When I initially quit drinking, I felt really alone. It was summertime, and it was wedding season. Nearly all of my friends still drank and were going out regularly on weekends, and all social events – from parties to weddings and bachelorettes – seemed to revolve around alcohol. I still went to almost everything I was invited to, not wanting to alienate myself, but felt that I stuck out like a sore thumb.
I had these residual anti-sober-person sentiments based on stereotypes I’d absorbed over many years – that sober people are only there to kill the buzz of folks who are partying, ready to pounce on the opportunity to shame others, and get their highs out of doing so. In fact, I had never actually met a sober person who did that, but the stereotype exists and is the butt of many jokes, right there with the angry vegans. Stereotypes do a lot of harm, and apparently in more ways than I realized, with the focus now being internalized disgust. I desperately didn’t want to be “that person,” and had a lot of anxiety that others would perceive me as someone quite noxious to be around.
This might seem like an odd introduction to a post about finding community, but the feelings and fears described above were some of the most isolating I had ever felt. My very identity was shaken to the core. I was used to being the funny drunk person, lighthearted and carefree, a people-pleaser who worked to make others feel comfortable and liked. I still try to bring positive energy into my social circles, but at the time I thought I needed to be drinking like everyone else to spread that blanket of warmth and ease. My very presence as a sober person was now threatening other people’s comfort – and, I was certain, their ability to sincerely like me. Who wanted to work that hard?
Initially, I was so concerned about my abstinence impacting other people’s comfort that I ignored my own. Though my dear friends then are my dear friends now, I needed to find other communities of people in which the primary social activities that bonded the group together didn’t require alcohol consumption. I needed to find get-togethers where the focus was on shared experiences and interests. After some time overly focused on the outward impacts of my sobriety, I turned that focus inward and discovered two types of communities that have been, as cliché as it sounds, life-changing. This post is about the first of these communities. I’ll save the second community for later.
The community that guided me through the first year of sobriety was one of non-drinkers – in my case, a SMART Recovery meeting group that I’ve been attending since I quit. SMART stands for “Self-Management and Recovery Training.” I sought out this group because AA wasn’t the right option for me as someone who preferred a non-religious, flexible, social science-based approach to self-care and life. SMART Recovery focuses on approaches to recovery that addiction science has found effective. You can learn more about the SMART philosophy here.
I wanted a community that used psychology, sociology, philosophy, and other domains that resonate with (and fascinate) me to analyze and compare experiences of sobriety in this culture. I often think of going to a SMART meeting as attending “philosophy club” and am reminded of the eye-opening discussions I had in the classrooms of my liberal arts education. We talk about everything from the meaning of dreams to motivations, sociocultural influences, and developmental psychology. Everyone seems to know a little about something.
Until meeting other people in this group, I hadn’t realized how badly I needed to connect with other people who were trying out this highly unusual sobriety thing. I wasn’t the only one doing nonstop introspection, anxious about stigma and feeling very “other” – but also growing from within faster than ever and feeling really positive about my life direction for the first time in years. It was an odd, mixed bag of emotions that I wouldn’t have been able to disentangle on my own.
Even though I was lucky not to have strong cravings, there were things I needed to learn from other people going through the same things. For example, what I could do and say in social situations, what was going on with my emotions, and how to challenge irrational thoughts. Making sure I attended weekly meetings at first – and attending periodically now – keeps me accountable, helps me feel connected to others, and is endlessly fascinating.
Not everyone has the benefit of a local, in-person meeting for the recovery group that suits them best. Living downtown in a major metropolitan city gives me a lot of options. But there are virtual meetings and discussion boards for some recovery communities, including SMART Recovery, and it doesn’t hurt to periodically attend a community that isn’t the perfect fit just to get the experience of talking to other people who aren’t drinking.
The first time I went to a SMART Recovery meeting, I was lucky – I was the only person there, besides the facilitator. Though that was intimidating at first, I had so much to get off my chest that it quickly became cathartic. I was finally able to open up to a non-judgmental person who had also suffered from compulsive drinking, who was genuinely kind and had so many helpful things to say. It was better advice than what I was getting from the counselor I’d started seeing, who didn’t specialize in alcohol use problems.
One stereotype I quickly overcame after meeting people in this community was of the person who attends recovery meetings. Not everyone who does so is an “alcoholic” in the traditional sense, drinking every day to the point of struggling financially, legally, or in some other outwardly obvious way. Some people certainly are dealing with those issues. Many, like me, just have a use or control problem. There may be interpersonal issues and other parts of their life that alcohol has affected, but most people seem quite normal on the outside.
Needing help just wasn’t as unusual, pitiful, or miserable as I had expected. In fact, it was the opposite – the most empowering thing I had done for myself in a decade. My only question was why I hadn’t thought to look up a group and come to a meeting sooner. Perhaps I hadn’t reached my version of “rock bottom.”
One thing that makes recovery groups effective is the “light touch” approach. These are people you see periodically, even regularly, but have minimal to no interaction with outside the group. When you interact more deeply with people, you start to develop common ends and social roles, which can create stress and tension. Without letting these group dynamics form, the discussion remains peer-to-peer. Everyone is on the same level, and no one is in charge. You engage in helpful cross-talk, listen intently, ask questions, and offer insights to one another. Everyone is dealing with something stressful or challenging, and anyone can share a related experience or advice to help. It’s a lovely thing.
I am so thankful for the people in my recovery group – the advice they’ve offered me when I had questions, their trust and courage in sharing their experiences, and the time and energy they dedicate to working on themselves and supporting each other’s growth. It’s a level of earnest kindness and compassion I hadn’t experienced much until attending. I hope the stigma towards these groups dwindles with time, because I can’t recommend them enough to people who are struggling with their entry into sobriety, feeling isolated and adjusting to changes in their emotions and social roles. All of it can be managed, and it certainly gets better. But it’s a much easier and more empowering process when you have a sober community to help.