Lately I’ve been thinking about going to events that feature free alcohol at an open bar, or just events that involve alcohol in general. You see, recently, NAR founder & owner Austin got married.  He had a beautiful, traditional ceremony and reception.

As many of you know, Austin is in recovery for drug addiction.  He personally practices complete abstinence from all mind-altering substances in his recovery.  His fiancée (now his wife) however, isn’t in recovery and she does drink socially on rare occasions.  So, considering this and their many guests, they chose to have an open bar at their reception.

But many of Austin’s guests are also in recovery and are also sober, non-drinkers. Which is what got me thinking about this important topic….  How do recovering alcoholics and addicts handle events with an open bar?  What’s the polite thing to do?  How do we make sure we fit in?

This can apply to more than just open bar, too.  A lot of work events involve alcohol… or even family parties and holidays can include alcoholic beverages.  You’re sure to run into this issue sometime if you’re in recovery.  Funny enough, my friend mailed a wedding invitation to me in residential treatment for a wedding that was on the weekend I left treatment.  So, whether it’s sooner or later, it’s something to think about.

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Never Alone Recovery owner Austin at his wedding party
Never Alone’s founder & owner recently got married

An Alcoholic’s Guide to Events Involving Alcohol & Open Bar

1. Put your recovery first

Do you remember how when you were drinking alcohol or using drugs, and your life kinda sucked? Without your recovery, none of the rest of your life is possible.  Quite often, drinking or using drugs kept you from having a job, seeing your family, having friends, having money to go out, or even being invited to important events. So, your recovery has to be your #1 priority before any of those other things.  

You know how I said I got invited to that wedding when I got out of rehab?  I actually decided not to go to it.  I knew that with only 30 days clean and sober, I was still fragile. I had to protect my sobriety from stress and temptation.  It was sad because it was also the first time in years that I wanted to see people. But I had to keep my priorities straight.  (It worked out because they were divorced like a year later, anyway.)

So, when you make any decisions about events with alcohol, remember to put your sobriety ahead of anything else.  It doesn’t matter about seeming rude by skipping the event or disappointing your boss. Going, accidentally getting drunk, and confessing to your boss that you used to drive the company truck while buzzed isn’t going to look good either.

2. Remember that you have a problem

Building off our previous thought, it’s important to remember that most problem drinkers don’t “get better.”  The odds that you can suddenly drink like a normal person aren’t very high.  The neural pathways in the brain that have to do with using substances take a long time to change.  Once alcohol reactivates those pathways, it can quickly all go back to how it was in the past.

That means that planning to drink “just one or two” is a very risky plan.  It’s not likely to go well.  Also, after months or years sober, your tolerance is much lower. “Just one or two” may be enough to make you sloppy.  Or it might lower your inhibitions enough that you decide “three or four” should be okay. You can see how it can quickly get out of hand.

3. Bring a sober friend

One of the best ways to stay out of trouble and have a good time is to bring someone else who supports your recovery. This person can help you out if you’re having cravings or if you’re frustrated.  They’re also a good form of accountability, because having someone there means you can’t “get away” with anything.  Just make sure this person is strong in their recovery….  Don’t purposely pick someone that you know might waiver in their support.

This can be someone that was going to be attending the event anyway, or you can bring someone along as a guest.  Most formal events allow for a “date” and for informal events it isn’t a big deal. Don’t worry about this person being bored – they’re coming to be there for you and will make do with whatever’s going on.  And don’t worry about the person being a specific gender – if you want to bring a sober buddy, that’s fine!  If for some reason you really feel like you can’t bring a sober friend to the event, go back to point #1!  Put your recovery first!

4. Set up your “lifeline”

This is a good practice and easy to do too….  Set up a lifeline.  Anytime you’re going to be doing something that might be a little stressful, whether it involves alcohol, you can do this.  Talk to some other family and friends who support your recovery and find out if they’re going to be busy or not during your event.  If they’ll be available, let them know what you’re going to be doing. Let them know what time you’re going to be there. And ask them if it’s okay if you call or text if you’re having any problems.  Most people will be fine with this!  

