This year, I celebrated five years sober. It’s been over six years since I first started seriously questioning my relationship with alcohol and considered a life without it. That’s six hard, beautiful, glorious years during which I not only stopped drinking, but also finally moved on from all recreational drugs as well as a history of bulimia.
The life I had before I quit drinking was a lot like Groundhog Day; I was always waiting for it to begin and always reliving the same stuff, day after day, year after year. When I finally walked away from booze at 34, my life opened up. I can honestly say sobriety is the best thing I have ever done for myself. It was my jumping-off point into a life I knew I had buried inside of me. I got out of debt, started a company that provides digital recovery, launched a podcast, and am in the middle of writing a book.
While making the decision to be sober was the best thing I’ve ever done, it’s also one of the hardest. Not only because not drinking is hard, but also because we live in a society where most everyone around us drinks.
It’s seen as normal to drink, and quitting that drug can feel like breaking a social pact. So your bold, life-improving decision to not drink will mean changes almost everywhere you look. Here are some surprising (and not-so-surprising) occurrences that will inevitably happen to your relationships, your identity, even your free time, and how I’ve learned to deal with each one.
1. Your friendships will change.
If you’re like most drinkers, you’ve likely surrounded yourself at some point with a group of people who also drink. I’d argue that many of us gravitated to a group of friends who have drinking habits that align with our own, and we did this because we didn’t want sober friends.
Personally, I always thought drunk people were fun, and I didn’t want my own poop relationship with alcohol to stand out. I wanted to blend in nicely with a crowd who understood that sometimes you just want to drink your face off, or one that didn’t think anything was weird about a glass of noon wine.
So if all of your friends drink alongside you, then there’s no issue, right? Well, there’s a concept in psychology known as “confirmation bias,” and it means that we often look for evidence to support something that we already believe to be true. For instance, if you’ve convinced yourself that you don’t actually have a crappy relationship with drinking, you may constantly be trying to find reasons that support the argument that you don’t actually have a problematic drinking habit (like the fact that all of your friends do the same thing, so nothing seems wrong here).
When you share that you’re no longer drinking, people might be freaked out by your decision; you may have just thrown a wrench in their search for their own OK-ness, took away part of their own confirmation of their behavior and lifestyle. Some of your friends, or the ones who are threatened by your decision, will do things like pretend it’s not happening, pressure you to drink, question your choice, or say something like, “Oh, you’re still doing that not drinking thing?” Sometimes they stop talking to you altogether.
This isn’t to say that all of your friends will be threatened, or that all of your friendships will change. Some will certainly remain, but even those aren’t necessarily long-game friendships. Sobriety is kind of like the fast-pass line at Disneyland, except the ride is growing up. Even if your friends aren’t rocked by the not drinking thing, it’s possible that if they aren’t engaging in their own path of self-discovery, there may be tension at some point while you figure yourself out and evolve, and you may grow apart.
There is no one way to deal with this. It’s part of the sobriety package, and it’s not necessarily a bad thing. Sobriety can be an incredible way to shed relationships you’ve outgrown as well as find new ones that align with your new values. While it can be emotional and heartbreaking to watch some relationships veer off course, all you can do is trust that friendships will disintegrate or grow organically, and whichever direction they take is probably for a reason. Be patient and uphold your own standards.
2. Splitting checks becomes A Thing.
Before I quit drinking, I never really used to care about dividing the bill down the middle with a group. At some point after college, it just didn’t matter if someone had a meal that was four dollars more than mine, or if they ate more edamame, or even if they had one more drink than I did. Now that I’m sober, this is a bigger deal. Not only because my portion of the check is significantly smaller than anyone else at the table, but also because I refuse to invest in Big Alcohol. I am morally opposed.
Thankfully, there have only been a few times when someone at the table hasn’t pointed it out on my behalf and adjusted accordingly. However, when it has happened, I have to speak up to point out that I didn’t drink and I’m not subsidizing their drinking. If you’re like me, this can feel entirely terrifying. I have always hated the feeling that I’m putting people out or being difficult.
In these moments, I have to remind myself that recovery isn’t just about not drinking; it’s about remembering that I am first and foremost responsible for advocating for my own well-being and boundaries. While you may not wish for this scenario to happen, for there to not be attention drawn to you, or for you to potentially be seen as the difficult, high-maintenance sober chick, this is one of the best things that can happen! This is an opportunity to assert for your needs, and therefore assert your worth.
The simple way I handle these situations: I say, very matter-of-factly, that I didn’t consume any alcohol and I don’t want to pay for it. That’s it. I usually grab the check, count up what I ate, add tax and tip, and give that amount. I would never expect a sober person to pay for my booze if the situation was reversed. And if anyone has an issue with it or thinks I’m ridiculous, that’s their problem, and a sign that I’m going to dinner with the wrong people.
3. Seltzer, Netflix, and pajamas will all take on a new meaning.
When I was drinking, it never occurred to me that I was an introvert. I would have classified myself as someone who loved to be around people and go out with them at night. Thinking back to before I was sober, I usually had to drink to be around people. When I stopped drinking, not only did my recovery dictate that I needed lots of time to myself, lots of self-care, and lots of nights in, I discovered that I was, in fact, someone who relishes in alone time. I recharge when I’m by myself, and I deplete when I’m with others—especially big groups. Alcohol masked this truth about me.
I’m not alone in this. Ask any sober person whether they want to go to a cocktail party or stay in with a pack of La Croix, The Crown, and a bathrobe. I’d bet nine out of 10 of us won’t even answer, and we’ll just laugh because it’s such a ridiculous question. Sobriety doesn’t necessarily turn you into Liz Lemon, but it can give you the clarity to understand that you’ve been Liz Lemon your whole life.
