How To Have A Sober Social Life

By Anna North

A lot of social events involve, or even revolve around, alcohol. If you’re sober, or if a friend or date is, this can cause some problems. Luckily, we have some tips for solving them.

Talk to your friends.

I talked to Sacha Scoblic, author of Unwasted: My Lush Sobriety, who recommends an open chat if you or a friend decides to get sober:

Drinkers should […] feel free to talk to the sober person in their lives about his or her limits around alcohol. These aren’t state secrets; these are comfort zones. And everything is more comfortable when its out in the open instead of festering inside (Oh so now we can’t go to a bar anymore? — so lame. Or, Oh so now I have to watch my friends get drunk? — so rude). A chat about this new state of affairs — a friend’s sobriety — will probably end in a hug. Not chatting will end in resentments that only serve to further cleave the friendship.

So if a friend is quitting drinking, feel free to talk to them about how you can support them socially and otherwise. And if you’re the one quitting and you’d like your friends to make adjustments — like, say, meeting up for ice cream rather than beer — bring it up early rather than letting yourself get resentful.

Schedule non-alcoholic fun.

Caren Osten Gerszberg and Leah Odze Epstein of Drinking Diaries offered this advice for sober folks:

Take the lead by suggesting a movie or a play; a game of frisbee or something outdoors. A concert. Something where sitting in a bar or a restaurant drinking is not the focus.

Scoblic agrees:

When the get-together revolves around drinking, I start to focus on what I can’t have, and then I get moody just as everyone else is getting loose and playful. It’s not a great combination. I think the best way to be social with people who meet up at bars is to ask them to meet up at coffee shops, diners, or your apartment instead.

Non-sober friends can help too, she says. Some ideas:

Do shit together. Don’t just hang around drinking and expect to maintain a good friendship with your sober pal. Get out into the world. Eat together. Go to movies. Play games. Take a class. Climb a mountain. Study krav maga. Did I mention eat together? Without a drink in hand, parties, cocktail hours, and bars just feel like standinginterminably.

Serve tasty non-alcoholic drinks.

When I was in college, all parties had to offer EANABs, or Equally Attractive Non-Alcoholic Beverages. This meant you couldn’t have a full bar and, say, tap water — you had to offer some Snapple or Nantucket Nectar or at least a selection of sodas. This is a good rule of thumb for post-college parties as well. Gerszberg and Epstein say,

Make sure to have an assortment of nonalcoholic drinks on hand, not just water. If you’re going to take the time to stock your bar with wine, beer, and countless other choices, make sure you have other options for sober people, like sparkling soda or cranberry juice and seltzer.

They suggest offering some Equally Attractive Non-Alcoholic Activities as well:

Try not to make the entire event or party revolve around booze. If you’re having a cocktail or dinner party, include games where people can be silly without alcohol, like charades, Pictionary, Scrabble, Poker, even Guitar Hero.

Don’t treat your sober friend with kid gloves.

Says Scoblic,

Don’t completely edit your behavior for, say, me just because I’m an alcoholic. Getting wasted in front of your sober buddy is not awesome, but I don’t want to be the reason you’re not having a glass of wine, either. I’m not interested in imposing my psycho mental issues on top of your party, house-warming, or weapons swap. Nor will it help me to feel as though everyone is walking on eggshells for my benefit; I don’t want a big neon sign that reads “SENSITIVE ALCOHOLIC CHICK” swinging over my head every time I enter a room. Look, if you’re having a kegger, obviously I know to expect attending — and then I have to decide if I can handle it or not. Don’t judge me for not coming and don’t hide your beer if I do show up.

For dates, try a coffee shop — or coffee shop/bar.

Booze is a pretty common feature of first dates — as Gerszberg and Epstein say, “everyone seems funnier after a few drinks — and sexier, thanks to beer goggles.” Nonetheless, there are alternatives. They suggest, “If your date wants to meet at a bar and that’s hard for you, you might suggest a cafe instead. If the person insists on a bar, that might be something to note.” Scoblic has a similar idea:

Go to coffee/bars — you know, the kind with old velvet couches and lots of freelancers zoned out on their laptops. Your date gets his or her social lubricant, you don’t feel conspicuous ordering chai, and the noise level is actually conducive to a conversation, unlike an ordinary bar.

