes, driving home (how amazing!) – I felt exhausted, but elated – a strange and very new combination of emotions.

The even stranger bit is that the next day I felt like I had a sort-of hang-over. My brain felt like toffee. I was slow and tired and just so dopey. But unlike a hang-over, there was no feeling of nausea or de-hydration or persistent lethargy. When I drank my first coffee I could feel the delicious restorative effects of the caffeine as it injected energy and life back into me.

Looking back on those early days of my A/F life, I realise that what made it all possible was my determination not to sentimentalise the loss of my old comfort blanket, but instead move on. Sometimes I didn’t know where I was headed, but that didn’t matter. That was part of the new adventure. Everything is different when you try to rejoice at being A/F rather than simply putting up with it for a week or a month. And that is the difference between a dry January and an A/F life.

If you think you can’t go A/F for life because your dry January was difficult – well they are different things.

I’ve just returned home from a college reunion weekend. It’s the second such gathering since I quit alcohol. My A/F status still slightly irritates and unnerves the group. I fielded a number of questions at various moments about my ability to sit amongst 5 beer swilling mates for several hours at a stretch, and I was comfortable with telling them that it didn’t bother me at all. I’m not sure that they felt the same way towards me though.

What I didn’t tell them was how wasteful we were with our time together, how alcohol made everyone so ill-disciplined with that time, and as a result how unnecessarily long we spent sitting around chatting (and drinking).

If you don’t have a drink in your hand, then it all starts to feel a bit boring. And guess what? That’s because it is! Not many people have enough going on in their lives to sit around chatting about it for 6 hours at a stretch. And it’s not that I don’t like chatting. I love it. I’m very sociable, and I love to hear all about what people are up to.

But the fact is, we simply didn’t need to spend 2 nights away from our respective homes to have a good time. All we needed was a shorter bit of quality time together –  a sociable activity in the afternoon, some early evening drinks followed by a tasty meal, after which we’d say goodnight and goodbye. That’s plenty of time for any group of friends to re-connect and have fun.

Drinkers just don’t understand that. That’s because reunions are such a marvellous cover for extended drinking sessions. They take on a sort of legendary status of their own. There was a point on the first evening of our reunion when I realised that I am able to live my life in the moment –  making the most of the now, not hanging on to a “drug”-induced high, wishing for it not to end. Here we were, the conversation flowing and mixed with lots of laughter. And that was everything I wanted from the occasion. I didn’t need to seal it in some alcoholic fix, lest it slip away before my very eyes, holding on until dawn before conceding the night to history. Instead I went back to my hotel, watched some telly, had a cup of tea and went to bed. They were good feelings too. Less intense than the alcoholic ones that my friends were indulging in, but far more plentiful and frequent. It’s a different way of doing pleasure (and much cheaper, by the way!)

 

It’s not just reunions, of course. It’s everywhere else as well. Like the golf club or watching live football/rugby/cricket, or historical re-enactments or theatre-going or book clubs… these pastimes are, for heavy drinkers, only a cover for their real pursuit. Life carries on in-between, but it’s patiently tolerated – born in the knowledge that “me time” will come around soon enough. Drinkers go through life never knowing what they really enjoy doing, because the desire for alcohol trumps all other activities so comprehensively. Their heads are mostly somewhere in the future, but when that future arrives they can’t hang onto it before it quickly disappears into the past.

It takes a while to reconnect with yourself when you stop drinking. But when you do, it’s the most empowering feeling imaginable. It’s a glorious reward for your efforts and makes it all worthwhile. It gives me the feeling that I have been given a second life. A life that I live in the present. In the now. It’s all we have, if you really think about it, and I have finally learnt to appreciate the full meaning of that truth.

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