How to sober wedding

Last Sunday, I lost a close friend to the institution of marriage. I’m sure some of you had the same experience; it’s wedding season, and this was one of the last sunny weekends before outdoor weddings are a dance with the devil.

Drunk or sober, weddings are their own kind of beast. It isn’t just the stiff clothes, the underwhelming cake, the stilted conversations. It isn’t just the timeline or the parking instructions, both of which are perennially unclear. It’s not even the officiant, who in trying to say something that pleases everyone, says almost nothing at all. (Lookin’ at you, first Corinthians.)

At my age, weddings are weird first and foremost because millennials are simply not ceremonial creatures. We don’t want tears or applause. We don’t even want handshakes. If you say link arms with dad, we’re linking arms with mom. If you say take his last name over ours, we’ll create a gaudy merger of the two. We want likes and shares, we want to go viral, we want a raise, a promotion, money to travel. But ceremony is weird.

Bearing witness to the most emotional day of another person’s life - watching their knees shake, their first kiss as husband and wife - watching them line up their favorite friends and exchange pleasantries with their least-favorite relatives - well, all of that combined is practically voyeuristic.

Just me? Ok. I might have lost a few of you there. But if you're still around, I think we can agree that attending a wedding of all things warrants a drink.

To be fair, my friend did her wedding right. As bridesmaids, we got to pick our dresses. Almost everything was optional. There was no dancing, just eating. The groomsmen were mostly homeschooled, like me. When the bride thought she might cry, she yelled instead. As much as I traditionally dislike weddings, those orchestrated by people like me are, um, way the hell better. Go figure.

And yet: for this alcoholic in recovery, the presence of alcohol could not be ignored. Well, I couldn’t ignore it, anyway; everyone else seemed relatively disinterested when a cooler arrived. A couple of groomsmen grabbed a beer. The bridesmaids didn’t move at all. And it wasn’t the kind of not moving that occurs when french fries are first placed on the table. It wasn’t the nervous, self-conscious, you go first type of energy. It was disinterest. It was maybe I’ll have one later. Behavior I will never understand.

When I’m in AA hearing about others’ bottoms, I sometimes wonder if I'm really alcoholic. But when I’m around normies, that's a laugh. Not only do I notice when alcohol enters the scene, but I begin making predictions about whether the people around me have also noticed it, whether they will have one - and if not, why. If I did the same thing when green beans or lemonade entered the scene, I'd be admitted.

One groomsman strode up to me and said, “Just La Croix for you?” I said, “Yep.” “Waiting ‘til later to start drinking?”“Nope.” “Oh, you like don’t drink at all?” “Nope.” “Any particular reason, or…?” I sighed. “Yeah, I like myself less when I drink.” Eyes widened, so I cracked a joke: “But I freaking love myself on La Croix. I’m phenomenal on bubble water.”

She's phenomenal on bubble water.

Midway through the afternoon, another bridesmaid and I retreated. We toured a hipster barn on the property; I don’t know if it had ever seen live animals, but it had certainly seen a live band. There was a pool table and an unmarked set of weights sat in the corner, handmaid by some guy on Craigslist. If it sounds like I’m designing my dream house, I’m not. But it’s close.

The other bridesmaid and I alternated between taking pictures and deconstructing women’s issues. If wearing makeup counts as sexual signaling for women, we wondered, what is the equivalent for men? To demonstrate wealth? Strength? To walk into a room and subtly express, “I’m powerful?” “I’m a provider?” “I matter here?”

You know, wedding stuff. Just a coupla gals.

An hour later, I had a long conversation with a groomsmen. We had followed a similar trajectory in life - born and raised in Oregon, lived in the South (Georgia for him, Arkansas for me), then in the midwest (Minneapolis for him, Madison for me). I asked him where he felt most like himself. He quite seriously let me know that was the wrong question - feeling like oneself is a function of maturity, not place.

You know, wedding stuff. Just the playful spark of the wedding party.

At one point during the reception, I simply needed a break. (These are the things we notice when we are conscious). Rather than burying my face in my phone or retreating to the restroom, I just stood there for several minutes. Silently surveying the crowd. Talking to no one. It was as much a break as it was its own mental exercise. Can I tolerate the discomfort of simply standing here? Of being alone among others? Of being quiet when I’m meant to be chatting? Yes, I think I can.

If it seems like we’re straying, we are. I’m writing about more than alcohol. But that in itself is relevant. At 3 ½ years sober, weddings are interesting for more than the fact that I can’t drink. I maintained a full awareness of my feelings all day long. Because I could not drown my social anxiety, I instead had to pursue the types of conversations that are interesting sober. Because I knew what I needed, I knew that sometimes I simply needed to stand there. And because I have chosen authenticity - both in relation to others, and in relation to myself - I now have the option to make meaning of the day. To sit down and collect my thoughts, to record my experience. To make it matter. And to share what I’ve found.