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How I Built a Sober Social Life

I’ve learned we don’t have to drink to have fun. 4 tips for socializing sans alcohol.

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Diana Ejaita
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“I can’t believe you’re here and not drinking,” said my friend, as groups of women sipped wine around us. We were in a cozy bar in the West Village, and I was nearly three months into an alcohol-free life.

“Me neither, but I’m actually having fun,” I said, hardly able to believe myself.

Four months prior, I’d been one of those wine drinkers. But after what would most likely be my third or fourth glass of wine, my fun and carefree attitude would turn dark and brooding, with my nights usually ending in tears. A month before I quit drinking for good, it was clear that drinking wasn’t fun anymore. And I realized I could no longer predict how my nights would end after that first sip of alcohol.

My relationship with alcohol began normally enough with a bottle of wine at home after work and happy hours with friends. But after years of undiagnosed depression and anxiety, alcohol turned into my coping mechanism, until its calming effects completely stopped working.

Maybe you can relate? If you’ve ever woken up with no recollection of the previous night’s activities, or couldn’t make it through one social evening without an alcoholic beverage, you might wonder if you should stop drinking or cut back.

For me, anytime I had anxiety or uncomfortable feelings that I couldn’t face, I drank them away under the guise of being social, telling myself that my drinking wasn’t a problem because I didn’t drink alone. For me, alcohol was a social lubricant, “liquid courage” as some call it, giving me the ability to talk to anyone and seemingly removing all of my awkwardness. Unfortunately, that meant most of my drinking occurred in public settings, and I never seemed to be able to toe the line between pleasantly buzzed and completely blackout drunk.

I started taking a closer look at my drinking when terrible hangovers progressed to sprained ankles and bruises from being so drunk I couldn’t safely walk home. One evening, an attempt to get home after a night of drinking ended with a hospitalization from a concussion. I woke up in the hospital and knew I could no longer consume alcohol. Was I an alcoholic? In my mind, alcoholics were older white men who drank whiskey straight from the bottle, not young, professional Black women like myself. I’ve since learned that stereotype is not reality.

According to a 2016 study in the Journal of Addiction, despite being less prevalent than in the U.S. population at large, “both alcohol use and abuse are commonplace among African American women.” Among alcohol-consuming adults of all ethnicities, 46.3 percent of African Americans are defined as binge drinkers (i.e., consuming four or more drinks in less than two hours for women) in comparison to 43.7 percent of drinkers of other ethnic backgrounds.

I knew I needed to quit drinking, but the thought of never consuming alcohol again seemed like signing the death certificate for my social life. Regardless, after I decided to stop, I knew I needed support as a newly sober woman in order to return to a world filled with drinkers. I sought help from the alcoholism recovery communities in New York more than eight years ago.

In that time, I’ve rebuilt a thriving social life without alcohol and adopted beliefs and boundaries along the way that keep me happy and safe and allow me to constantly form new relationships. If you’ve ever thought about quitting drinking — or just cutting back — know that you can do it. Reach out to your health care provider, therapist or local 12-step community if you need help. And consider these tips for socializing without alcohol.

1. Consider exactly why you want to go to an event.
Whether it’s a party or simply just going out to meet friends, I always determine the true reason for attending any social gathering. If I can’t come up with anything besides “because I’m bored” or “I just need a reason to get out of the house,” I usually won’t go. Anytime I place unreasonable expectations on an event to entertain me or better my mood, the chances are high that my anxiety will increase and I’ll want to drink to ease it. Thankfully today I no longer have the need to show up at an event that is of little to no interest to me just because I fear missing out on something. If I really am desperate to get out of the house, I try to bring a friend so I know I’ll have someone to talk to if I’m feeling too nervous to strike up a conversation with a stranger. Plus, attending an event with friends is almost always better than going it alone. Strength in numbers!

2. Always have your own way home.
Thankfully, ride-hailing apps like Uber and Lyft make this tip very simple, and public transportation can help. But when I first quit drinking back in 2011, it was imperative that I had a way to leave every social event when I was ready to go home. Yes, sometimes it’s nice to get a ride from a friend and save some cash, but not if it means you’ll end up stuck at a party for hours past the time you wanted to leave. Feeling trapped was the quickest way for me to end up drunk.

3. Focus on connecting with others.
At your first social gathering as a nondrinker, you may feel like the most awkward person in the room, but chances are you’re not. When I feel overwhelmed and nervous at an event, I assume there’s someone at the party even more uncomfortable than I am. I find that person, go talk to them and focus on making their night better, which ultimately helps my own mood. Getting out of my own head makes any social event a piece of cake.

4. Remember, most people don’t care that you’re not drinking.
And if they do, which is rare, it doesn’t matter. In the early days, I was so worried about who would notice that I wasn’t consuming alcohol at a party, but experience has taught me that most people are more interested in their own good time than what I’m drinking. Today, if anyone asks why I’m not drinking, a simple “I don’t drink” quenches their curiosity. The bottom line is your decision to quit drinking alcohol for whatever reason is your own. You have nothing to prove to anyone, and a thriving, alcohol-free social life awaits.