It’s been 70 days since I had a drink. Last weekend I had to attend three work-related social events, or as I have come to think of them, drinking occasions. And not just drinking occasions, but drinking occasions with novelists (I work in publishing). Scores of them. On an all-expenses-paid boondoggle. I’ve done my fair share of drinking-with-writers in the past, and was sort of quaking at the thought of managing all that glad-handing and chitchat sober for the first time.
The first night was a cocktail party, so I knew I only had to survive for 90 minutes or so before making my escape. And you know what, somehow everything was okay. The room was too busy and crowded for anyone to notice I wasn’t drinking, and the cognitive dissonance of being sober at a drinks party for the first time in, oh let’s say ever, reminded me that technically I was working, which somehow made it easier to work the room. I greeted and talked to far more people sober than I ever would have if I’d been drinking, when I would’ve ensconced myself in a safe and cozy nook of friends and barely budged. That’s right–I had less social anxiety sober than I used to when drinking. I don’t fully understand it, but I’ll take it.
The second night–a gala dinner at a beautiful museum in town–was harder. Cocktail hour dragged on longer than it was meant to (and me in uncomfortable heels), and despite the presence of several clever themed cocktails on the night’s menu, there was nothing beyond the dreaded seltzer with lime for non-drinkers. (I have the rank to influence this kind of thing next time around but must find a subtle way to do so…) Once we finally sat down to dinner, things got better. There were eight of us at my table and I realized that only two or three were doing what I’d consider serious drinking. Most of the others were sipping a glass or two of wine, and the man on my left wasn’t drinking at all. Have I always been surrounded by more ‘normal’ drinkers than problem ones, and just never noticed?
I got to talking with that abstinent man on my left, who was thoughtful and gracious and lovely, even if he did also seem slightly fixated (conversationally speaking) on Ronald Reagan’s leadership and management skills. At one point he mentioned that he’d quit drinking 28 years ago and before I knew it I was saying ‘Wow! It’s day 63 for me.’ Oh fuck, did I really just tell a virtual stranger whose livelihood relies partially on my bulletproof professionalism and judgement that I’m newly sober? I thought. But his eyes lit up. He beamed at me. “Oh, that’s wonderful!” he said. “Congratulations! You’re going to see that there’s absolutely no downside to not drinking. And when you start to understand that, everything will just open up for you.” And we talked about it a bit, his sobriety and mine. Not too personally–but enough for me to feel I had a real connection to this stranger, a connection I never would have made when I was drinking. It was hard not to think the universe had had a little something to do with the seating chart that night.
The hardest part of the night was when all the hurrahs and speeches and trays of macaroons and espressos were over, when I’d ducked the after-party and headed home. As an introvert, I’ve always cherished that quiet glass of wine or three after an overstimulating evening among the other human beings who insist on socializing with me. Without wine, I was at a loss for how to bring myself down–so there I was, amped and antsy at eleven on a Saturday night. I’d like to say I found the magic trick–a hot bath, a calming book–but honestly, I just had to wait it out till I got sleepy. Which really wasn’t that big a deal–but still, I know how that I’m going to need some skills for nights like that one going forward. Maybe it’s even a matter of taking mini-breaks during the event itself to grab a little quiet and find my center–I could have ducked out to the garden between courses at dinner, for instance, or even snuck off to the ladies room to do a crossword on my phone! Next time (which fortunately won’t be for a while), I’d like to have a mental list of tactics for keeping myself from getting too flooded with stimulation and consequently buzzing just when I should be sighing with relief that it’s all over.