How to stay sober when everyone's desperate to party

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When I started my adventures in sobriety, recovery took over my whole life. I went to meetings every day and developed a strict schedule to keep my life stable. If you decide to get sober outside of a residential program, that's pretty much the norm. And that's what a lot of individuals who got sober during the pandemic did, with in-person meetings subbed in for Zoom. In some ways, the pandemic made recovery harder, of course, but the fact that you couldn't party without potentially contracting a deadly disease helped some people stick to their regimens. Now that things in the U.S. are shifting (for vaccinated folks, of course), some newly sober people are scared to go back to "normal" for fear of relapse. And that’s perfectly understandable.

“One of the biggest challenges about the world opening back up when you’re newly sober is the peer pressure,” says J.F. Benoist, Hawaii-based founder of a holistic addiction treatment program and author of Addicted to the Monkey Mind: Change the Programming that Sabotages Your Life. “It’s difficult to go back to environments where people drink or use [drugs],” Benoist says. Some of the people and places we loved the most before getting sober may become obstacles, Benoist says.

It’s not that anyone is deviously trying to thwart your sobriety, but if you got sober during lockdown and your friends haven’t seen you for a year, they don’t have a lived experience of you as a sober person. And so, they may not know how to support you. Not only that, but everyone is having a different response to this whole “return to normalcy,” which include excitement, anxiety, and the for some, the insatiable urge to party. They may want you to join in that kind of fun. That’s why it’s so important for newly sober people to learn how to say “no,” says Benoist, to situations they know will be tempting or uncomfortable.

“No” should be a complete sentence, but some people may not hear it that way. Plus, saying no to people you care about can be hard, so Benoist says that being firm, direct, and vulnerable is the best approach to help other people understand your substance boundaries. “I recommend what I call ‘putting a stake in the ground,’” says Benoist. He explains what that could sound like: “If someone asks if you want a drink, don’t merely say, ‘No,’ or ‘Not tonight.’ Make a bold statement that is completely open and honest.” That means explaining to folks not just the fact that you’re not drinking or using, but also why or what the consequences might be if you do.

As someone who went through addiction recovery in the Big Easy, I have a lot of personal experience with saying no to overly persistent party invitations. My approach may be a little too blunt for some people, but it works for me. I have literally said to people trying to buy me drinks in bars, “Thanks, but if I drink that, I am going to have sex with someone I don’t actually like and probably destroy both our lives.” Most people don’t argue against this level of honesty and, frankly, it makes for an interesting conversation starter.

If giving strangers the intimate details of how you got HPV feels like an overshare, I don’t blame you. Benoist has some less controversial suggestions. If someone continues offering you drinks after you say no the first time, he says, you could say something like, “Alcohol hurt me, my marriage, and my career, so I don’t drink anymore.” Who’s really going to pressure you after a statement like that? Only someone you probably wouldn’t want to throw one back with, anyways.

If your friends can’t handle you as a teetotaler, well, you may need to find some new friends, says Benoist. Ouch. I know that’s easier said than done — especially as an adult — but it may be necessary if all friends are following their Pfizer shot with a tequila chaser. “There are many amazing people in the world who don’t drink or revolve activities around drinking,” says Benoist. Even if you don’t know those people yet, they are out there, he assures.

Pro tip: Even if you don’t want to do 12-step recovery, going to a meeting can be a great way to meet people. Some of my best friends are folks I met at Recovery Dharma, a program for sober folks who dig meditation. If you can’t find a like minded group of sober folks to support you where you live, there are tons of online options. Also, while recovery might be your number one priority, that doesn’t mean that you have to spend all your time obsessively attending to your process.

I can personally attest to the fact that addiction recovery can take over your life in ways that may harm almost as much as they help. Sobriety may be an important aspect of your identity, but it is not your whole identity. Plus, getting sober often leaves you with a lot of extra time on your hands (time you used to spend with your substance of choice) so it can be a great time to explore new interests or rekindle old ones.

Being sober post-pandemic doesn’t mean just choosing between bars and recovery meetings. As we skittishly — but soberly — move back into the world of in-person activities, Benoist says it’s more important than ever to find fun things to do with other humans IRL. Yeah, you probably do need support for your recovery, you also just need human connection. “Bonding is one of the strongest antidotes to addiction, and in-person connections can often provide more intimate connection than online interactions.”

“Find groups that do things that you love,” says Benoist. “This could be a biking group, yoga class, chess club—whatever fills you with joy. In these activities, you’re experiencing yourself as someone who is valued, worthwhile, and even loved—all things that are essential in sobriety.” I wholeheartedly agree. When I was first getting sober, I did an online meditation teacher training. It gave me a way to spend the time I freed up by not being fucked up all the time, kept me chill, and I also learned a new skill that has helped me personally and professionally.

Besides dealing with the social aspects of sobriety, some people also find that recovery forces them into having a new relationship with their bodies. If you’ve been abusing your body for years, you may find that it’s not really talking to you when you first get sober or that you have forgotten how to listen. “The best way to deal with these difficult emotions is to create routines where you come back to your body,” says Benoist. Nurturing the mind-body connection can be a major healing factor in your recovery journey, but it’s not one-size-fits-all.

Try experimenting with new ways to foster body awareness, says Benoist. “You could meditate, powerwalk, bounce on a trampoline—no matter what you’re doing, bring attention to your breath and observe how you feel in that moment. When you continuously create a strong mind-body connection, you’ll notice how your anxiety and stress can begin to decrease dramatically,” he says. It may sound cliche, but you might find that making friends with yourself is the best healing remedy of all.

If you need to talk to a substance misuse professional about resources for yourself or a loved one, call SAMHSA's hotline at 1-800-662-HELP. There’s someone there 24/7/365. If you have an overdose, call 911.