Socially Not Drinking
Unexpected Phase Two of Quitting Drinking
I thought quitting drinking would be easy.
Easy because I was committed to my decision. When I finally made the decision to quit drinking, I was done. My last drink was over two years ago.
But after that, there was an unexpected second phase in my sobriety journey.
I had to get comfortable with my new status as a non-drinker.
My friends had to get used to it too.
Socially Not Drinking
Knowing I’m generally comfortable in social situations, I believed that I did not need alcohol as a crutch anymore. I simply had to be comfortable being sober in situations where people were drinking.
Boy, was I tested.
I remember my first happy hour with my coworkers after I had decided to quit drinking. On a hot summer day in 2020, people in Austin were out and about, not overly concerned about COVID. My coworkers choose an outdoor bar/ coffee shop lined with picnic benches and big umbrellas for us to meet. I figured I could grab an iced tea and hide that I had quit.
But I had drank with this group before and when everyone was grabbing third or fourth drinks, and my plastic iced tea cup sat empty, someone asked me the question I was dreading.
“Are you not drinking anymore?”
Surprised at the directness, I fumbled through a response explaining that I had decided to quit drinking, outlining quickly ways that I felt my drinking was problematic. I hoped that would be the end of the conversation.
“That doesn’t seem that bad.”
“Those things happen to me too.”
My first outing with people who were drinking and I was being hammered with questions. Maybe it's my fault for going out with my sales coworkers. Salespeople are not known for their tact.
I was not prepared to defend myself.
Exasperated, I turned to the woman who had seen me on the day I had my last drink. She had held back my hair as I threw up in her bathroom, a mess after mixing red wine and White Claws all evening.
“Remember that night?” I pleaded, trying to call a witness to the stand.
“Oh no, that wasn’t a big deal.”
“Imagine that’s most of the time I drink.”
“You just mixed too many things, it was fine.”
I couldn’t tell if my coworkers were trying to convince me I didn’t have a problem or that they didn’t have a problem.
After what felt like hours in the hot seat, the conversation moved on to something else. My coworkers kept drinking, one guy got so drunk, he tipped over in his chair.
When everyone decided to go to another bar, I called it a night, happy to prepare for bed instead of extending the evening.
As I drove home, I reflected on the night. Even though I had to get through that difficult conversation, I was still happy I didn’t drink that night. 10 minutes of awkward conversation beats getting drunk, messing up my sleep and ruining the rest of the weekend for myself.
Looking back now, I also wonder how much of it was simply conversation versus the feelings of accusation I felt. The questions felt aggressive, but I was also coming from a place of defensiveness. It was the first time I had to explain to anyone why I quit drinking.
There were other little things people would do that bothered me when I first quit drinking. Some people seemed alright when I said I wasn’t drinking anymore, but then always asked me if I wanted an alcoholic beverage.
I could never tell if they forgot, thought it was more normal to keep offering, or simply didn’t understand what quitting drinking meant.
Weirder situations happened. Friends who knew I had quit drinking would offer me sips of their cocktails.
One time, I was visiting a different coworker and his family for dinner. He started to show me his whiskey collection, pulling bottle after bottle from his pantry, pouring tiny tastings for me.
Politely, I took a baby sip of one of the glasses he poured for me. Yuck.
Then he pulled out another, and another and I faked my sips. I didn’t want to drink, I didn’t even think whiskey tasted good anymore.
He was by far the nicest guy I worked with, I don’t think he had any bad intentions. But I wonder why I ended up in that situation.
Now, I offer a polite but strong “no” if someone offers a sip of their drink.
During my time in Austin, I learned to appreciate people like my friend who met me for sunset at Zilker Park, a pack of White Claws in one hand, a pitcher of homemade sweet tea in the other.
Another guy, who I started dating, surprised me when we went on a hike together.
I didn’t tell him I stopped drinking but he somehow picked up on it. After a hike one day, he pulled out a can of beer from his backpack and asked if I wanted one.
When I said no, to my delight, he pulled out a raspberry lime Spindrift from another pocket and asked if I wanted that instead. I sipped on the sparkling water while he sipped on his beer.
In those early days of quitting, the little things people did to make not drinking seem normal meant a lot to me.
California and Sober
Eight months after I quit drinking, I left my job in Austin and moved back to San Francisco.
Before my year in Austin, I had lived in San Francisco for five years. When I moved back, it was still home to many of my friends, including two of my close college friends who are married.
This couple doesn’t drink and are also the most extroverted people I know. When I was considering quitting drinking, they were an inspiration to me. They knew how to have fun.
In the past, they would hold the most creative birthday parties including activities like trampoline dodgeball, bubble soccer and one year, a day at Circus Center. Instead of getting tipsy at a crowded bar, I was high on a trapeze, swinging through the air.
So when I moved back to the Bay Area, they were excited to spend time with me and we spent a lot of time that summer exploring different hikes all around the Bay. We would stroll past a poppy field by the ocean or cows chilling on rolling green hills.
In general, drinking culture seemed different in San Francisco. When I told people I quit drinking, most people accepted it with ease. Occasionally, I’d get a classic “California Sober” response, “Me neither, I only smoke weed.”
When I chose not to drink in California, I wasn’t challenged. Having that safe space helped me start to feel more comfortable with my new identity as a non drinker.
It’s been two years since I quit drinking, and choosing to be sober feels more like a part of my identity. Like when my mom used to buy me shirts two sizes too big, I simply needed to grow into it.
Recently, I was at a raging first birthday party in Georgia with friends I had known since high school. A few people made jokes about my non-drinking status, but overall it was easy. Someone even made non alcoholic cider (with a rum bottle close by) which I felt was pretty thoughtful.
Another much younger guy called me, “Water Varghoose” to distinguish me from my sister and cousin, who have the same last name. I found it pretty clever since we’re often mistaken for triplets and were unfairly wearing the same jersey.
At this point in my life, I’d rather be known for being sober over being known for my drunken antics. I don’t miss the old stories reflecting back on that time when I was a little too drunk.
Looking back, I now see there was an adjustment period for me and my friends.
I had to gain confidence in my new identity. I find people these days are less likely to give me a hard time about not drinking, and I believe part of that is because now, it truly doesn’t bother me.
For my friends, people who I knew when I was submerged in drinking culture, they needed to adjust too. Quitting drinking isn’t a snapshot in time, but a journey. I was shedding a part of my identity, and it was a shift that me and my friends needed to embrace.
I have more faith in myself and my peers now. I am confident in my decision to quit drinking, easily smiling and making jokes when the topic of drinking comes up. I also have more serious conversations with my friends who are sober curious.
My friends have found new ways to spend time with me. I still love going dancing, grabbing a meal together or simply snuggling on the couch to catch up. The things people love about me has nothing to do with the amount of drinks I consume, and it never did.
Phase two of my sobriety journey now feels complete.
Thanks for reading Michelle Varghoose's Newsletter! Subscribe for free to receive new posts and support my work.