Tips for supporting your sober friends at parties

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Anahad O’Connor will be back next week.

The holiday season has arrived, bringing cocktail parties and dinner parties into “real life” Again. But for people like me, recovering from alcohol use disorder (AUD), these invitations also come with concerns.

Although I’ve been sober for seven years, a room full of people with booze in hand still evokes feelings of alienation as well as bad memories of past reckless behavior. My discomfort clearly makes others uncomfortable. And I end up feeling bad about it too. None of this is a recipe for holiday cheer.

How can cocktail drinkers lift their spirits without increasing the anxiety of non-drinkers? The secret is to raise awareness of the sensitivities of sober clients and the challenges of people with AUD.

Acknowledge that your sober friend is not cured

AUD is no different from other chronic diseases, says Jeffrey Hsu, assistant professor of psychiatry and behavioral sciences at Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine.

“Graduating from a program does not mean that a person is cured,” he says. “It’s no different than other people with chronic conditions who have to make certain behavioral/lifestyle changes to keep their condition under control.”

Elizabeth “Bizzy” Chance, who has been recovering for 16 years and is the host of the Busy Living Sober Podcast, says feelings of remorse can be a barrier to socializing with people who drink. “A big part of my journey has been getting to grips with the realization that alcoholism is not a choice,” she says.

Don’t ask your sober friend if you can drink

I dread the moment when well-meaning guests ask if they can drink in front of me. I know they have good intentions, but I never know how to react. Usually, I just say “it’s good”, to try to move the conversation forward.

The truth is that I find the question dishonest in addition to being insensitive. The applicant is already planning to drink and wants me at the Green light. Suddenly I’m in the position to comfort their instead of vice versa.

For party scenarios, Hsu recommended hosts check in on their sober guests to see how they’re doing, particularly if they look or feel uncomfortable. To help ease feelings of worry, he suggests that a family member or friend offer to be a “sober buddy” throughout the event.

Like many sober people, I tend to seek out other non-drinkers in social settings, especially as drinking guests start to get a little tipsy. Inviting a group of teetotalers to a party levels the drinking waters.

Offer many non-alcoholic options

Mindy Gold-Banks, a professional clinical addiction counselor for 25 years with Advance Counseling Services in Chicago, says hosts should focus on creating an atmosphere of inclusion. Always have non-alcoholic options – ensuring they are clearly marked as such – available in gathering spaces.

Move wine bottles away from the dining table

Make pitchers of water the main source of pouring and passing over the table. Consider placing wine bottles a few strides from the dining table, so they’re out of sight but still accessible.

Avoid cooking with alcohol or serve substitutes

Alcohol flavors in food can be potential triggers for a recovering person. And many people mistakenly believe that alcohol evaporates when you cook with it. A dish simmered for 15 minutes still contains about 40% of the original alcohol. Even after two hours, a dish will retain about 10% of the added alcohol.

At its annual Passover feast, Gold-Banks offers two versions of the charoset – the fruit and nut mortar of the Seder plate, usually made with sweet wine. Guests at his table can enjoy the standard offering or a bundle created with grape juice.

Serve refined bottled water

For Chance, serving good sparkling water is essential at every party. “Everyone is hydration conscious these days. And those bottles are pretty,” she says. “If you’re going to buy a $30 bottle of wine, why not buy fancy sparkling water?”

Having a small green bottle of Perrier (instead of a glass) in my firm grip helps keep me grounded at parties. And some of my favorite hosts are those who frequently replace my bottle. My daughter-in-law takes it a step further by always having “Singing Mermaid” polar seltzer water on hand – and in my hands – when I’m at her house. Since I am a former swimmer, his gesture is very attentive.

Don’t show me your beautiful wine label

I’ve been to dinners where oenophile friends want to show me the label of their latest discovery. Many of us in recovery prefer not to be part of a conversation that draws attention to our “enemy”, no matter how cool the packaging may be.

My older cousin and her husband are the champions of “unspoken happy hour” when I visit their home in Silver Spring, MD. They pour themselves a glass of wine from an unidentified bottle in the kitchen while I watch the news. He delivers the glasses to their side tables rather than the coffee table between us.

She then makes me something fun, like crushed mint and a pinch of ground harissa in a club soda with ice. These quiet acts make me feel safe, loved and respected as they happily enjoy their evening libation.

My stepsister has a milkshake or smoothie ready when I arrive for any occasion. She hands me some after I walk through the door. If it’s evening, she’ll drink a glass of wine, and we’ll talk about everything except what’s in our glasses.

Let your friend decide on “mocktails”

I didn’t drink mocktails, or even use the term, for five years. I needed to get away from the symbols of my disorder as well as the culprit of my addiction. These days, I’m more experimental. The change seemed to inspire some people in my life, like my cousin, to whip up delicious non-alcoholic beverages on my behalf.

The idea and terminology of “mocktails” appeals to a lot of people, including Chance. A few years ago, she hosted a Facebook Live show showing how — and why — to make fun non-alcoholic drinks.

“I feel like I fit in, and nobody knows that,” Chance explained.

Give the new sober a rain check

Sometimes it’s not ok to drink around someone recovering from AUD. During the first 365 days of sobriety, Hsu says, social situations where alcohol is served can “trigger cravings and lead to relapse.”

Gold-Banks is telling its patients to avoid parties this first year. “Work hard on your recovery,” she says, “and be around people who support you.”

Let your new sober friends know you’re thinking of them by including a rain check with any dinner or party invitation where alcohol will be served. For all of us in recovery, every gesture of support will bring news of comfort and joy this holiday season and beyond.

Nancy Stearns Bercaw is a health and science writer and author of “Dryland: One Woman’s Swim to Sobriety.”

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