I'm Turning 30 And I'm Having My First Sober Birthday Party Ever (And I'm A Little Scared)

I love my birthday because it combines two of my greatest pleasures in life -- dessert and attention.
Publish date:
May 9, 2013
addiction, parties, sobriety, birthdays

I had what I hope will be the last drink of my life on January 5th, 2009. I was 25 years old.

The first year of sobriety is all about doing everything for the first time without alcohol. You do Christmas without eggnog, New Year's without champagne, St. Patrick's Day without green beer. And you also take part, sober, in all the little life events that occur throughout a year of living -- weddings, baseball games, vacations, housewarmings, nice dinners out at a fancy restaurant. For me, even going to the movies without smuggling in a 40 was a new and uncomfortable experience.

Before I settled into my sobriety, each of these events caused high anxiety. How, HOW, was I going to dine out without a bottle of wine? What would I tell people? What was even the point? I couldn't imagine having fun without booze.

The stress was probably worse around the occasion of my own birthday. By the time my first sober birthday came around, on May 12th, I had a good 4 months clean and had discovered more kinds of fun than the kind you snort directly into your bloodstream. But I still couldn't imagine a birthday party without alcohol and drugs.

The year before, I'd told all my best bar friends that the only gift I wanted was cocaine. The year before that I'd scheduled a spa appointment on my special day, only to party so hard the night before that I spent the whole massage and facial sleeping off my hangover and trying not to puke. What was I supposed to do this year, have a fucking Yoo-Hoo and pray?

The only part that sounded good was cake, as I was hit hard by the phenomenon of extreme sugar craving that a lot of newly sober alcoholics experience. Believe it or not, I wasn't even into sweets before I stopped mainlining sugar nightly in the form of alcohol. ("Sugar keeps you sober" is a catchphrase I heard a lot in early sobriety.)

Like every newly sober alcoholic, I didn't expect to ever have any fun again.

And it's true that I don't have the same kind of "fun" -- I never cram into a car with a bunch of people I met an hour ago to snort cocaine in somebody's weird Coney Island apartment. I never let strange men pick me up off the street and then run out the door without a word after falling through their glass coffee table. Those things were exciting and unpredictable -- "fun" was interchangeable with the adrenaline rush of synthetic chemicals tinged with actual fear of danger. Anything could happen because once I ingested a drink or drug, I was no longer in control.

Without alcohol, I thought I would never laugh until I choked again, never wear a pretty dress, never attend another party, never dance. I can still remember the moment that it dawned on me that I could still go to parties, I just couldn't drink at them. A seemingly obvious realization, it completely shifted my perspective, like how I imagine babies feel when they discover their own feet.

My definition of fun has changed in sobriety, to something more authentic than the pure needle-jab-to-the-hurt rush of chemical oblivion. I have laughed more, and more authentically, in sobriety than I ever did in my decade of drinking. I wouldn't have believed it when I stumbled into my first meeting, shaky and scared, but I try to tell the new girls who look like I did anyway. You really will have fun again, I swear, being sober isn't boring at all, you'll just have to trust me for now.

And of course, I've been to lots of parties. I even go to parties in bars these days, although I usually leave around the time everyone starts getting handsy and repeating the same stories over and over. But I haven't had a birthday party since I got sober.

And the thing is I LOVE MY BIRTHDAY. It combines two of my greatest pleasures in life -- dessert and attention. I treat my birthday like that classic sitcom plot where somebody's sick and gets a tiny little bell to ring. DO MY BIDDING, WORLD.

I generally start announcing the thing a few weeks in advance, and give verbal reminders daily. The xo girls make fun of me for this, but I used to work at a men's site and if I wanted those dudes to remember to celebrate me (or even wish me a "Happy Birthday,") I had to start early and remind them often.

But other than issuing frequent press releases about my impending birthdays, I haven't really done much about them in the years since getting sober. By my second sober birthday, I knew how to have a good time without alcohol, but I still thought a full-scale birthday celebration might be triggering. On my third sober birthday, we were about 5 days away from launching this very website and I barely lifted my head from the computer long enough to eat the cupcakes Madeline, who was then just an intern, so sweetly brought me. By my fourth, I knew I could handle it, but I'd gotten out of practice and planning a party just felt overwhelming.

All I'd ever done before is invite everybody to a bar, which is where most New York parties take place, since we all have tiny apartments. I didn't really want to have a party at a bar, especially since a big chunk of my friends were now other sober alcoholics. And I wasn't sure how to merge my sober and drinking friends -- do I force my non-alcoholic friends to suffer through a sober party or my alcoholic friends to suffer through a drinking party? Do I just invite one or the other? Where the fuck are we having this thing anyway?

I let the clock run out on all the questions that year and had another quiet dinner with my boyfriend. Which was lovely, but I'm not a quiet dinner sort of girl! I'm a dress-up-and-possibly-wear-a-tiara-it's-my-birthday-gimme-some-damn-presents-and-tell-me-I'm-prety kind of girl!

And this year I'm turning 30, which is a big milestone! In a lot of ways, it's been kind of a shitty year and to be honest I don't feel all that much like celebrating, but I'll be damned if I'm going to let such a big-deal birthday go by without a big-deal bash. So I made a dinner reservation for 20 and reserved a couple of lanes at my local bowling alley and invited a bunch of the sober and non-sober friends who have gotten me through the past 12 months of pain and transition.

I guess I must be a little bit nervous, because this morning I woke up from a pretty epic relapse dream, in which I drank myself into a blackout and woke up next to two strange men. Most of the dream consisted of me dreading having to tell anyone and then trying to convince myself that I COULD TOTALLY KEEP THIS WHOLE THING A SECRET NO ONE HAS TO KNOW. Side note: Why do these stupid dreams always focus on the secrecy and shame instead of the HOT BLACKOUT SEX WITH TWO GUYS?

Hopefully having a birthday party is like riding a bike and everything will fall into place once the festivities begin. At least I know I'll have fun, the real kind, despite knowing exactly where I'm going to end up at the end of the night. (My bed, asleep, possibly while still wearing my make-up if I get really wild.)

What'd you do for your last birthday? Have you turned 30 yet, and did you love it? Am I deluded for thinking sobriety is fun?

@msemilymccombs is reminding you to wish her a Happy Birthday on Twitter.