I Quit Drinking During the Pandemic. Now What?

An Asian woman in a mask holding a phone and standing outsideImage via AnnaStills/Envato Elements

When the first round of pandemic-related lockdowns hit, many hunkered down for what they thought would be a few weeks, a month at most. It quickly became clear that lockdown-style isolation would be necessary for much longer and, with that, drinking levels soared.

But this increase in drinking has also left some to reckon with their relationship with alcohol… perhaps sooner than they would have if it hadn’t been for the pandemic. These are the people, perhaps those like you, who realized that drinking didn’t work anymore, and they wanted to build a new life without alcohol. 

And so, that’s exactly what they did. Using sobriety tools to create new rituals and unravel the reasons they drank in the first place, many found themselves in lockdown, mostly isolated, and learning more than ever about themselves. 

If you are that person—the one who boldly stared alcohol in the face and decided to make a change—know that you’ve done something truly incredible. You put yourself first at one of the most stressful, trying times we’re likely to experience in our lifetime. 

Yet as vaccine distribution ramps up and a version of normal is on the horizon, the thought of living a life of recovery and free of alcohol might feel daunting. How, after all, will you return to the workplace and face a happy hour? Or tell friends you don’t drink anymore? Or go on dates?

We’ve compiled a list of your most pressing questions and, with the help of our dedicated Tempest staff, we’re providing you the answers and tools you need to take your recovery out of pandemic mode and into the everyday.

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Q1: I’ve mastered the art of not drinking at home, but what do I do when bar culture starts flooding back?

“Come back to your values and your ‘why’ for not drinking,” says Tempest Care Team Manager, DL Grant.

They continue, “Remind yourself that you CAN socialize and be a human who socializes without alcohol; affirming that belief in yourself is crucial.”

“Build up, connect with, and deepen your connection with people who do not drink. It is more likely than not that there are others just like you, in your area, who are not drinking or would simply like to connect with others in meaningful ways that do not involve alcohol. Put energy and intention into finding those people, whether through websites like Meetup, finding a Facebook group local to you, or Googling around a bit. Folks are out there!”

“If you are already open about your sobriety on your socials, let people know where you are at. Tell people in your network that you would like to connect with them in ways that do not involve alcohol.”

“If you know you will definitely be going to a bar because you feel pressured to do so or you want to, you can call the bar or restaurant ahead of time and check-in to see if they have NA beverage options like alcohol-free beers, spirits, and wines. There are SO many companies creating 0% alcohol alternatives, there’s hardly an excuse for bars and restaurants to not have at least some available at this point!”

“I would also say that if you’re going to go out to a bar, pick a place that has activities like karaoke, pool, darts, etc., so that you can be engaged in something other than the drinking that is happening. Being able to stay focused on an activity everyone is engaged in is one of the main ways I have remained sober while still going out and sharing space with folks at bars.”

“Also, have a sober buddy, or at least a buddy who really respects your choice not to drink! Having someone around that has your back is going to be a great asset to you, especially if you end up having a craving. Talking with this buddy, whether they are also sober or not, and expressing what kind of support you are hoping for as you go out together is a beautiful way to not only connect with someone but also support your choice to abstain from alcohol.” 

Q2: Once things reopen, what do I do if I get an invitation from friends where the only activity is drinking? 

“One way I have sustained over four years of abstinence from alcohol has been through saying ‘no’ to these kinds of situations,” Grant says. “What do I have to gain from a gathering where the only activity happening around me is drinking? Nothing! I do not enjoy those kinds of gatherings and I am doing my very best to follow my joy. The pain of FOMO is much less brutal than the pain of getting intoxicated when I really don’t want to.” 

“I encourage you to come back to yourself and be honest: is this the type of gathering you need to be at? Will it be something you actually enjoy? Do you have the tools, supportive friends, and other encouragement in place that will help you stay sober throughout? What are you actually desiring from your social life and the friends who invited you?”

“If there is a voice inside of you that is saying ‘don’t go!’ then I would say: listen to it.”

Q3: Can I just say “no” to things that I don’t want to do that involve alcohol? How do I do that?

“Yes! Learning to say ‘no’ is one of the foundational principles of long-term sobriety,” says Ruby Mehta, Director of Clinical Operations at Tempest. “One of my favorite Instagram tiles was created by our Founder, Holly Whitaker, who said ‘learn to disappoint people.’”

“She couldn’t have been more right. While disappointing people may sound negative, it’s actually hard to take care of yourself without disappointing anyone. In order to set boundaries (which is really important in recovery), we need to be able to say ‘no.’” 

“How to say ‘no’ depends on the situation and how close you are to the person asking. If it’s someone you don’t feel as close with, making up an excuse is perfectly fine. If it’s someone very close to you, telling them that you are trying to avoid alcohol while you get used to not drinking is another option. Hopefully, they will support you in trying to protect yourself. If it’s an event that’s really important to attend, saying ‘no’ can be difficult. If saying ‘no’ to attending is causing you a lot of stress, perhaps think of ways you can stop by and make up a reason to leave quickly. We tend to be much more self-conscious about our own lack of drinking than anyone else.” 

Q4: How do I handle being in social situations where other people are drinking and I am not? 

Grant suggests first scanning the room and honing in on someone to chat with. 