Don’t feel like you have to explain yourself for not drinking on a date.

Gerszberg and Epstein say, “Most people don’t want to come right out on a first date and announce that they’re in recovery — probably best to save that for the second or third date.” Luckily, not drinking on a first date doesn’t have to be a huge deal. Says Scoblic,

The thing about sober dating is that it shouldn’t be any different from any other kind of dating. The reason it is different is that we alcoholics get all in our heads about it and go whackadoodle. We do this because, as good addicts, we cannot actually imagine what it is like just to be a social drinker. We immediately assume that if we don’t order a drink, our date will think terrible things about us before we’ve even said a word — like that we’re lame, vanilla, preachy, squares — because that is exactly what we used to think about people who didn’t drink. Your date, however, is presumably not an alcoholic and therefore not as obsessed with this subject as you are. And here’s the thing: A lot of people don’t drink for many reasons (almost all of which this alcoholic finds hard to fathom) — like health, having no taste for it, or Mormonism — and no one gives a good gosh darn. Most of the time, people just aren’t thinking about us as much as we think they are thinking about us (in fact, they’re thinking about what we think of them; it’s a narcissistic round-robin). So: relax, have a club soda, and pretend you’re a health nut — until you can get comfortable with the fact that your lack of an alcoholic beverage is Not a Really Big Deal.

She adds, “If your lack of drinking does bother your date in any way, then consider yourself lucky: You just found out right away not to waste your time.”

While dating and socializing while sober can be scary, and changing your social life to accommodate a sober friend might feel difficult at first, the change can also be enriching. Gerszberg and Epstein suggest,

Where alcohol perhaps was once  your jumping-off point to having fun, explore new activities that you may not have tried before: indoor rock climbing, poker. Go to film festivals and concerts with friends. You’d be surprised how many activities don’t revolve around alcohol.

Even if you’re not sober, having a sober friend can spur you to break out of a social rut and try new things. And if you’re the one who’s sober, remember that gaining your friends’ support could help them discover new forms of fun too. Also, support is what friends are for. Says Scolic, “Friends should make you feel good to be around, not anxious. And good friends will want that, too.”


Image via keren-seg/Shutterstock.com

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35 Comments

  1. Thumb up 0

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    ‘She adds, “If your lack of drinking does bother your date in any way, then consider yourself lucky: You just found out right away not to waste your time.”’

    SO TRUE. I don’t drink very much very often, despite what some Chicagostraddlers may tell you, because I like to keep my wits about me, I’m on multiple anxiety meds, and I have a low alcohol tolerance ANYWAY. So if I’m driving, I usually will not drink ANYTHING, or have a half drink and wait quite some time.

    But there are a lot of people, especially at a Catholic football school (go Irish!), who will pressure you to drink or drink more. Those people are being assholes. They are not worth your time. You always have the right to both NOT drink and NOT be pressured to do so.

    /rant

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        Right there with you girlll…
        Drinking seems to be the ONLY way people know how to socialize at my university.
        I’m not a big drinker myself, simply because I don’t enjoy the party scene and I like to keep my head on right. And turning down a drink always turns into an hour long process of “why?! aww, loosen up! come onnnnnnnn…”

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          Thank you! I have friends who cannot wrap their heads around this. One friend in particular is constantly telling me to have one more, just one more! It’s as if the more she makes others drink, the more she feels comfortable drinking herself.

          I drink one, maybe two drinks at an event and I am done. I do not like to be pressured to drink because I get horrible hangovers after any more than two drinks. I feel like e-mailing this to my friend….

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      “You always have the right to both NOT drink and NOT be pressured to do so.”

