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Testing Your Sobriety
Can you go to a bar after getting sober? Should you?
A Failed Attempt to Quit Drinking
I’ve been sober since the end of 2016, but I made a lot of failed attempts to quit drinking before learning to stick with it.
There was one particularly embarrassing ill-fated attempt from sometime in my early- or mid-twenties. (It’s been so long that I can’t remember the exact year.)
I was working in a warehouse back then—a pretty standard Monday-to-Friday, nine-to-five job. Since I was always so busy during the week, I thought the weekend would be the perfect time to quit drinking.
I left work one Friday and—against all odds—didn’t stop at the liquor store on the way home. I made it through that entire night sober and was feeling great about it the next day.
One of my friends was having a party that Saturday. Later on, in my late-twenties, my alcoholism would lead to social isolation and loneliness, but back then I was the type who went out to parties every weekend, getting wasted with friends.
These parties were exactly what you’d expect from a bunch of young adults recently out of college: They were filled with drinking and smoking pot. In other words, probably the worst possible place for someone who was 24 hours sober to show up.
I thought about skipping it. I’m sure there wouldn’t have been any hard feelings if I just told my friend that I wasn’t feeling well—or even the truth, that I had quit drinking. Honestly, I don’t think that anyone would have missed me.
That would have been the easy route. I could have stayed home and avoided the temptation of a house party overflowing with alcohol.
I chose the hard route.
What’s even worse is that I actually convinced myself that going to the party was the responsible thing to do. My reasoning went like this: If I’m going to stay sober, I’ll have to learn how to be around alcohol without giving in to my cravings. The sooner I learn to stay sober around drinkers, the better off I’ll be.
Let’s be real, though: I was kidding myself. It was only my second day sober, and there was no excuse whatsoever to throw myself into such a challenging situation so soon.
From the moment I arrived at the party, I was surrounded by alcohol. There was beer in the fridge, on the tables, and in everyone’s hand. If I remember correctly, at this specific party there was even a large bowl of sangria.
I immediately started craving alcohol. It didn’t matter where I turned my head, I just couldn’t stop seeing and thinking about it.
I started to tell everyone that I had quit drinking. I made a big point of it, thinking that if they all knew, I’d feel social pressure to live up to the decision. I didn’t even make excuses or claim that I was taking a day off. I told them that I had gotten sober and was never going to drink again.
Opening up so quickly and publicly might have helped me to resist drinking, but it didn’t lessen the cravings. I spent most of the party out on the balcony, smoking cigarettes and trying my hardest to avoid looking at alcohol. It sure would have been easier if I had just stayed home.
Finally, hours later, I decided to leave. I couldn’t tell you why I stuck around so long, despite all my misery. Was I embarrassed to leave too soon? Did I want to keep testing myself? Whatever the reason, it certainly wasn’t worth it.
Here’s the miraculous thing, though: As I left the party, I still hadn’t given in to my cravings. I was proud of myself for having resisted. I thought I had proven that I could withstand the test of alcohol. I took it as a sign that this time around, I’d finally stick with it.
I ended up buying a six-pack on my way home.
Even though I had made it through the whole party without a drink, seeing all that alcohol had already done too much damage. It was all I could think about, and without the social pressure to stay sober, I couldn’t resist.
I can still remember how embarrassed I was to show up at a party the next weekend and already be back to drinking. Nobody seemed to notice, but I felt like the ultimate failure.
What I Did Wrong
Looking back on it all these years later, my decision to go to that party was so obviously foolish. I had been sober for one day, what on earth did I expect would happen?
It was absolutely reckless of me to intentionally expose myself to so much alcohol so soon after quitting.
I’ve wondered whether there was a part of me back then that was trying to sabotage my sobriety. Did I subconsciously go to that party knowing that it would lead to relapse? Maybe I was just looking for an excuse to drink.
It wasn’t until about five years after that party that I finally quit drinking for good. This time around, I did things differently. I learned from my previous mistakes and went to great extremes to avoid being around alcohol.
After getting sober, I didn’t go to a single party, bar, or happy hour for at least a year. Not only that, but I even avoided going to the gas station where I used to buy beer and walking past the alcohol aisle in the grocery store.
I wasn’t able to completely avoid seeing alcohol, but I sure came close. I tried my absolute hardest to minimize my exposure to anything that would trigger cravings. I knew that to succeed at getting sober, I had to do everything possible to set myself up for success, even if it was inconvenient.
Sometimes, I’d get that old urge to “test” myself. I’d say that I’m taking it too far and that I had to learn to be around alcohol without giving in.
I learned that I needed to cut that inner voice off as soon as I heard it. When I started trying to justify being around alcohol, I knew that I was letting that addicted part of my mind take over. I would normally try talking to someone to get out of my head. Once you say these thoughts aloud to someone else, it’s a lot easier to recognize how ridiculous they are.
The reality is that in those early days of sobriety, I was not ready to be around alcohol. If I had “tested” myself, I would have failed.
There’s a saying in recovery that I love: “If you hang out in a barbershop for long enough, eventually you’re going to get a haircut.”
The meaning is that after getting sober, there’s no reason to hang around at bars or go to alcohol-fueled house parties. Sure, you might be able to resist for a while, but eventually, you end up having a drink.
That’s exactly what I experienced all of those years ago. I went to a party on my second day sober, used every bit of effort to resist drinking for a few hours, and then finally broke down and gave in on my way home.
When we put ourselves in those types of situations, the kind where we’re surrounded by alcohol, we’re just setting ourselves up for failure. There’s simply no need for it.
Does that mean that you have to avoid the sight of alcohol forever? I’ve heard conflicting opinions. In my case, I finally reached a point, a couple of years after quitting, when I stopped thinking so much about alcohol every time I saw it.
These days, I don’t get cravings when I see a beer or walk past the alcohol aisle of the grocery store. I truly don’t think much about it one way or the other. It’s become background noise.
However, I still don’t go hanging around at bars, or anywhere else where alcohol is the main attraction. I just don’t see the point—it seems like a lot of trouble for no benefit.
Why would a sober person want to hang out in a business devoted to selling alcohol? It truly doesn’t make sense to me.
When I compare my old, failed attempts to quit drinking, with my current long-term sobriety, I see an obvious difference: I no longer test myself.
Long-term sobriety isn’t achieved by constantly pushing ourselves to our limits and putting strains on our recovery. What a miserable life it would be if sobriety was nothing more than a series of tests!
Instead, I’ve shaped my life to make sobriety as easy as it can be. I don’t want to feel like I’m constantly running a gauntlet. I’d rather just avoid alcohol and stop thinking about it.
If you’re trying to quit drinking, one of my best pieces of advice is: Don’t test yourself. Skip the parties, avoid the bars, and don’t do anything to make sobriety harder than it already is. You’ll be surprised by how much you can accomplish when you set yourself up for success instead of failure.
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