by Amy Lee Coy
When everybody’s doin’ it, it doesn’t seem so strange. —-Black Light All Stars, “Dreams”
You know the scene… everyone is having a great time at the party until “Jenny” walks over and declines a drink because, she says, “I quit.”
“Oh…” we say. “That’s good. That’s great. Good for you.” And then we bee-line it anywhere so we can feel comfortable sipping our chardonnay again.
If a speedy escape feels rude or unresolved, then what should you do when you find yourself seated next to the only ex-drinker at the party? Should you reach for your wine discreetly, being careful not to show signs of pleasure as you swallow the tasty elixir? Should you decline that much anticipated glass of merlot for the sake of your new acquaintance? Should you pretend like everything is normal? Is everything normal?
As an ex-drinker who took her lust for liquor much too far, and as an author who writes about addiction, particularly in terms of reaching out to help people who are not helped by Alcoholics Anonymous, I understand and empathize with both sides of the coin: the drinker and the ex-drinker. In my non-drinking life today, I have found the most difficult thing about being at parties as an ex-drinker is not the lure of the olive-spiked vodka martinis or the sparkling, free-flowing champagne that passes me by–it’s being around drinkers who are so discomfited by my non-drinking status that I become the buzz-kill of the evening before I even have a chance to speak.
Because every ex-drinker is in a different stage in their “life after drinking,” it is difficult to offer a single solution to bridge the awkward gap between the drinker at the party and the anxiety provoking ex-drinker. However, having been in both positions, I can offer some general guidelines for what to do when faced with the dilemma.
#1. Relax! It is not true that every ex-drinker has unresolved issues with alcohol. Yes, some ex-drinkers are still sensitive to the sights and sounds of alcohol, but if merely watching you consume your chardonnay sets a person off on a five day bender, then they should not be attending parties where alcohol is served. It is not your responsibility to ensure an ex-drinker’s ongoing stability. However, it is your responsibility to be kind and considerate just as you would be with anyone else you meet at a party. Everyone appreciates warmth and kindness.
#2. Do not dote. Most people who quit drinking or using drugs do not share that information with the world until they are weeks or months into their sobriety. Even then, it should, ideally, be left up to the ex-drinker if and when they want to write, “I’m an ex-drinker” across their forehead. Today, five years after I’ve quit drinking, I still try not to reveal my ex-drinker status in social drinking situations simply because I know that information makes people uncomfortable. However, there are those times when a host or hostess is so intent on getting me a drink that I finally just have to say, “No, I quit drinking.” That usually does it. It also tends to add unsolicited sympathy, attention and doting–all of which serve to make me more uncomfortable, not less. So try to be as attentive (or inattentive) as you would be in the company of a drinker. Again, relax.
#3. You? There are legitimate reasons why drinkers often feel uncomfortable around ex-drinkers: anticipated or experienced feelings of being judged for enjoying their drink; fear that they might set the ex-drinker off on a bender at the mere sight of their drinking; fear that the ex-drinker is abstaining in order to be a watchdog of sorts, all too ready to bust them if they let too loose. I know the “born again” ex-drinker (and ex-smoker) type. But most ex-drinkers I know are not “born agains” and prefer not to discuss or harp on anyone’s drinking behavior. So if you find you are really weirding out while drinking in front of an ex-drinker, you might think about looking into your own issues.
#4. There is a limit. The truth is that not all ex-drinkers are bothered by the presence of alcohol. Even so, there is a limit to how much temptation an ex-drinker should have to take. Just as many ex-drinkers are fabulous hosts and hostesses, serving the finest wine and drink to their guests in spite of not sipping a drop themselves, it is always nice when a drinking person is conscious of an ex-drinker’s status and provides equally graceful consideration. I would not entice a dieter by wafting the delicious scent of freshly baked chocolate chip cookies under their nose. Gentleness and consideration are appreciated. But even more than that, I believe ordinary normalness is the behavior that is most desired, appropriate and appreciated by ex-drinkers. Our differences are only as large and important as we make them.
Amy Lee Coy is the author of From Death Do I Part: How I Freed Myself From Addiction, www.fromdeathdoipart.com. She is a writer, artist and musician living in Southern California.