My friend Lauren, who asked me not to use her real name, has been sober for more than two years. She was a good friend — someone I texted almost daily with news and commentary, wardrobe emergencies, and, of course, plans to have our ritual pre-dinner glass of wine. It didn't happen every afternoon. But three or four days a week, Lauren would come over around 5 p.m., after I'd had a long enough day with a toddler to think a smidge of wine sounded like a great idea, but before either of our husbands came home.
As it turned out, that was usually her third or fourth drink of the day.
When Lauren told me she was an alcoholic, I didn't know what to mourn first. I wanted to mourn our time together, because certainly, I thought, she wouldn't be able to steal afternoon time with me if she became sober. But I also wanted to grieve for the friendship I thought we had; I wanted to know whether she'd actually been coming over to see me or just for the booze. And I felt sad knowing that I had no way to internalize what she must be going through — the confusion, and the shame, and the cravings, and the loss of control.
I'd suspected for months, of course. Since she house-sat and left our collection of liquor bottles nearly empty. Since she started downing tumblers of wine in a single go. Since one of her work colleagues started confiding in me that Lauren's drinking was getting in the way of their collaborations.
All at once, it was obvious; I felt that if I cared about Lauren, I had to put her health before our friendship. I had to ask her to get help, even if it meant we wouldn't be close afterwards. I didn't know what else I could do. We got rid of all the liquor in our house, dropping half-consumed bottles of fancy whiskeys and liqueurs off on a different friend's porch, with the plea "PLEASE DRINK THIS WITH US" scrawled on the labels in Sharpie.
Luckily, I wasn't the only one who decided to stop drinking with Lauren. Other friends had noticed, too. And after a Christmas-break blow-up with her kids, Lauren agreed to go to rehab. It took a lot of hard work, but she got clean.
Afterwards, though, she had to relearn how to be friends with people. And like so many whose friends have been through similar break-ups with booze, I had to relearn how to hang out with her.
More on Sober Celebrations
I didn't want her to drink, but I did want the old Lauren — the one who invited me over at the drop of a hat, to drink wine and watch part of a football game, or drink wine and share a piece of cake, or drink wine and dig to find the perfect shoes for some purportedly life-changing event neither of us would think of again. The wine-drinking part wasn't dangerous to me, so it was hard to digest the idea that it might actually be fatal to her.
When you're in rehab, Lauren told me, they push you to be careful about who you socialize with and where you hang out with friends. Bars are absolutely off-limits. Ditto for dinner parties, if they involve liquor of any kind. Her therapist encouraged her to establish a secret code with her husband, so that if she ever felt threatened — if she ever felt like she really needed a drink and couldn't say no — she could flash the sign and he'd whisk her away to safety.
At first, when she got back from rehab, Lauren avoided any social event where she knew there would be alcohol, because she knew she'd be too anxious about it to feel comfortable chatting about the most mundane things. She stopped going to her wine group, which felt like a huge loss. It became clear to her that she and her husband were getting invited to fewer and fewer things. (I was certainly afraid to invite her over.)
Holidays were the worst: Her family knew what she was going through, but she didn't feel like she could host a proper Thanksgiving or Christmas meal without wine (or eggnog, her favorite). But she couldn't have them in the house, either. She gave up hosting.
Find new friends, the rehab therapists had recommended. But she didn't want new friends. She wanted a new way to hang out and socialize with the friends who had been with her through all of the other things life hands out over the years. So she vowed to find a way to hang out with her friends sober, even if they were drinking.
The first step, when she felt emotionally strong enough to tell others she wasn't drinking, was going back to her wine group. She didn't make a big deal about it — in fact, she hosted, and bought wine — but she also made mocktails that she knew she loved to drink.
She listened as others talked about the wine, and developed a stress headache that lasted the entire evening, both because she was nervous about relapse and because she missed what she always felt was the best part of the evening. Above all, though, she was anxious that people would notice she wasn't drinking — for Lauren, like for so many former alcoholics, the stigma of not drinking is stronger from the former drinker's point of view than it is for others.
Slowly, though, the wine group meetings have gotten easier for Lauren. She's become comfortable drinking other things instead. It's taken time for her to change the part of her brain that instinctively connects socializing with alcohol, but it's changing. She spends less time wondering what others are thinking. She asked a group of girlfriends to make their girls' weekend booze-free, and they all supported her 100 percent.
She's also back in charge of family holiday gatherings, and has relearned how to host without providing alcohol or drinking it. She invites guests to bring alcohol they'll enjoy, with the caveat that they take any unconsumed alcohol with them when they leave. At other people's houses, she brings fancy sparkling water or another fun non-alcoholic beverage that she can really enjoy, or makes mocktails and packages them attractively for all to share.
Over time, I learned that (of course) she did want to spend time with me. One day, she texted me about a type of turmeric tea she was obsessed with — it had a hint of ginger, and had I had it? I spiked it with vanilla bean syrup and turned it into a luxurious turmeric steamer that feels as special as any cocktail. She and I have started to meet for coffee, and to share fun teas the way we used to chat about wine. Most importantly, she's internalized that being with friends and family is what's most important, regardless of what's in your glass. And I've learned that my role, as her friend, is to fill hers with something we can share.
3 Ways to Support Recovering Friends
If you're hosting a party that includes a recovering friend — or, more importantly, hosting a group of people whose back stories you don't know — try to think broadly about the drinks you have on offer. Here are three ways to be more inclusive and help people enjoy themselves if they're avoiding alcohol.
- Always have non-alcoholic beverages available, and offer them verbally. Instead of "Hey, can I get you a drink," offer a specific non-alcoholic drink. "Hey, can I get you a glass of wine or a sparkling water, or one of my fab Mock Mojitos?"
- When you give people options for what they can bring, include non-alcoholic beverages. That way, if they strongly prefer to have something in particular, they can jump on it without feeling awkward.
- Try to avoid asking people (especially those you don't know well) why they're not drinking. You might make them feel uncomfortable unintentionally.