4. People will ask you why you don’t drink or just say stupid things to you about not drinking.
You are a mirror now, a flashlight of sobriety in a society that is laced with the judgment that it’s abnormal to abstain from alcohol. People will assume you drink and will be very curious about why you don’t have a drink in your hand when they do.
In the early days, I felt that it was my responsibility to answer the question, “How come you aren’t drinking?” I didn’t understand I could decline to answer or that I didn’t have to make sense to everyone. My answer changed over time. For a period it was, “I’m an alcoholic,” and that tended to silence anyone (for clarification, I no longer identify as an alcoholic). These days, unless I’m feeling generous, I simply say, “I don’t drink,” and leave it at that.
If people press that response, I’ll either stare at them and hold an uncomfortable silence (this is enjoyable at some point), or just change the subject. There are exceptions to this, like if someone alludes to their own struggle with alcohol, and then I might offer up a bit more of my personal experience. This hasn’t happened often.
That being said, you might not be at a place where you want people to know you’re not drinking, and that’s OK. You still have options. You can provide an excuse, like that you’re on antibiotics, or you aren’t feeling great or want to feel fresh for something you have going on the next day. It’s important to remember that you never have to give yourself up to make other people comfortable—ever. Whether you’re stating a one-sentence response (“I don’t drink”) or using a small excuse, the only thing to consider is whether you are comfortable, and whether your boundaries are being upheld.
I should also warn you that people will offer you drinks, and you’ll have to turn them down. This is where you have to think like a vegan: A vegan doesn’t eat meat to make other people feel better, and we don’t do that with alcohol either. Politely decline and remember that just because they offered you a drink-gift doesn’t mean you owe them anything but a polite declination of it.
5. You’ll eventually have sober sex.
I don’t have that much sex, and that’s more like me saying, I no longer lower my standards and sleep with just anyone because of beer goggles. There’s no easy pass for me anymore, no more getting drunk and slipping past the part where you get to know each other. There’s no more not caring if they see your cellulite or whatever you’re hiding under there; and you will, once and for all, discover that sex is never like in the movies. It is an awkward, vulnerable dance between two awkward, vulnerable humans.
But this, I’ve learned, is a beautiful thing. I wish I had been only having sober sex my entire life, because nothing has pushed me to raise my standards, ask for what I want and need, or allowed me to fall more in love with my absolutely imperfect body more than being present for sex fully sober.
The only way to navigate your new sex life is to (of course) make sure that you are with someone who will be gentle and respectful of you and where you are at, whether that’s a significant other who is up to speed on the status of your recovery process or a new partner that you feel comfortable with and trust. It may also be helpful to get to know yourself on your own, first. Spending sober time becoming familiar with your body intimately can help you better communicate your needs to someone else when you feel ready for that step.
6. There will be people who don’t want to date you because you’re sober.
There are people for which sobriety is a deal-breaker. This might seem like a terrible thing; this is not a terrible thing. This is a JOYOUS and wonderful thing because it easily sorts out the ones that have a weird relationship with alcohol, or the ones that just aren’t for you. It will hurt (pretty bad at first), but in time you will come to see it as the gift it is—and you won’t waste time getting to know the wrong person. It’s like a super-charged filter.
Bonus tip: Sometimes sober people won’t want to date you either. These fringe cases are the ones that aren’t fully comfortable in their own sobriety, or aren’t ready to leave part of their old life behind. For a really long time this was me—dating not sober people was like a lifeline to a world I no longer belonged, and on some level I felt like it gave me an edge. In any case, this still isn’t about you, and this is still a way to filter out a waste of your time. People that don’t want to date you because you don’t drink aren’t your people.
7. You most likely discover you’re awkward.
I personally have this thing, let’s call it “Inevitably Awkward Somewhat Socially Inept Woman That Doesn’t Know How To Do Small Talk” crossed with a bit of “Woman That Doesn’t Feel Like She Belongs,” and also “Woman That Is Preternaturally Afraid of All People,” and maybe a bit of “Snowflake Empath Who Feels Everyone Else’s Everything.”
My biggest fears in life include being in large groups of strange people, standing at parties by myself, and really just people in general. Alcohol helped this. Alcohol helped me forget my awkwardness and not-belongingness and it helped me talk to and be with people without my neck muscles freezing up (this is a thing that happens to me, I literally lose my neck function in large groups of people). Drunk me didn’t have to worry if I was alone at a party because drunk me didn’t abide such things. Drunk me didn’t worry if she belonged, or said the right thing, or had to have small talk because drunk me just handled that. Drunk me had loose neck muscles.
So now I’m sober, and I have zero choice but to be me in all situations. There is no escape route, or greasing the wheels, or magic potion that makes people less terrifying, or me more “socially normal.” I can’t do anything about who I am, which is perfect because we should all be so lucky to be ourselves in public.
The beauty in feeling awkward and being sober is that you become who you are, because you can no longer use the thing you were using to hide who you are.
How you deal with this one is you use it and you own it and you live it, because there is nothing more beautiful than a human who has no other choice but to be themself.
Becoming sober isn’t just about abstaining from alcohol. It’s a subversive, hardcore choice to take your life into your own hands. It’s an invitation to stop playing small. It’s an opportunity to grow into your bones, and every single crap thing that happens to you on the way only makes you stronger.
Holly Glenn Whitaker is the founder and CEO of Hip Sobriety, a modern, feminist digital recovery solution, and the co-host of the Home Podcast. Follow her on Instagram at @hipsobriety.