When I decided to put my drinking on hold, I found myself smack in the middle of two groups without a clue where I fit.
There were my friends who drank—and I mean really drank. As in I knew the night would end somewhere between four and five in the morning, after hitting up every bar from the Lower East Side to Bushwick to Meatpacking. That’s where things usually ended at a packed, sweaty gay bar where some of my friends in the group would be on the prowl for either coke or ecstasy. I also knew that in going out with these friends, I’d have to set aside not just one, but two days to recover. If we went out mid-week, which we often did back then, I made sure to email my boss around 9 p.m., before I was too hammered, to tell him I had food poisoning and would definitely be out the following day.
Then I have a group of only a few people who never touched alcohol. They’re very strict about their sobriety and don’t dare to try to have a single glass of wine occasionally, as they fear one will lead to two, two will lead to three, then three will eventually lead to them losing count and worse. I admire them, because I’ve yet to master that restraint. I may have reached a point where I can have just one glass of wine a few times a year, but I think being able to stick to that single glass has less to do with my willpower, and more with avoiding their judgement.
According to my sober friends, you can’t say you’re sober if you drink at all. But according to my hard drinking friends, you can’t call yourself a drinker if you’re not getting drunk Thursday to Monday. And Tuesday and Wednesday for good measure.
Where on this tightrope do I belong, exactly?
Learning to live in the gray area
I try to avoid labels because I believe they put us into boxes in which we have little room to grow. But my friends on both sides of the aisle decided to label me, or take away my labels. You’re sober, but you’re not sober. If I were to believe in labels, does that make me… half sober? And what does that even mean?
According to my sober friends, you can’t say you’re sober if you drink at all. But according to my hard drinking friends, you can’t call yourself a drinker if you’re not getting drunk Thursday to Monday.
I have a hard time with seeing gray areas, and tend more toward extreme judgements. I either love or I hate. I give 100 percent or zero. I either read a book in one sitting, or I don’t read it at all. But, for reasons I can’t understand, sobriety—or, rather, non-sobriety, depending on which of my friends you ask—has created a gray area for me. In fact, it’s the only gray area in my life.
Maybe it’s because I’m new to exploring sobriety. I fear I’ll lose my drinking friends, offend my sober friends, or maybe I’ll disappoint myself. And I know I’m not alone.
“I think living in the middle means different things to different people,” says my friend Stacey, who calls herself sober. “I had a friend tell me that she had a ‘sober’ friend who lived in Los Angeles but would drink whenever she went to Las Vegas, which was a few times a month. I don’t think that’s middle at all—that’s just called ‘I drink in Vegas.’ But in this particular woman’s mind, she defined herself as sober.”
But where was Stacy’s friend supposed to belong when she gave up drinking while home in LA? “She’s sober when she’s home, of course,” Stacey says. “If she’s not getting hammered, she’s sober.”
Although it might sound ridiculous, this sentiment of Stacey’s friend, I understand. If anyone were to ask me today my drinking, or non-drinking status, I’d say sober. Even if I had one glass of wine with dinner tonight, I’d still consider myself sober. In my mind, one glass, if it really is just one glass, doesn’t make me a drinker. I’ve been a drinker; drinkers don’t have one glass. Drinkers have the whole bottle and then some, and multiple times a week. I can’t possibly call myself a drinker for having one glass of wine for the first time in months. But, on the other hand, my sober friends can’t possibly call me sober for having that one glass.
I can’t possibly call myself a drinker for having one glass of wine for the first time in months. But, on the other hand, my sober friends can’t possibly call me sober for having that one glass.
Erin, a friend of another sober friend of mine, is also in the middle of trying to decide where she belongs —if she belongs on either side at all.
“I can’t stand being in the middle,” Erin says. “But that’s exactly where I am. Ask my drinking friends and they’ll tell you I’m sober, although I will have a glass of champagne to toast the marriage of a friend or something else equal in celebration. But then I’ll go to an AA meeting and get just as nervous as I did before confession when I was a practicing Catholic as a kid. Some groups give me a break, depending on who’s there, but others just don’t, suggesting I have to start back at zero. One glass of champagne shouldn’t throw out 30, 60, 90 days or more of sobriety.”
It’s also this all-or-nothing mentality that keeps me away from AA. As Erin says, “I’d like to think I’m in my own special kind of category,” and I like that thinking, too. Although she does go on to say that this special category makes her “a little agoraphobic these days,” and that’s something else I can understand. Sometimes it’s easier just to stay away from social events than deal with temptation or deal with explaining why I’m not drinking.
I have sober friends who somehow manage to always be the life of the party and never miss a single event. I attribute that to practice.
But, honestly, I think Erin and I feel this way because we’re still in the middle. I have sober friends who somehow manage to always be the life of the party and never miss a single event. I attribute that to practice. When you’ve learned to be social without alcohol as a crutch for so many years, you forget that you ever relied on it in the first place. Or at least that’s what I’ve been told in not so many words. I think it’s just a matter of getting there: out of the middle; out of the special category.
Although I’m fortunate enough that my drinking friends haven’t run for the hills—yet—I know that has a lot to do with my lifestyle.
As someone who’s currently subletting her apartment in New York City so I can travel as I work remotely, I don’t constantly have the social engagements that I had when I was in New York full time. Every night there was an event: someone’s book party, some charity event, a gallery opening, someone’s birthday, someone’s engagement, someone’s divorce party, and the list went on and on. But in Paris and Barcelona, where I spend a lot of my time when I’m not in the city, I can count on one hand how many friends I have—in both countries combined.
I have sober friends who somehow manage to always be the life of the party and never miss a single event. I attribute that to practice. When you’ve learned to be social without alcohol as a crutch for so many years, you forget that you ever relied on it in the first place.
But most people don’t have the luxury of uprooting their lives.
Writer Randi Newton and a sober companion tells me, “I stopped drinking over nine years ago and I knew I had to just quit it all or I would die. I think a lot of people just didn’t know what to do with me when I stopped drinking. With my drinking came a lot of unnecessary drama. I was always upset about something or someone, and drinking just fueled all that.”
As Randi tried to figure out where she belonged, her social life came to a head. “I found that one group of people I spent time with had a ‘ringleader’ who tried to decide what was appropriate for me to be invited to and what wasn’t, which eventually became every single event,” Randi says. “I’m the [sober one], so let me decide whether or not I will feel comfortable.”
The majority of Randi’s friends now didn’t know her when she drank. “I cannot even count on one hand the number of people who stuck around when I got sober (not including my immediate family).”
I trust my friends enough that they wouldn’t exile me for not drinking, but sometimes they do give me a hard time for it. Even when I suggested recently we all get together in January before I head back to Europe for a few months, two friends asked, “Is this going to be a sober thing?” Honestly, I don’t know. And if it is a sober thing for me, or if I have one glass of red wine, does it matter?
Until that answer comes to me, I’ll continue to try to balance myself on the tightrope, try to accept my choices without the badgering of others, and try to figure out what’s best for me, without sticking myself in a box. I’ve never been a fan of confined spaces, literally or metaphorically, so I sure as hell am not going to trap myself just to make others feel comfortable.