      I have a good friend who’s having a hard time getting this through her head. “I bet you’ll like alcohol someday!” No, I really just don’t think I will…

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        That quote from your friend baffles me; even if such possibility exists, it has exactly what to do with the present day?

        I’m a person who did come to like alcohol nearly twenty years (and one transition) later and even so it meant nothing for how frustrating and tiring that constant pressure was then.

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          I think it’s because it usually takes a while to like the taste of alcohol? So the friend might just think she hasn’t acquired that taste yet and will if she keeps trying it.

          Still doesn’t make her comment any less crappy, though, just that I think that’s probably what’s behind it.

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    I don’t know how to feel about having an entire article dedicated to telling people how to hang out with me. My lack of drinking doesn’t change my social interactions, and I’d rather not be there if you’re going to be drinking heavily so PROBLEM SOLVED.

    This just makes me feel like an even bigger abnormality for having this need to be addressed for “everyone else” to deal with people like me.

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      I think this is really important, actually. I’m in college and am sober and it totally changes the way I’m treated. It sucks, but I think it’s just such a touchy/intimate topic that people who aren’t sober often don’t know how to go about having those conversations or interactions. Sometimes reading it from an outside source such as this is just what people need.

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      Then you’re a very lucky person, to have it not change your social interactions. That’s not the case for a lot of people, particularly those for whom drinking heavily was previously their main interaction with friends.

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        This.

        I recently quit drinking, and it’s really been quite difficult to work out “okay, how do I navigate these situations sober?” So something like this – really helpful.

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      I have to disagree here.

      1) it’s helpful for people who are in recovery/cutting back & not used to a social life that doesn’t include alcohol.

      2) it’s helpful for people who have friends in recovery/cutting back & aren’t used to a social scene that includes sober people

      3) some people don’t want to change their social life by not being around other drinkers even if they are not drinking

      4) addressing an issue thoughtfully does not call out individuals as “abnormal”

      5) for many people not drinking does change their social interactions.

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      I’d like to clear something up: I’ve never had alcohol, so I definitely don’t come from the same side as a former alcoholic. As someone who’s resisted caving into peer pressure for a good decade now, it’s still insulting for me to be questioned for why I don’t drink, and that was how I was reading this. You’re right, though, for those who have given up drinking, it’s a different situation.

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    I’m not in recovery, but I don’t like drinking that often and would REALLY APPRECIATE more parties with awesome sober-person bevvies. And also less pressure to drink.
    For me, the worst part of the evening is AS people are getting drunk, as it looks so fun then. Once they’re at their happy place, it’s pretty okay. They’re behaving a bit stupidly, which I don’t envy, but they’re also more willing to dance, and mine doesn’t stand out so much.

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    Great article! I feel it can be flipped, too – it’s not only sound advice for people combating alcohol addiction, but it’s also for good those of us who want to be sensitive to the needs of people in recovery.

    For what it’s worth, on the rare occasion I am sociable, I like offering non-alcoholic punch, cider or sparkling grape juice. Mulled red grape juice, mulled apple juice and mulled cider are good choices the winter months.

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    Thanks for posting this. I’m in recovery, but for the other side – family members of alcoholics. I have a very addictive personality, so I avoid alcohol and lead a completely sober lifestyle for this very reason. I don’t even drink wine or champagne. It’s too risky – it would be like throwing a match into a dry forest. It’s always super awkward being the only sober person at a party :|

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    I don’t really drink (once every 3 or 4 months) and the saddest thing is that some people stop inviting me to parties. Even if I don’t want to come because you’re all going to be on drugs and fucked off your faces, it’s still nice to be invited, dammit!

    Anyway, cocktail bars are good to go to sober because they can often make really tasty and pretty virgin cocktails! Yummy juice!

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      I think this can be tricky, though. If people routinely don’t come to events that I invite them to, then I stop inviting them because it feels rude/disrespectful to continue to invite them to events that they don’t obviously want to attend. I worry that it might seem like I feel like it’s something they *should* do, whether or not they actually want to. So, like, if I’m throwing a party and there will be booze involved, I don’t want to invite someone who has made it clear through their actions that they don’t like to be at parties with booze. Similarly, when (usually straight) friends turn down enough invites to see my drag shows, I’ll stop inviting them out of respect for the fact that it clearly isn’t their thing, you know?