Then, they can keep an eye on their phone during the party, and they know if you’re calling that they should answer.  Don’t pick just one person, because you never know if they might accidentally miss your call. Try to get three or more people in your lifeline for an event.  You can also text them updates just to stay accountable.  And at the end of the night, be sure to let your lifeline know that you had fun and made it home safe and sober.

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5. Pre-plan your excuses

If you’re worried about what people might say if they find out you aren’t drinking at an event, it’s good to have your “excuse” or “reason” already worked out. Sometimes a simple “I actually don’t drink” will be enough.  But if people already know you as a drinker and notice the sudden change, they may say something about it.  While honesty is an important part of recovery, this is an instance where it’s okay not to give all the details.  You don’t need to tell your co-workers or family you realized you have a drinking problem.  Some people do tell them, but it’s okay not to tell them, too.  Because the last thing you want to do is to get everyone sharing their stories and opinions on your substance abuse and recovery. 

That’s why it’s good to pre-plan what you want to say if someone pushes you about why you aren’t drinking.  The good news is that most non-alcoholics don’t care whether you drink or not. That’s hard for us, as alcoholics, to comprehend, but it’s true.  So, while you might not need it, here’s some excuses that might work for you.  In fact, some of them may even be true:

  • I’m driving home after this
  • I have to be up early with my kids/parents/work project/etc.
  • I can’t drink with this new medicine I’m on
  • I promised my spouse/mom/kids/probation officer I wouldn’t (Just kidding on the last one)
  • I’m not feeling well today so I’m gonna take it easy

6. Think about safe drinks

There might come times when despite trying to keep your cool, you feel weird not having a drink in your hand.   You could be feeling pressure to drink or you might have specific habits for social events.  Or maybe you just want to walk up to the bar and order something.  In this case, you can still choose alcohol free options for your drink. For example, a lot of venues will have sparkling grape juice instead of champagne.  You can drink that and still take part in toasts and carry around a fancy glass. 

Before you go to an event with alcohol, get an idea in your head of what alcohol free drinks you’d enjoy.  You want to choose something that will satisfy you but won’t trigger you.  If your drink of choice was liquor and orange juice, you might decide you want to drink plain orange juice as a substitute. At the same time, some people might find this triggering.  Think ahead about what will work for you.  You can order cranberry juice, pineapple juice, soda water, iced tea, lemonade, ginger ale, cola, and more.  You can also combine these items or spruce them up with things like grenadine or a lemon slice.  Virgin daiquiris or margaritas are good – the blended ones are just smoothies!  There are endless possibilities, especially at a full-service bar, so use your imagination.

7. Don’t be afraid to leave

When all else fails, don’t be afraid to leave.  This goes back to point #1.  Your sobriety has to come ahead of “normal” social rules.  If you are struggling too much, or if people are stressing you out too much, it’s okay to leave early.  We all get a little FOMO at times (Fear Of Missing Out), but we have more to lose if we put our recovery at stake.

Your host may or may not know why you’re leaving early, but that’s okay.  If they know about your alcoholism, they should be supportive of your choice.  If they don’t know, they should respect your decision to leave (see point #5).  Just politely excuse yourself and say your thank yous and goodbyes.  It’ll all be okay, as long as you’re sober.

You don’t have to be perfect

When you’re in alcohol recovery and face an open bar for the first time, it can be stressful. It does get easier. Living life alcohol free in general does get easier if you are working on self-improvement. Just remember not to put too much pressure on yourself. The only thing you have to do correctly is STAY SOBER. It’s okay to be awkward or even irritable in these situations. Just focus on your main goal.

I remember all the times I got drunk and made a fool of myself. I was a pretty well behaved drinker, but did go a little too far sometimes. It seems silly to be so worried about my behavior now that I’m sober. The truth is that if I went to the event and started drinking, it’s almost guaranteed that I’ll be louder, sloppier, create a bigger scene, and be more embarrassed the next day than if I don’t drink. When I think of it that way, being a little quiet or sullen or anxious doesn’t seem like such a big deal.

Just keep the points above in mind. Everyone in recovery faces situations that are uncomfortable. You aren’t alone in those feelings. But you CAN handle events with alcohol if you plan ahead a bit!

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