Oy joy. Here’s how to put in your face time, and go home without regrets.
by Lisa Smith
A work party is never merely a work party — for many of us, professional success depends in part on at least appearing to enjoy yourself at the annual holiday bash, ones that feature all-you-can-drink alcohol. Some employers go to great expense to dress these up as sophisticated gatherings in fancy spaces with charming bites strategically arranged on pretty platters. Other orgs take over a neighborhood bar or office conference room, and stick an ice-filled metal tub loaded with beer in the corner.
However high-end (or not), these shindigs frequently devolve into the same thing: employer-sponsored binge drinking. And for those of us who nearly lost our lives to alcohol, they’re far from festive. I might sound like the Grinch, but I fucking hate these parties. And I’m done apologizing for that.
I work in the legal world, which is drenched in alcohol. A recent study of practicing lawyers revealed that 21% have an alcohol use disorder, which is more than twice the generally accepted figure of 9% of the U.S. population overall. I’m glad to say the profession, along with other heavy-drinking industries, is working hard to address these numbers, but drink-centered holiday parties, client dinners, team celebrations, recruiting events, and regular “happy hours” aren’t going anywhere soon. Of course, lawyers aren’t the only ones who mix professional life with often heavy drinking. It’s a popular cocktail in many fields.
I’m happy to say that in the decade since I stopped drinking, maintaining my sobriety at these command gatherings stopped being a stressor and actually became my superpower — and not only during this time of year. Below are a few ways you can shift your party plan so you can put in face-time and still look yourself in the eye the next day.
Before You Go: Write down What You’re Grateful For
Make a quick gratitude list before you head to the venue. It can even just be gratitude for the fact that you don’t have to live chained to the bottle or drugs anymore. But your list is likely to be much longer than that. Items on my list have ranged from small things like owning pajamas and going to bed at night like a normal person instead of passing out, to big things like holding down the job that both pays my rent and obligates me to show up at the party.
At the top of my list every time are the incredible community and sense of self-esteem I’ve found in recovery. I felt so alone and full of shame when I was drinking, I couldn’t imagine it could be different. When I reflect even briefly on the life I get to live as a sober woman, I know I am not missing out on anything. On the contrary, I am gaining everything good I have today. That makes it much easier for me to pick up the sparkling water instead of the champagne at the entrance to the party.
When I reflect even briefly on the life I get to live as a sober woman, I know I am not missing out on anything.
On Your Way: Find Your Peace
Getting your head in a good place will keep you centered when the cocktails start flowing. What works for me is keeping HALT in mind: try not to show up feeling Hungry, Angry, Lonely or Tired.
If you are dealing with one of those feelings on your way, accept it, then address it as best you can: Call a sober friend, do a three-minute meditation from an app on your phone before you get out of the car, eat something healthy (I keep almonds and protein bars in my bag at all times for this purpose), or if HALT hits you at the party, excuse yourself and go home.
Before You Walk In: Know Your Exit Strategy
I used to be so tied to the bar at work events that when I got sober, the concept of arriving late and leaving early was revelatory. Who knew that could be a thing? Much to my surprise, people didn’t even seem to notice when I came and left. Turning my four-hour vodka marathon into a 45-minute seltzer-and-pineapple sprint barely registered with anyone. As I had done with so many situations while drinking, I overestimated my importance at the party to other people’s good time. Little did I know, how their evening went was up to them, not me.
Turning my four-hour vodka marathon into a 45-minute seltzer-and-pineapple sprint barely registered with anyone.
At the Party: Screw What Other People Think
Sure, bonding is usually done drink-in-hand, but it doesn’t have to be an alcoholic drink. Ever think you were the wittiest woman in accounts receivable, only to wake up the morning after the holiday party full of regret and maybe even with no memory of what you did? Yeah, so did I. Keep that feeling in mind as you walk through the door. By staying sober, you’re saving yourself a hangover, self-recrimination, and possible professional repercussions.
My experience is that not imbibing didn’t hurt my career—it helped it. I am able to show up, focus clearly, and be relied upon in ways I never could have before, even though I considered myself “high-functioning” when I was drinking.
It doesn’t matter if the people around me at office parties don’t understand why I don’t drink. I don’t owe them explanations. As I hear from my 12-step sponsor, “What other people think of me is none of my business.”
It doesn’t matter if the people around me at office parties don’t understand why I don’t drink. I don’t owe them explanations.
Toward the End: Grab Your Coat, Say “see Ya”
At whatever point you’re ready to leave, a simple, “I need to get going,” is all that’s required—there’s no need for self-conscious explanations from people you think might care that you’re not sticking around drinking. You never have to apologize for being one of the early people to head out. You can just say, “see you Monday,” then go home for a head start on that good night’s sleep that leads into a hangover-free morning after. Picture ahead of time what you’ll do when you get home; maybe you’ll take a bath, read a book in bed, or watch some trashy television. Envisioning that comforting scene along with how you’ll feel the next morning is a real help in getting through challenging evenings.
All Season Long: Remember You’re Not Alone
It was hard for me to grasp at first, but there are very likely others around who are choosing not to drink. They may have reasons are different from your own—or not. Especially with weeknight parties, people may want to go home (sober) to their families or get to the gym early the next morning, or they may just not love drinking. Not everyone feels compelled to have alcohol at work events — I see that more and more.
One big reason some people don’t imbibe? They may take meds that are not to be mixed with alcohol. In early sobriety, this was how I explained my absence at happy hour to my drinking friends at work. And the medication part was true: I have been on antidepressants since I went to detox in 2004. But they didn’t need to know what kind of medication or why. Once again, I didn’t have to explain myself, and neither do you. The point is, odds are you’re not the only one choosing not to drink. After my first few booze-free office gatherings, I learned I was not sticking out the way I thought I was with my seltzer and pineapple.
These parties don’t need to be fun, and it’s ok if you don’t look forward to them. It’s called a “work event” for a reason.
One thing that’s really helped me? The realization that these parties don’t need to be fun, and it’s ok if you don’t look forward to them. It’s called a “work event” for a reason. I’m hopeful that over time, overindulgence and omnipresent alcohol will won’t be the norm at these things. But until that happens, try to remember one of my favorite things about sobriety: You will never wake up in the morning regretting the fact that you did not drink the night before.