The world is changing, yet again – and as always. In the U.S., people are getting vaccinated, infection rates are dropping, and most of us are now able to visit the friends and family we haven’t seen in 3D in what feels like ages. It’s a strange sensation, this whole in-person socializing thing, and sometimes a bit awkward.
For many, the past month or so has seen a surge of social activity, and an adjustment (some might see it as more of a threat) to the new routines they developed and came to rely on for comfort and a sense of normalcy during the pandemic. For both drinkers and non-drinkers, the shift can feel like a loss of control, causing anxiety over the rate of change around us.
Sobriety and introversion
Giving up alcohol changes the nature of social companionship, causing most of us to spend less time in settings centered around alcohol and more time in groups where drinking isn’t the focus, such as those based around common activities or creative interests. Quitting can also lead to spending more time alone, in more introverted pastimes.
For me, that adjustment happened well before the pandemic. Though I’d joined a few writing groups that met regularly, I was spending a lot more time alone writing and editing, practicing guitar, and doing other activities to re-engage my mind as it worked on recovering synaptic connections that had been somewhat sluggish in the years prior.
This made the transition to prolonged isolation at the beginning of the pandemic rather easy for me compared to how I imagine it felt for people who’d been more accustomed to frequent social time in the months leading up to it. I was in my sober comfort zone, spending hours upon days upon weeks in my apartment – reading, writing, working, and watching TV. I had one needed “escape” from the indoors, which consisted of long bike rides through the city, but even that was something I did alone.
It must have been nine or ten months after the world shut down that I really started itching to get “out there.” It took another five months for most of the world around me to get vaccinated. In that time, I began dating someone and spending loads of time with them. Needless to say, my routines changed dramatically. Together, we built new ones – though they were still, out of necessity, rather insulated (which was fine with us!).
Social gatherings in the opening world
For me, the last few weeks have felt more like a slingshot than a gradual, comfortable transition back to social activity. We went from near-total isolation (and with it, total control over our daily and nightly routines) to seemingly constant pressure to catch up with everyone we haven’t seen in a year and a half. We’re making frequent plans and spending fewer evenings in the ways in which we’d become so comfortable. Mostly, the change is refreshing and welcome. But it’s also quite fast, and quite consuming.
Humans are creatures of comfort. Whether someone is sober or drinks, routines have a calming effect and reassure us when we experience anxiety, emotional triggers, or painful memories. Each time those routines are shaken up, it takes us time to adjust. That happened for the entire world during the pandemic, and it happened for me again with my new relationship. Now, the norm is shifting rapidly yet again, from one of isolation and virtual communication to one with increasingly frequent in-person hangouts.
It may seem odd, but I’ve struggled to elicit, feel, and express excitement recently when invited to social outings. My first emotion is often irritation at the consistent chipping away of my free time – mixed with guilt for having that reaction to the prospect of seeing people I care about. It can take me hours to rally enthusiasm about doing something and then accept an invitation. The vast majority of the time, I’m quite happy to be there once I go, though I’m even happier when the gathering doesn’t last more than a few hours. Something about giving up my independence and me-time has been quite difficult.
What’s more, a lot of these reunions and social gatherings involve quite a bit of drinking, taking place in the heat of summer. During the pandemic, I was spoiled with not having to feel like the “odd woman out.” I’d had a nice, long break from navigating the emotional and social complexities of sobriety in party environments. And I’d forgotten what a challenge those can be – especially, as in my situation, when you’re meeting a lot of new people (friends of a significant other) and hoping to make a good impression.
There’s also the challenge of being surrounded at restaurants, bars, or parties by enticing alcoholic drinks that activate our sensory pathways. After over a year of evading that pressure within the confines of our homes, the reminder that we have to resist these delicious, exciting things can create a fresh hell.
I find myself questioning more often why I’m doing this. Is it a personal choice or a necessity? Am I the same person I was three years ago when I quit drinking? Or might I have the willpower now to have a drink or two, but adhere to a limit? How long would it take me to push that limit? In truth, I know that both my psyche and my relationship with alcohol are more complicated than that. So I make the decision over and over to reflect on what I’ve gained and maintain my sobriety rather than test my limits and backtrack on personal progress.
Fear and projection surrounding control
Despite these sources of anxiety, I usually feel like I’m in the driver’s seat with my emotions and reactions in drinking environments. But in the past month, a few situations have taught me about something that causes me significant distress and can force me out of that driver’s seat. When I see someone I care about drinking past their threshold, I can turn into a ball of angst – knowing first-hand where that can lead, worried they’re heading there. I project onto them my fears about losing control of oneself, and one’s life.
I know that we’re all responsible for our own behavior and its outcomes. And I’m consciously aware that it’s quite normal and okay for people to drink a little more heavily at times. But when I see it happening, I can’t help but imagine the worst and feel the need to step in and protect. If I can’t communicate effectively in the moment – whether it’s due to the person’s drinking, the presence of others, or my own lack of clarity about what the “problem” is – I can become exasperated and feel disconnected.
I hope to come to a better understanding of myself and my place in the “drinking world,” which is, for better or worse, the only one that exists. I’ve learned that I need to be calmer and more cognizant of what causes these negative reactions to other people’s alcohol intake. Is there a real threat, or are my fears triggered by my own past mistakes and traumas, like how scary it felt to lose control and have no memory of what happened the next day? I’m starting to realize the latter is often the case. Perhaps this is a residual symptom of some form of PTSD.
Getting back out there
I’ve learned that I don’t have to say “yes” to every invitation that comes my way – particularlyif it’s a gathering that’s likely to involve more than a little drinking. Like anyone, I don’t want to miss out on the fun, but there’s nothing wrong with occasionally staying home.
Nevertheless, so far I’ve lived my sober life with the belief that it’s better to put myself in somewhat uncomfortable situations because they help me learn and grow. Comfort zones can be very restrictive, and my approach is more like “exposure therapy” – with the goal of empowering me to handle anything that comes my way. That might not work for everyone, but it has worked for me so far.
We can’t (and probably shouldn’t) live life attempting to completely shed anxiety. It’s rooted in past experience, and it’s adaptive. We need it in order to detect real danger and prepare to cope with our environment. So I have to continually deal with it, assessing where it’s coming from and how I can better manage it.
Like everyone else, I’m just starting to figure out how to be back in the social universe after a world-changing pandemic – in my case, as someone who doesn’t drink and is in a new relationship. Though we sober folks had a bit of a reprieve during the pandemic from steering our awkward course through drinking environments, the reality is that we’re back to it now.
The world keeps spinning, and it certainly keeps drinking. If we want to remain a part of it, and stay sober within it, we must pay attention to what’s spinning in our heads. And then we need to adjust, becoming our best selves to the friends, family, and loved ones who give us purpose.