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How to maintain sobriety at parties when alcohol is everywhere around you

The arrival of summer not only brings higher temperatures, but the onslaught of invites to seasonal outings like graduation parties, wedding receptions, backyard BBQs, and office happy hours. While these oft-boozy events may not be an issue for some, they can be major stressors for those who aren't drinkers, whether because they simply don’t like to imbibe or are focused on maintaining their sobriety. Unfortunately, figuring out how to handle summer parties when you don't drink is far from simple.

“[Drinking alcohol] is hyper-normalized,” says Jennifer Fernández, a clinical psychologist who focuses on substance abuse treatment in San Francisco. She explains that just one in 13 adults has diagnosed alcoholism (meaning that they compulsively abuse alcohol, feel bad when they're not drinking, and/or don't have control over their behavior, per Alcohol.org). As such, the school of thought is often, "Most people are able to do it responsibly and have fun with it,” leaving those who struggle with alcohol to feel isolated and called out for their sobriety. “The narrative we have assigned to this substance makes it really difficult to not partake," says Dr. Fernández.

And regardless of whether you're not drinking at an event because you’re the group's designated driver, on a medication that doesn’t allow it, are in recovery, or you simply don’t like the taste of booze, you're bound to get a number of invasive, often shame-y questions from others about your choice to stay sober. As such, many non-drinkers at alcohol-fueled parties face pressure to explain their sobriety, feel uncomfortable not joining in, or choose to skip out on the night entirely out of fear it'll be too hard to stay dry.

Your sobriety doesn't have to be something you feel like you need to justify if you do choose to attend drink-filled occasions. Here are five key tips from alcohol abuse experts on how to effectively navigate the summer if cocktails aren't in the cards for you.

Know your limits

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Before RSVPing to any event with alcohol, decide if you think you can handle being present around the substance, especially if you're newly sober. There's no right or wrong answer; going to a party where there will likely be booze just depends on how confident you are in dealing with your urge to drink, says Dr. Fernández.

She recommends asking yourself some questions to determine if you have a good handle on your alcohol-related triggers, such as "Do I have appropriate de-escalation exercises I can engage in to move through an urge?" and "Have I considered all the different thoughts that are going to come up?"

If you feel confident in your answers, that's great, but if you don't feel ready or don't have clear answers, that's okay, too. It's better to be honest with yourself and know your limitations than get into a potentially dangerous situation.

Have a support system in place

Parties can often be more stressful than fun if you're in recovery from alcohol abuse, as maintaining sobriety can be a lifelong commitment that unfortunately doesn't get a summer vacation. To stay strong when around alcohol, keep friends and family that have your best interests at heart by your side. “Seek out people who can reflect [your positive, sober attributes] to you and who you feel comfortable and safe with," advises Dr. Fernández.

Denver-based drug and alcohol counselor Marc Coulter, agrees that it’s imperative to identify your support system before heading into an event. Instead of going into the night thinking, "Who am I gonna drink or party with?" Coulter says, ask yourself, “I’m going in sober and leaving sober, and who are my allies here I can rely on?”

You can also talk to friends or family members beforehand and let them know you have your worries about attending and would love their support. Whatever it is you need of them to help with your sobriety — whether it's asking them to not drink as well, or to keep you away from getting swept into activities like beer pong — don't be afraid to ask.

Don't feel pressured to tell people you're sober

No matter what your reason for not drinking is, it’s entirely up to you if you want to disclose that information to anyone at the event. Dr. Fernández says that deciding to share why you're sober is "a personal choice, and it can depend on the closeness you have with certain people in your life.”

While some people might be unfazed by your sobriety, others might get defensive or even urge you to take part, so if you're not comfortable talking about it, know that it's absolutely okay if you choose to stay silent. Your decision not to drink is your own business, and no one else's.

Have a non-alcoholic drink in hand

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If you want to avoid getting any prying questions about your sobriety in the first place, “it can be helpful to have something in your hand, whether that’s a soda or mocktail," says Dr. Fernández. This can not only work as a social crutch, but allows people who see you to assume you're drinking alcohol and leave you alone.

Still, if you're worried that people seeing you ordering a non-alcoholic beverage might judge or ask questions, talk to the bartender privately. Dr. Fernández says that you can tell them that you won’t be consuming alcohol, so if you order a cranberry and vodka, for instance, they should hold the vodka.

Coulter agrees that preparation is key when it comes to dealing with alcohol. “In the long run, it’s better to plan ahead rather than react to the circumstances,” he says, as dealing with pressures or triggers in the moment can sometimes lead to poor or rash decision-making.

Go easy on yourself

If you're struggling to stay sober or feel at ease while at a party, Dr. Fernández suggests reminding yourself that "this is a choice you’ve made for yourself because you care about yourself and your health.” Alcohol addiction, she adds, can often feel consuming, paralyzing, and out of control. "Making a decision for yourself to stop doing something that’s been harming you and your life is hard and scary," she adds, but it can also be empowering. Try to give yourself some real credit for staying sober, especially in a party situation.

Still, it's normal to not always feel empowered when you're around drinkers, or feel a strong temptation to imbibe. If you're newly sober, Coulter says to recognize you’re learning new patterns and behaviors. And even if you've been sober for years, when it comes to navigating social situations, you’re going to make some mistakes, but that’s okay because you’re human.

Be kind to yourself — and no matter why you don't drink or how long you've been sober, know that you're not alone. There are plenty of other non-drinkers out there (probably even at the same party) who'll happily raise a glass of seltzer water to cheer you on.