In Wisconsin, all activities involve alcohol unless otherwise specified. That means whenever I make a new friend, the fact that I don't drink is quickly conspicuous. When they ask, I start by saying I don’t drink. If they ask why, I say it’s because I used to drink too much. Once we get to know each other, the topic nearly always comes up again: "Are you done done? Like done drinking for good?" The answer, I hope, is yes.
This always seems to change the mood. There's something about being done forever, as opposed to done for now, which suggests a long and sordid past followed by a cinematic breaking point.
Typically, somewhere between trying to drive my point home and trying to be relatable, I offer a few anecdotes of my worst moments while drinking. But the thing with drinking stories is that they're usually just funny. (I mean, in a morbid way - but is there another kind of funny?) Whatever spurred shame and self-doubt three years ago now makes a pretty good laugh. The stark contrast between the person I am drinking and the person I am sober inevitably prompts curiosity. A new friend almost always says, “I wish I could've seen you drunk!"
That statement is always well-meaning, and it always makes me uncomfortable. For one, I momentarily become insecure about the self I am sober: Too boring? Not fun enough? Back when I was pouring alcohol into my body, was I actually better to be around? That’s certainly a depressing thought.
This statement - which, I can’t stress enough, is almost always offered genially and off-the-cuff - bothers me on a second level: part of staying sober in the long-term is building up a community of people who love your sober self. I benefit from the healthy fear that, if I ever drank again, absolutely no one would support that decision. Some people would cut me out entirely. This, for me, is right and reasonable: the fact that I would be left out to dry if I ever drank again is, paradoxically, my safety net. The part of me which carefully constructed this life is positively allergic to the notion that someone could enjoy seeing drunk.
Plus, I have a hunch they wouldn't like it too much. Because here’s the truth about the type of friend I was while drinking:
If we went out to a bar together, I wanted to be interested in what you were saying. I really did. In reality, I was often more interested in how many drinks you’d had (because that’s how many I could have), and whether any guys in the vicinity were paying attention to me. I wasn’t fully present for you.
If we were having a girl’s night, I was secretly irritated (not to mention baffled) when you “weren’t in the mood for wine.” I was always wondering if it mattered, if you noticed, when you’d had one glass and I’d had two. It was the elephant in the room that only I could see.
If you were a friend that I nearly always drank with, I found it impossible to disaggregate my love of drinking from my love of our friendship. If I associated you with “letting loose” or partying, chances are I never took the time to see you in your sober entirety.
If it’s not obvious, I have a sense of loss about the person I was drinking. When I look back on times when I was drunk around the people I love, it makes me sad. On two occasions, one or both of my siblings visited me in Madison while I was still drinking. I remember being vaguely irritated that they were less interested in drinking than I was. My sister gets a headache after a drink or two and has this eerie moderate streak in her. She was just there to see me.
So, with that in mind: If you are or were my friend, and you spent a lot of time with me drunk, I’m sorry. I wish I had been more present. You deserve to be seen.
And if you’re a friend who has never seen me drunk, you’re welcome. Take my word for it: You aren’t missing much.