When Saying No to a Boozy Work Event Isn’t an Option

Handling an alcohol-laden work event is tricky in recovery. Lisa Smith, author of ‘Girl Walks Out of a Bar,’ shares her strategies for attending boozy work events in sobriety.

Before I got sober, I liked to think that I was the life of the party. At a work conference, retreat, or even just a meeting with a cocktail reception to follow, I would watch the clock and count the minutes until the bar opened. The closer it got to cocktail hour, the more impatient I was for the time to tick by.

Once I finally had a glass of vodka or wine in my hand, I felt both relieved and emboldened. I believed that when I heckled my colleagues into drinking more and faster, they liked it. They must have found my stories funny, even when I recounted them in a slurred and too-loud voice, right?

It wasn’t until I sobered up that I realized, while some people might have thought I was fun to be around, many others likely found me somewhere on the scale between annoying and completely inappropriate. It certainly wasn’t the look I had been going for.

I have a lot of gratitude around the fact that I don’t have to live like that anymore. But, of course, everyone else doesn’t stop drinking when we get sober. Navigating the brand new waters of nonalcoholic options at work parties and dinners felt like learning a new language.

Here are a few things I do to help me handle work festivities sober.

1. Arrive With Your Head In A Good Place

Over time, being around a crowd of people drinking at a party gets easier, but even once you’re used to it, it’s smart to take care of yourself before the cocktails start flowing. If you can greet the situation with as much peace as possible in your head, you’re halfway there. For me, this means making sure to get to a meeting the day of the dinner or party, talking to more sober friends, and trying to keep my prayer and meditation routine on track. The best defense can be a good offense.

Another good way to prepare is to think about HALT: if it can at all be avoided (and of course plenty of times it can’t), don’t go to the event feeling hungry, angry, lonely or tired.

This can be easier said than done. For me, hunger is the worst. If I’m hungry, I’m a beast. Maybe I go overboard on this, but if I’m going to a dinner I know is going to be long and full of people pouring booze, I eat beforehand. I’d rather not say, “no, thank you,” in the voice of Darth Vader when the wine is being poured for the third time and I haven’t had anything to eat yet. I also keep snacks in my bag at all times. Not only do I have something to munch on at the ready, but also I have comfort in the fact that if the pangs start, I’m covered. It helps me avoid becoming obsessed with when we’re going to be served. The fewer obsessions, the better.

2. Remember You’re Not Alone

Despite the fact that I would have argued vehemently to the contrary before sobering up, there’s a strong chance you will not be the only person skipping the booze at a work party. For example, someone might be on medication. In early sobriety I told the people I used to drink with – the only ones who asked – that taking medication was the reason I wasn’t drinking. It had the benefit of being true; I have been on antidepressants since I entered detox in 2004. They are not supposed to mixed with alcohol.

Someone might be training for race or on a specific diet or doing something like Dry January or maybe it’s a Tuesday night and they just don’t want to drink tonight. Much to my surprise, there are in fact people who don’t equate work events with being compelled to drink. Especially at a large function, even if you don’t see them, just remembering you’re not the only one can be comforting.

3. Have An Exit Strategy

Here’s a fun fact I learned in sobriety: some people actually show up late to cocktail parties and leave early. I had no idea. But in all seriousness, having a good idea of when and how you would like the night to end can help. My mental plan might be something like, “Cocktails start at 6:00, and so I’ll show up at 6:30. I’m going to be back in my hotel room (or on my way home) at 8:00. Then I’m going to relax, watch ‘Law & Order’ reruns and get a good night’s sleep.” For me, standing in the middle of a group of people who are drinking is less unpleasant when I can hear the theme song to “Law & Order” in my head.

When it’s time to hit the road, a simple, “I need to get going,” is all anyone needs to hear. No apologies for leaving at an appropriate, yet still early time. The words, “Good night,” are a complete sentence.

Of course, even the best-laid plans can easily be derailed. But having a blueprint for the evening can make it less stressful. And as one of my favorite sayings goes, you will never wake up in the morning regretting the fact that you did not drink the night before.

 

 

Taking It on the Road: Tips for Sober Business Travelers

Traveling for business? Tips on how to stay sober from Lisa Smith, author of Girl Walks Out of a Bar.

Only a few weeks after I got sober, I had to travel for a work conference. I would be ejected from my newly established recovery cocoon in New York City and parachuted like a first time skydiver into the great unknown of San Francisco four days. I was terrified.

Until I crashed out from alcohol and cocaine, drinking was, not surprisingly, a big part of my work trips. Drinking commenced at the airport the moment I passed through security. (I had convinced myself I was a “nervous flyer” and needed multiple drinks to relax me.) Drinking continued as soon as possible after I boarded the plane. I always bought two drinks at a time because, really, who knows when row 25 would be served again? As I handed over my credit card, I would give the flight attendant a tight smile. “Nervous flyer,” I would say, lest he think of me as some kind of drunk.

“Was I really supposed to fly across the country without drinking?”

And, of course, once on the ground in another city, all bets were off. Isn’t a work trip a party at heart? It was time to put that work hard/play hard ethic into practice. I would push through my hangovers at the hotel gym in the morning, drink vats of coffee to power through the workday, and count the minutes until the cocktail party or happy hour began. Unfailingly, that set off a long evening of imbibing, which quite possibly included saying regrettable things to colleagues that would make me feel sick the next day.

Huh. Now that I put it that way, it doesn’t sound like such a great party. But it was the only way I knew. Was I really supposed to fly across the country without drinking? I had to attend the happy hours and the dinners. Was I really supposed to not drink alcohol at those kinds of events?

I needed advice. So, I asked around and got suggestions. They helped immensely. I won’t pretend the first trip was easy, but it did end up being more manageable than I expected.

