“So,” he said, “what do you think? After a couple more months of this, can you drink again?”
“Umm, I don’t think so,” I said, even though I knew the answer was a most definite, “No.” My stomach felt a little sick as I said it, in part because the idea of not drinking had been unimaginable not so long ago, but also because I was terrified about what my newfound sobriety would mean for my friendships.
I was lucky to be surrounded by a tight circle of great friends in the city. We all worked demanding jobs with long hours and we all loved to unwind together over dinner and drinks on the weekends, sometimes on weeknights. But while my friends managed their drinking like “normal” people do—stopping after a few or surviving the occasional hangover if they had a few more—they had no idea of how badly out of hand my drinking had become. They didn’t know that after the check had been paid and we all left the restaurant, I went home and opened (and finished) another bottle of wine. They didn’t know that I snuck out of my office at lunch to drink. And they certainly didn’t know that I had begun drinking in the morning in order to steady my shaking hands and relieve my crashing headaches.
So when I announced to them that I was checking into a detox for five days because I couldn’t stop drinking, none of us really knew what it would mean. It was a lot for them to swallow, learning about the life I had been living and the fact that I had been hiding it for so long. But in addition to that, no one we knew was sober. None of us even had family members who were in 12-step programs to help us understand what to expect. For me, there was no playbook on how to continue to maintain my close friendships in sobriety.
In the very early days, as I attended outpatient rehab and 12-step meetings, I was like a racehorse wearing blinders, laser focused on what was directly in front of me. Wake up, march directly to meeting, go to work and, unless it’s rehab night, go directly home. My friends treated me as if I were a newborn baby, checking on me several times throughout the day to make sure I had woken up and gotten to work, eaten at mealtimes and was bathed and ready for bed at night. They handled me gently as if I were a Fabergé egg.
When it came time to go to dinner and hang out over cocktails those first few months, I bowed out. I couldn’t imagine watching everyone enjoy a martini before they ordered a bottle of wine while sitting in a trendy restaurant. Even worse, I couldn’t bear to be the reason that no one drank at dinner when I knew perfectly well they wanted cocktails. The truth was I lost my drinking privileges because of how out of control I had become. They hadn’t. They certainly weren’t going to make me feel left out or defective for not drinking—that was something I was entirely prepared to do on my own. My inability to socialize the way I had before I got sober was about what went on in my head, not theirs.
I took my frustrations to my sponsor. She assured me that I didn’t need to change my friends just because I stopped drinking with them, as long as they were supportive of my sobriety. This was a major relief after hearing in 12-step meetings that I should avoid “people, places and things,” that I drank around. I could accept the places (no more nights at the dive bar across the street from my apartment) and the things (no more boozy brunches), but not the people—at least not the supportive ones.
What I needed to change was the way I spent time with them. Dinner on Saturday night needed to become breakfast on Saturday morning or lunch and walking around the city on Saturday afternoon. Before I got sober, I had become such a nocturnal, drunken slug that I had forgotten these were actual options. So while I expected people to recoil when I offered to swing by their neighborhood for a weekend breakfast, my friends actually thought that was a great idea. Much to my surprise, it turned out that people who aren’t chained to the bottle manage to see daylight at all kinds of early hours. Who knew?
Of course, switching up how I socialized with the friends I used to have dinner with on the weekends left a gaping hole in my weekend schedule. And that hole was in the shape of a vodka bottle. It needed to be plugged, quickly. My sponsor assured me that there were in fact humans walking this earth who did not drink on Saturday nights. By getting connected with a sober crew from meetings, I found them. On several Saturday evenings, I hit a meeting and then went to dinner with people from the group afterwards. I expected it to be grim. Just as in every other group, we find people we click with and people we’d prefer to avoid, but at those dinners I ended up having some of the most gut-twisting belly laughs I have ever experienced.
Perhaps most surprising, I also learned that I can very much enjoy spending a Saturday night by myself, at home with a movie or a book. Now that I’m not dependent on the bottle, I get to choose how I spend my time and it turns out that I like some peace, quiet and maybe a little Ben & Jerry’s. The dear friends I had before I got sober remain my dear friends. We are still intertwined in each other’s lives, as we have been for 25 years. My sobriety is no longer a big topic of discussion or something we tiptoe around. It’s just a fact. One of us has teenage kids, one of us moved to Asia, one of us just started a great new job and I am still sober.
Over time, I even found myself ready for that occasional weekend dinner with my friends. In the past, going out to dinner for me was about the drinking first and the company and food second and third. But the first time I sat surrounded by people I loved, comfortably raising my glass of seltzer to toast a friend’s success, I saw the dinner celebration as they did. Friendship came first. And, even better, it doesn’t cause blackouts or hangovers. I’m grateful.