“Connect with one individual person whom, even if they are drinking, you notice is drinking a lot less or in a way that feels the least triggering to you. Not everyone is trying to get turnt and numb out, and not everyone who is drinking is going to pressure you to do so. Strike up a conversation with someone who feels the safest to engage with.”

“I am a fan of getting something tasty in your hand that isn’t alcohol so there can be that little layer of comfort and ease within the social dynamic!”

“Take as many breaks to the bathroom or going outside as you need, no explanation necessary!”

“And as always, it is more than okay to leave if it’s not feeling right for you. It can feel lonely or frustrating to feel like you can’t be out there socializing with others as the world is opening up, but I encourage you to come back to your values and how you want to be showing up in your life and your relationships. Base decisions off of those values. Reaffirm them again and again, as many times as you have to. There will be more social situations to practice at, and you will become more skilled and more at ease with practice!”

Q5: Can I still go “out” with friends? What about with people who drink heavily?

“This is totally up to you, and the answer can change from day to day,” says Lazarus Letcher, Tempest Peer Coach. “Sometimes I don’t mind sitting at a bar with my tonic water and lime slice, and other days the smell of beer makes me extremely uncomfortable.”

As Grant mentioned before, trust your gut. Check-in with yourself and figure out if the situation is one you feel physically and mentally (and spiritually if that calls to you) capable of being a part of. And don’t forget that it is completely okay and normal if one day, you just don’t want to go out and be around people who are drinking. 

Q6: How do I navigate socializing with friends who were drinking buddies pre-pandemic? 

“It might be a hard shift at first, but it’s also an opportunity to maybe brainstorm ideas beyond meeting up at a bar,” Letcher explains. “I had some friends do my first sober days with me (such fears!) and we swapped our happy hours with rock climbing—years later we’re all still doing it! Finding evening activities in your town can be tricky, but it’s also an exciting opportunity to play tourist in your own backyard and find some new hobbies.”

Q7: I’m not ready to announce to people that I’m sober now, so how do I best approach that conversation?

“I am assuming the conversation is when someone asks you if you’d like to drink. You can simply say, ‘No thank you, I’m all set!’ and you do not have to explain yourself,” Grant says. “No one is owed your story, that is your private experience to share with those you feel safe with.” 

“I am also a fan of saying whatever you need to in order to say ‘no,’ such as sharing you can’t drink because you’re taking antibiotics or because you are driving—though some people might still try to convince you. If so, go to my first suggestion and shut it down directly, and leave it at that. People can work out their own discomfort with your decline for a drink on their own.” 

Q8: Can I maintain a friendship when my being sober makes my friend feel self-conscious?

 “I think it depends on the friend and how much they are affected by your sobriety,” says Mehta. “You may have heard this before, but people who are uncomfortable around sober people are often questioning their own drinking levels. It’s hard to make that decision for your friend, but something you have more control over is how you react if you notice certain friends distancing themselves from you.”

“This can be painful initially, but remember your reasons for being sober in the first place. It’s more important to take care of yourself than maintain a friendship that leads to feelings of guilt about being sober.”

Q9: How can I get comfortable with being in social situations that include alcohol and not just turn into a hermit once things reopen? 

“Remember all of the amazing work you’ve put into your relationship with alcohol during lockdowns and KNOW that a lot of it will transfer over,” says Letcher. “Come up with a list of all the habits and tools you’ve developed during this time and then another list of what you can bust out when things reopen.”

“My go-tos are breathing exercises in bathroom stalls (it’s worth the looks), herbal support like oils in my fanny pack, and some homies on a recovery journey at the ready for a text or call.”

Q10: I’m ready to tell friends I no longer drink, but how do I do that without making it awkward?

“There are so many ways to go about this and a lot of it depends on the relationship you have with your friends,” Mehta explains. “If it’s someone you feel very close to and trust that they will support your decision, you may want to open up about it by having a 1:1 conversation.”

“Remember that these conversations can be emotionally heavy for you so prepare to do some self-care after it. A lighter-weight strategy is to tell your friends the next time they offer you a drink. You could tell them that you decided to stop drinking or just that you are taking a break from drinking. Most people find that the other person reacts less intensely and more favorably than they would have expected.”

Bonus Q: What kind of non-alcoholic drinks can I order if I decide to go to a bar while sober? 

Luckily, some bars are starting to catch onto the sober trend and are making nonalcoholic drink options readily available. 

If you want to keep it really simple, you can order a club soda and lime, as Laz mentioned earlier. Many bars are carrying kombucha as an alcohol alternative and NA beers as well.

There are also many classic options, like the Shirley Temple and the Roy Rogers. 

Some equally well-known, virgin options include the strawberry daiquiri or pina colada (just ask for either of these drinks “virgin” and you’re good to go. Maybe reiterate that you want the alcohol-free version if you’re feeling a bit anxious).

There’s also the Virgin Mary (sometimes called a Virgin Caesar’s), which is an alcohol-free take on the Bloody Mary. 

Grant also suggests a little digging into the mocktail scene.

“You could also look up simple mocktail recipes, and ask the bartender if they could make it for you or create something similar. A good bartender will be more than happy to accommodate you.”

* * * 

No matter what, know that you can do this. Your recovery and all of the tools you’ve acquired will be there for you, lockdown or not. 

Living life is one of the greatest gifts of a sober life, and now is your time to really enjoy it!

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