Even for close friends, alcohol can feel like a ‘social lubricant’. Taking away this crutch can change the dynamic of a relationship, the way we view each other and interact. It can make being real with each other a little scarier, treacherous even. It could throw long-held friendships onto the rocks of judgment and unacceptance without the safety net of the alcohol-infused get-out clause for confessions and not-so-popular views.
When my friend decided to get back on the wagon after 100 days of sobriety and returning to drinking for several months, I wasn’t enthusiastic. The opposite of enthusiastic is closer to where I was. We’d had one catch up with alcohol on the table, and I’d not been able to drink. Now she was sweeping alcohol from her existence and that was that. Things were gonna get real and I wasn’t sure I was ready for real.
I wondered if she was going to become puritanical with her sobriety this time.
The 100 days sober had been more manageable for me. There had been an end in sight. I could support her and count down the days to when we’d chat again over a beer or glass of wine. Now it was a matter of sober forever and damn the consequences. Obviously, she was looking at it from her point of view. The fact that being sober and clear-headed made life easier for her. Being sober helped to reduce her anxiety and deal with life’s challenges gracefully. I still wasn’t 100% convinced sobriety was responsible for this, but I went along with it.
I went along with it because sober or drunk, I loved her. I just wasn’t sure she’d still love me back sober.
Drinking is a funny thing. Getting tipsy or even rolling drunk is such a part of our society. Telling your mate you love them in a drunken slur might be the only time many of us utter those words to our friends. Letting someone know that life ain’t that pleasant sometimes is easier when we’ve had a few and our inhibitions have been softened. Admitting that we’ve screwed up and don’t always get life right is easier when we’re not sharp and on guard, when the edges of life are fuzzy and softer.
I think we’ve become so conditioned to have everything under control, or at least on track to being under control, to present the image of having things together, all the time, that it’s just become too hard for many of us to show vulnerability in the cold light of day, without assistance.
I gritted my teeth and grinned. ‘Just see how you go’ I said. ‘Maybe it’ll be forever and maybe you’ll decide that it’s not for you. Either way, I’m behind you, babe.’
She dove back into Pocket Rehab. She regaled me with stories of the podcasts she listened too to keep her resolve firm when we talked. The Bubble Hour, Since Right Now, and Drunk Mum/Sober Mum were firm favourites, but there were more than I could keep track of. She was really getting into it, becoming a sober specialist.
I’d listen and hold my counsel. Things weren’t so rosy in my life but I was pushing on through. One day at a time, trying to remember that nothing stays the same forever. Instead of sharing, I’d ask about her sober journey. It gave the impression I was there for her and it took my mind off my own troubles for a while.
I was a little jealous of the virtual friends on her sobriety app. I wanted my own cheerleaders. Someone shouting me on, bigging me up for my life choices. Letting me know that although things were hard now, they wouldn’t always be. I didn’t share my personal challenges with her because I didn’t want to drag her down and I didn’t want her to think I was in the wrong, the cause of my woes. Mostly, I didn’t want her to think badly of me. What she was doing was courageous and strong. I was living a small life; plodding from one day to the next.
Instead, I talked to her about my foraging walks, the abundance of berries in the hedges that year. I’d share my work triumphs, the new client or project that I’d made a successful bid on. The referral that had dropped into my lap, the interesting new topic I was researching for my latest piece of writing. The goodies I’d been making and was planning to send out for Christmas gifts that year.
When she asked about my personal life, I’d be brief about the bad bits. I’d keep it as minimal as I could, but sometimes it would spill out. I was tired and run down. I’d been taking too much on and knew I couldn’t keep it up, but I didn’t know how to stop. I just wanted to go away and hide from the world for a week or so. I wished I could be like some people and drink it all away, hide in a bottle, but that had never been a solution for me and it was one feeling I could never share with her now. I felt like I was sinking in a sea of responsibilities and no-one would throw me a life-jacket.
‘Have you thought about meditation?’ she asked.
I wondered if this was the beginning of some planned conversion for me. A way to get me on track for living a healthy, boring life that would eventually lead me to give up booze too.
‘Come visit’ she offered. ‘I’ll look after you for a weekend and you can have a break. We’ll go get a massage or something so you can unwind and relax.’ It sounded nice, but I wondered if it was a ploy. There wouldn’t be an open conversation over a bottle of wine; the type where I could spill my feelings about what was really going on in my life. It could be the time she was planning to convert me to a sober life. I had no intention of giving up my occasional beer or glass of wine, even if I couldn’t muster the commitment to get pissed to avoid my troubles.
Now that she was sober, would she insist on me remaining so around her? Would I even want to drink when we got together? Did she now have a better understanding of life than me? Was she secretly disappointed by the glass of wine I was drinking while we chatted on the phone? Did she think everyone should give up booze? All of these questions and more worried me and remained unasked.
I still hoped she’d get a handle on her drinking and just have a few every now and then with me.
When she told me she was thinking of joining AA, finding a group near her, I tried to dissuade her from it. A real group of people, not an app with virtual people and messages of support, somehow made it all seem permanent. I guess that’s why she was taking that step. But I felt threatened and wondered how it would affect our friendship. I wondered if I would somehow be judged an unfit friend. These people I didn’t know and she was about to meet suddenly seemed to have a bigger stake in her life. They would be in a position to dictate the best way for her to achieve and maintain her goal of sobriety, and that may well mean saying bye-bye to me. I hated them just a little.
‘Do you really want to get up and talk about your personal life with a bunch of strangers?’ I asked.
‘I think it will help.’ she said, ‘Don’t get me wrong, I’m not mad keen on getting up and talking to a group of strangers about my drinking, but my app isn’t cutting it much anymore and I need something to help me with this. I’m not feeling as good as I did when I gave up the first time for 100 days. I need to do something different.’
‘Maybe it’s not the drinking then. Maybe it’s something else. Have you tried talking to someone about it? Are you meditating still, getting enough sleep?’
‘I know I want to stay sober. I’ve tried meditation a few times. I think this is the right way for me though, I’m going to try a group.’
My heart sank and I arranged to visit her after Christmas. I also organised a Christmas hamper for her of things I’d made from foraging. I knew she wanted to remain sober, but still included Haw Brandy and Sloe Gin — it was Christmas after all. When the hamper arrived, it was gratefully received and everything was tried, bar the alcoholic drinks. They remain unopened to this day.
When I look back on this now — it was around a year ago — I can see how judgemental I was being. I’d decided that you couldn’t be fun and interesting if you didn’t drink. I figured we wouldn’t be open and honest with each other anymore. I looked at AA as some kind of weird cult for broken people and I didn’t want my friend to be a part of that. I didn’t want to admit she had a problem with booze, even after she had. I’d decided that recovered or recovering alcoholics had some holier than thou attitude. I figured they’d take her and twist her into someone new. Put her on some sort of puritanical plan, one that barred me from her life and slowly stripped away other friends who liked a drink too. Things we don’t know or understand often scare us most.
It turned out I was wrong. Not drinking made my friend less judgemental. She was more supportive and open-minded when she was sober and she didn’t think that everyone had to take the same path to happiness. She was more patient with me and my personal woes. She offered better advice and gave me objectivity rather than getting embroiled in my drama. The openness and honesty that led her to sobriety and which she continues to practice at each meeting she attends bled into our friendship. It didn’t make us crash on the rocks of judgment and unacceptance. It steered us towards a clearer, more open and real relationship, despite my resistance. It also helped me to start being a little more honest with myself too.