Kera Yonker / The Nouveau Spinster
I was 75 days sober when I had to attend a wedding.
It would take place over a weekend in the Santa Cruz mountains, where two longtime friends were marrying. It would also be a chance to see a lot of people I hadn’tseen since moving to New York nearly ten years earlier. It was the first event since I had holed myself up—first in Mexico for a month, then my parent’s house—after I quit drinking. I hadn’t yet come up with my opening line of, “Oh, I used to drink,” which does a succinct job explaining why I’m holding a seltzer.
This would be a reunion of friends from my twenties while living in San Francisco, when we would all shuffle into our bookstore job cradling our hangovers the day after dollar drink night at the bar at the corner. Some of us lived together, some of us worked together, and we all partied together.
In the days leading up to the wedding, questions anxiously swirled around in my head. Would everyone be drunk and having fun and would I not be? Would I be tempted? Would everyone demand to know why I wasn’t drinking, these people with whom I had shared so many fun and crazy and way too drunk evenings?
I always spent the first part of any wedding reception lining my stomach. This is a formal event, I don’t want to get too drunk, I’d coach myself. I would focus on the passed hors d’ouevre trays, never letting one get by me without having a piece of whatever was laid out. The bacon-wrapped dates stuffed with blue cheese, tiny quiches, and the bite-sized spoonfuls of fancy macaroni and cheese only served as prerequisites to the main course: alcohol. By the time dinner rolled around, I was sufficiently fortified to stop counting my glasses of wine or champagne. That was another rule: wine through cocktails and dinner, no whiskey until the dancing started.
But, as dinner wrapped up, I crossed that line, the line where I stopped counting and I rewarded myself with a cocktail (okay, half a dozen cocktails) for holding it together so nicely though the dinner.
Weddings, in particular, uncorked the uncontrolled in me.
What began as a celebration of two people loving each other, devolved for me into an affront to my own unattached, unloved self. Even if I attended the event with a boyfriend, by the end of the night I would be drunk and angry with him: why weren’t we married, I would demand. If I attended alone, I made up for the lack of a date by making out with any number of single (and sometimes not so single) men, often waking up next to them the morning after, in the throes of a painful hangover. Having been in the wedding party of many friends, my talent as the badly behaved bridesmaid often outshone my other duties as an attendant.
Now came my own personal ultimate sobriety challenge: attend a wedding, solo and sober. I arrived in the Santa Cruz mountains with friends, and we spent the day before the wedding enjoying the summer camp-like activities set up for us: archery, tie-dying, hiking. These daytime activities reminded me that I could be totally normal in new situations sober. I thought of all the things I already did sober, even when I had been drinking: being at work, taking a class at the gym, attending conferences. All I had to do was remember that into the evening.
After the ceremony, I bolstered myself for the first test: cocktail hour. As the wedding guests crowded around the bar, I grabbed a can of flavored Pellegrino and stood awkwardly at a distance. While people milled around with their drinks, I decided to pretend that nothing was different. And really, from the outside, nothing was: I was holding a drink, just like everyone else. Soon, I became engaged in a conversation with a couple I didn’t know and waited anxiously for them to say something about my beverage choice. When the husband went for a refill, he cocked his head in my direction and asked “Another seltzer?” without missing a beat.
Cocktail hour down, I took my seat among my friends for the dinner. They passed the bottle of wine at the table and I gently covered my glass when a friend went in for the pour. “Just a little?” she asked. I shook my head. “I”m okay,” I assured her. She gave me a look, not one of disdain or incredulousness, but more of curiosity. She didn’t press me.
The night carried on with dancing and karaoke—both things I discovered, admittedly, are a little easier to do unselfconsciously while drinking. But, I didn’t duck out early as I had thought I would. No one commented on my lack of boozy beverage, no one gave me mistrusting looks. No one, really, even noticed. I experienced a few awkward moments when I found myself standing alone. I lacked the liquored confidence to join in with people I didn’t know, but I got over it by seeking out someone who I did know. No need to be the sober life of the party, I told myself. I’m here, I’m not drinking. I decided not to demand that I be socially outgoing on top of that.
And, it was during one of those moments alone that I was able to take it all in, and saw the night through one hundred percent sober eyes. I realized that no one at the wedding was as drunk as I would have been. Always being the drunkest one at the party meant I had been unaware of how much others were drinking. I just assumed everyone was as drunk as I was.
For the few weddings I had attended in my adulthood that didn’t end in blackout,
I had marveled at the experience. I’d had just enough to keep the buzz going all night, had a great time, hadn’t remotely embarrassed myself, wasn’t hungover the next day, and actually remembered the special event itself. It was a rare occurrence for me, but now I realize that must be what non-alcoholics had experienced all of the time.
Around one a.m., a friend and I made our way back to our cabins, leaving the remaining revelers to their singing. Several of my friends had already retired for the evening. I had outlasted them, sober. And, I’d had a great time doing it.
I still get anxious before events where alcohol would normally grease the wheels of social interaction, but after leaving each one sober, I’m always met with the same realization: most people just don’t drink the way that I did. Through the initial anxiety and awkwardness, those experiences serve to remind me how real my problem with alcohol is.
I have another wedding this summer, and recently the bride called to ask me where I’d like to be sat: at the party table, with some of her oldest friends, all with whom I’d imbibed over the years, or be sat at a more reserved table.
I paused. It was very kind of her to ask me what my preference was, and I posed the same question to myself: would I be uncomfortable with the more raucous group of drinkers?
Put me at the party table, I told her confidently. I know they would be no match for my new self.