After dating someone for a number of years, it’s common to end up sharing the same friends and running around in the same social circles. When the relationship ends and the two go their separate ways, sometimes they have to divide up the friends or learn to tolerate each other during social activities with friends they continue to share. One of them always ends up better off than the other. That’s what happened to me when I ended my love affair with alcohol.
Before I quit drinking, I had prepared myself for the house of horrors that I expected to face: fits of rage toward my family for passing the lush gene to me; the feeling that bugs were crawling all over my body; and becoming a chain smoker while guzzling coffee at an Alcoholics Anonymous meeting. Those things never happened. Instead, what slapped me across the face was the bitter reality that my relationship with booze during my thirties had defined me socially. Was I so naïve not to realize that when I broke up with alcohol, it would take my social life with it?
There was a time in my life when I planned my social life around alcohol. I joined my co-workers for happy hours and liquid lunches. I attended networking events that served cheap wine, stinky cheese and stale crackers. As I plowed through my day as a single attorney, I looked forward to those afternoon and evening outings with my group, eagerly agreeing to ditch work early to meet up with the crew at the bar in my office building. Pinot Grigio and Cabernet went hand in hand with gripes about cases, workloads and billable hours. When the weekend arrived, I sought out margarita-fueled pool parties and evening outings at high-end bars. Sometimes, it was as simple as inviting friends over for a relaxing evening of gossip, wine and greasy Thai food. And nothing beat a Sunday morning Bloody Mary or Mimosa over brunch and a discussion about the troubles of dating and the latest celebrity divorces.
It's not so black and white.
Even outside of my social circle, alcohol is everywhere, sometimes appearing as the solution to my problems. Ads for Skinny Girl cocktail mixers or articles about the best drinks to enjoy for those who want the benefits of drinking without the beer belly. Music says that sex is much better if you just throw back a few. I could easily relate to lawyers on television dramas ending hard days by grabbing their favorite Scotch out of their desk, taking a sip and letting out a long sigh to show that all was well in the world. Facebook friends post pictures of themselves with drinks in hand, and sometimes just the drink. And men on Internet dating websites bolster their image with pictures of them chugging a beer or posing with a bottle of tequila.
I knew I had to quit and spent almost two years dreading the day that I would do so. I may have denied to the outside world that I had a problem, but the little voices inside my head constantly told me otherwise. I drank every night after work, using it as a crutch to sleep without worry and avoid thinking about the demons in my past. I woke up every morning, praying for the fortitude to go a day without alcohol. And then, I would leave the office only to find that I couldn’t resist the temptation. After several glasses of wine or stiff cocktails, I would find myself in bed, miserable with the knowledge that I could conquer every challenge in my life, but could not seem to control what most falsely assume is a simple task. The shame I felt was unbearable. And, my relationships with men left me feeling even worse about myself. I met men at bars, only to throw them aside a few weeks later or be thrown aside myself because men couldn’t compete with my favorite poison. And while my drinking never interfered with my work (I was functional, after all), my enemies used my personal and shameful secret in a hateful effort to destroy my reputation and push me further into the abyss of depression and self-hatred.
After agonizing and punishing myself for almost two years, I quit. And when I made that extremely difficult decision, I never expected the world around me to change. I knew the drinking world would carry on without me. But I expected that I could quit drinking and still be part of that same world as a new person. Like a comet disintegrating while entering the earth’s atmosphere, I crashed and burned. I discovered the hard way that restoring me to health meant that I had to say good-bye to everything I knew and liked.
The first time I went to a bar with my friends as a non-drinker, I almost ran out screaming. I found myself bored and searching for the right thing to say. My eyes darted around the room and I felt like everyone was talking too fast while snickering at the girl with her water. I even found myself half-apologizing to the bartender when I shyly asked for a club soda and looked longingly at my friends who seemed to be having more fun than me. I was surrounded by a crowd of people, but felt alone.
I can no longer peacefully dine alone at a bar in a nice restaurant without random people asking what's in my glass and why it doesn’t contain something stronger. Forget about nightclubs, where I have to listen to men beg me to allow a splash of something "better" than ice and club soda in my drink. And I silently worry that my online dating profile will get fewer hits because, in response to the question that asks if I drink, my new answer screams, “no.”
I wasn't prepared for the reactions from some of my drinking friends when I dropped the atomic bomb on them. The responses I received ranged from confusion (“come again?”) to pity (“aw, that’s too bad”). People pressed for a reason, repeatedly asking, “but why?” because apparently “I just don’t want to anymore” wasn't good enough. It felt like explaining global warming to my 3-year-old niece. One of my friends refused to accept my decision altogether, saying it was nothing more than a short detox; “You’ll come around.”
It even seemed that the number of invitations I was receiving for happy hours had decreased. I felt betrayed the first time I learned that my core drinking group had skipped out early without me to unwind at what used to be my favorite watering hole. I had become expendable. Or maybe I always was.
So where do I go now? It seems so unfair that I would make the most difficult decision in my life for the benefit of my health, yet be worse off than I was before. I live in a great city filled with so many people and activities, and yet I have never felt more isolated and alone. Facebook only feeds my insecurities by proving to me, on a daily basis, that life is going on without me. Every day, I seek out ways to fill the void I created in my life when I quit drinking. But I can only work, exercise and read so much. And even when I'm working on writing, hitting balls at the driving range, or spending quality time with my dog, I find my mind drifting, longing to be reunited with a life that is no more.
I put up a good front for the friends and family who do support me. But I would be lying if I didn’t acknowledge the daily, internal struggle that I experience as a sober social creature in a world full of the perfect images of life as a drinker. Day after day, I will do everything possible to find a way to rediscover the funny and charming social woman I used to be. Until then, I sit back and wait. Wait to meet a guy who is ready to face this journey with me. Wait for a new life that doesn’t revolve around happy hour. Wait for that day when I can truly be comfortable in my new skin.