“There is exactly one reason I am going to the holiday party,” my friend said of his company’s annual gathering. “Free booze.”
I have been sober for almost nine years, but I find this logic completely reasonable. Whether they’re with your family, coworkers, or an assortment of cohorts, holiday parties are almost by definition an awkward affair. We are often obligated to attend these events and repeat assurances that everyone is having a Very Good Time—and the reward for our presence is proffered in alcohol.
That’s because liquor is a salve for awkwardness—beloved for centuries for its ability to evaporate tension and stress, morph strangers into comrades, and turn a stuffy party into a night to remember (or, depending on how much you drink, forget). Soirees aside, we demand a lot of ourselves during the holidays: insisting that we are not exhausted and frustrated, coordinating schedules, fighting about politics, spending money we don’t have on gifts we can’t afford. For much of the population, they can push all that fuss aside, grab a cup of eggnog, and stubbornly insist that they are jingling all the way.
So what of those who don’t partake in the inhibition-dropping elixir? This will be my ninth holiday season sober, and what I have learned from abstaining from it can be applied to drinkers and non-drinkers alike. But there’s a reason many sober people feel like outsiders during holiday festivities: We are.
When I was newly sober, I saw alcohol everywhere. I wasn’t hallucinating: In Western culture, alcohol is everywhere. Nine years ago, my sensitivity to this saturation was raw, and the billboards and commercials and sexy-drinking people made me feel as though the world was conspiring against me to mock my dumb sobriety.
I soon noticed that parties all began the same way. The weather outside is frightful, but there’s booze inside, so who cares? Today, having acclimated to sobriety, it can be lovely to be among partygoers who are just on the right side of buzzed, flushed and giggling with a glass full of holiday cheer. There are usually people I love in these rooms, or at least people I like, and each year I promise myself that I’ll not be a bummer and will ride their tipsy, carefree coattails for the rest of the evening.
But the right side of buzzed is not sustainable. Soon, eyelids begin to droop. Jokes are repeated, louder every time. Comments uttered through slurred speech sound sharper and meaner. Hands wander, feet are stepped on, and suddenly I am too sensitive, impatient, prude, rude, and an overall party pooper. It’s a wonderful time of year.
There are countless of reasons why people choose not to drink. Many don’t drink for personal or religious beliefs. Some abstain for health intentions, others because they either dislike the feeling of being intoxicated or the resulting hangover. Then there are the folk—like myself—who once loved it too much.
I’ve written and spoken about sobriety a lot since I got sober. As the months and years of being sober passed, I adapted to being a sober person in a world full of drinkers. As a result, I’ve been asked a lot of questions about how to get sober and how to support someone who is trying. But what no one has ever asked me is how it feels to be the only sober person at a party.
The answer, if you’re wondering, is lonely.
That’s not what I’m supposed to say. As a supposedly well-adjusted adult—one who is comfortable enough her sobriety—I feel like I’m supposed to say I’m always happy to be sober. I don’t begrudge partiers their fun (though I’m sure it sounds like I do). Instead, I begrudge only the expectation that I should partake in the merriment, thereby making me feel like something other than who I am.
It is not the abstaining from alcohol that’s difficult and isolating—it’s the stubborn insistence that you either play along with faux revelry or keep quiet and drink your juice with a smile. It’s a false dichotomy: one that says you must either lie to yourself and others, or be miserable. You are either the whole, happy town of Whoville or the Grinch, determined to abscond with everyone else’s joy. This is why we sober people get quiet in groups of holiday revelers: We can’t quite play along, but we also don’t want to get in the way of your fun.
As children, the holidays inspired a feeling of magic and wonder. Of course, for many children, that’s far from the reality. But the messaging is all there: presents, twinkly lights, miracles on 34th street, and a solid two weeks without school.
As adults, we strive to recapture this magic; society practically forces the nostalgia upon us. We’re bombarded by reminders that we’re supposed to be filled with joy, but it’s not quite the same after our wisdom teeth have departed and taken our suspended belief with them.
Instead, our holiday cheer now comes in liquid form. We recreate a sense of possibility and magic by fueling up with booze and seeing where the night takes us.
I don’t think there’s anything inherently wrong with that—but it’s not the only way to enjoy the holiday season. There are plenty of us who experience the whirlwind of the holidays without spinning around until we puke, and it has taught us how to make our own fun.
I’m fortunate to have friends who have been endlessly considerate, asking me what non-alcoholic beverages they can buy for their holiday parties and returning with a truly stunning array of fizzy juices. But I’ve also spent more than a few evenings drinking tap water because the host has four different kinds of vodkas but not a single mixer. I learned early on in my sobriety that if you want to be sure there’s something non-alcoholic at the event you’re attending, you’d better bring it yourself.
We are in control of our own actions and merry-making—not the alcohol. Just because liquid merriment is entwined with the holidays like tinsel around a tree doesn’t mean you need to chop the whole occasion down if you don’t partake. The holidays are a time where your relationships with your friends and family should be emphasized, not the bottle of wine you share with them.
So don’t look at us non-drinkers with pity or not engage us in the third round of “All I Want For Christmas Is You.” If we can make our own yuletide magic, so can you—and it doesn’t always exist at the bottom of the punch bowl.