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        Oops–typo. In the second sentence, I meant to say “obviously don’t want to attend,” not “don’t obviously want to attend.” Significant difference in meaning there.

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        My vegetarian friend was sad/insulted when I didn’t invite her to my bacon party, so I’ve learned that people really do just want to be invited to things no matter what.
        Also, I don’t drink and I find that if I say that confidently and cheerfully, people are fine with it. (just like saying I’m gay)

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        You can always directly ask the person in private, even if it’s just a quick facebook message or text message.

        You could simply tell them you noticed they haven’t showed up at your events and realise they might not want to take part in what you’re doing but you don’t want them to feel neither left out or pressured and that you’d love for them to be there and if they’d rather not come, then you can hang out some other time, no alcohol involved, and suggest an actual thing to do.

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    look at all those fun sober activities! this is also really good advice for people who aren’t in recovery or sober or anything but just don’t want to drink as much/often. i just moved somewhere that requires driving [aka not drinking] so i’m figuring out how to make that work. since i’ve realized nobody cares what you’re drinking (because a: they’re drunk and b: they look weird if they care that much), i’ve started getting a shirley temple or whatever. also the only thing standing between sober-me being able to do everything drunk-me can do is a little missing confidence, so not drinking and having fun and taking risks can be a game in self-improvement.

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    as someone who often chooses to not drink, i’ve gotten a lot of reactions & met a lot of people who could use this sort of advice. personally, the biggest hurdle has been dealing with the endless badgering to “grab a drink” & misguided concern about my ability to have fun while sober. while in an ideal world people would drop the peer pressure, i’ve found that it’s easiest to mislead people by having a (non-alcoholic) drink in hand for the night – a soda is easiest, or seltzer, or whatever mixer people are using. the assumption is that there’s alcohol in it & i don’t spend the whole night explaining why exactly i’m not drinking.

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      Silver, I agree! This is a great plan. When I’m dd’ing at a bar, I just get a tonic and lime, a lot of the time, or Coke. S’all good. I feel like having something IN my hand to sip on is oddly comforting, it doesn’t need to be alcoholic by any means.

      I love going to gay bars and dancing my ass off, because I subscribed to a “no fucks to give” attitude towards socialization a couple years ago, and honestly, no one really cares if you’re getting trashed or not. So half the time when I do this, I’m utterly sober. So if you’re a never drinker who isn’t worried about temptation or anything, you…can go to bars. Come with me. I’ll buy you a coke and we’ll dance in a pile of lesbians.

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    My girlfriend doesn’t drink, just ’cause she doesn’t like it, whereas I sometimes do.
    Luckily, we’re pretty cool on that, and just do our own thing.

    I’m just not big on drinking all the time though, especially as I work nights, there’s no time.

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    As an alcoholic/addict now in recovery— WE WON’T GO TO YOUR PARTY/BAR NIGHT IF WE DIDN’T FEEL OK ABOUT IT. Seriously, I couldn’t go to anywhere with people drinking/using for about a full year. Now, a few yrs later, I will decide for myself if I am comfortable being there and most times I am.

    In fact last Tuesday I went out dancing at the clubs in the Castro totally sober with people who were not, and had an amazing time. (Maybe bc I finally got a first kiss w this girl I’ve been seeing- bow chicka bow wow). Damn, I hope she’s not reading this right now. Oh well. If you are, let’s make out again soon, k? :)

    In conclusion, please don’t change your behavior on account of my inability to drink like a normal person.

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    Excellent article! I especially liked the “schedule non-alcoholic fun” part. I’ve been drinking with my friends for years, and very few of my favorite memories revolve around alcohol.

    But hey, if getting drunk is more your thing, that’s cool too. Just keep in mind that if your social life consists primarily of drinking, you’re a little boring.

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