Here are a few ideas to help you stay sober on the road:

1. Plan ahead and bring your tools.

Ask yourself, “What helps me at home that I can recreate there?” One helpful thing is to call the hotel and ask in advance to have all alcohol removed from the room. At home, I don’t sleep two feet away from wine and vodka – why should I do that just because I’m in a hotel? Hotels get this request all the time for any number of reasons. They’ve heard it before, they don’t ask questions, and they’re happy to do it.

If you belong to 12-step or other support groups, research where nearby meetings are and pack any literature or meditation books you use. Figure out beforehand when you might exercise, where you can get coffee in the morning, or how else to recreate any part of your sober routine that’s important to you.

2. Leave yourself extra time.

Travel is stressful enough without feeling as if you might miss your flight or train. Pre-sobriety, I would leave for the airport early so I could start drinking. In sobriety, I learned to leave for the airport early so there was no need to panic if I hit traffic or a seemingly endless line at security.

3. Stay connected.

Your phone is your friend. Before you go, load it up with the numbers of people to whom you can reach out if the going gets tricky. Also load up on apps and online resources. It’s nice to know they’re at your fingertips. If you’re a member of Workit Health, let your coach know about your trip so they can help you prepare.

4. Navigate the social events.

Almost invariably, business trips involve cocktail parties, dinners, or other events that include alcohol. It’s likely you’ll need to attend at least some of them. I have learned never to go to these events hungry, even the dinners, because if I’m hungry, I’m irritable and uncomfortable. I don’t stuff myself in advance, but I do my best to get on solid footing. If possible, I arrive late and leave early, something that, if alcohol were being served, would have been unimaginable before I got sober.

“Like so many other things in recovery, after your first sober work trip, the next ones aren’t as daunting.”

Also, one of the most surprising things I’ve learned on work trips is that not all of my colleagues drink. And it’s not because they’re all in recovery. Back when I was leading the party charge, I managed to not notice the people who were sipping club soda or skipping after dinner drinks at the bar because they wanted to get up early for the gym, or because alcohol doesn’t agree with them, or because they prefer Diet Coke. Who knew such people existed? Now I take comfort in not being the only one passing on the wine. In fact, I realize that many people who push others to drink are trying to feel better themselves about their own drinking. I’m grateful not to play that role anymore.

Like so many other things in recovery, after your first sober work trip, the next ones aren’t as daunting. You may not look forward to them, but you can come home proud, with no hangovers and no regrets. And that never gets old.

 

Back to Work: Tips for Office Life in Early Recovery

How can you stay sober during the transition back to work? Tips from Lisa Smith, author of Girl Walks Out of a Bar.

Sitting on my flimsy cot at the psychiatric hospital on the fifth and final day of my detox from alcohol and cocaine, I looked at the doctor in the chair at the foot of my bed and shook my head. “No,” I said. I sounded like a two-year old refusing to eat my peas, but I was actually a 38-year old lawyer refusing to take my doctor’s strong recommendation that I head straight to an inpatient rehab for at least 28 days. I would only agree to attend intensive outpatient treatment at night.

Forgoing inpatient rehab, my doctor stressed, put me at needless risk while my recovery was at its most fragile. I’ve always been a rule follower, so why did I ignore this directive? One reason: I feared the stigma of addiction in the workplace, which for me was a law firm.

As far as my colleagues knew, I had been out that week to deal with a “stomach issue.” If I were to stay out for longer than five days I would need to produce a doctor’s note and possibly consider a leave of absence. I wasn’t willing to do that.

When I left the office the previous Friday afternoon, my co-workers viewed me as a smart, hard-working, reliable member of the team. Sure, many of them had seen me drink a lot – some of them had sat on the barstool next to mine. But somehow I had kept my spiraling addiction under wraps. If I went away for a month, I was afraid the reason for my absence would spill out and I would be viewed as weak, defective, and even untrustworthy upon my return. I was determined to keep my personal reality out of my professional life.

But how to do that? (It’s worth noting, 14 years later, I would strongly suggest to someone sitting on a hospital cot that they decide differently than I did and go to inpatient treatment.) Based on my experience, whether your colleagues know about your recovery or not, I have a few suggestions for re-entry into the workplace.

1. First Things First.

When I got sober, I was told anything I put in front of my recovery I would lose. That’s still true today. The most important thing I do on a daily basis is not pick up a drink or a drug. There are plenty of times I feel just “too busy” at work to break for a recovery meeting or other action essential to my mental health. A big project is due, so I feel the need to work late and skip my meeting. A colleague invites me to breakfast and I feel like I should accept, even though it means I won’t get to the gym, when regular exercise helps keep my depression at bay.

To counter these thoughts, I remember that just about every time I’ve heard a story of relapse, it had included the fact that the person’s recovery had taken a back seat. Of course, there may be people who can stay sober without prioritizing it above all else. I’m confident I’m not one of those people and I’m not interested in any experiments to confirm that fact.

2. Your Recovery is Your Business, No One Else’s.

Getting and staying sober is an incredibly personal decision. No one is “entitled” to know your story. I had no intention of relapsing, but what if I did? I was afraid sharing the fact of my addiction early on with my colleagues would add pressure, so I kept quiet.

Everyone’s story is different, though. For many, what brought us to recovery involved a situation in the workplace. I would still make the same suggestion. What you decide to share and with whom you decide you to share it (beyond those who unavoidably know) is entirely your decision.

3. “No,” Is a Complete Sentence.

Upon my return, I had no idea what to say to my work friends whom I liked, trusted, and often joined for drinks. So, I chalked up my new seltzer-and-cranberry-juice habit to “being on medication.” People nodded understandingly and no one questioned me further. In fact, I was taking antidepressants and instructed not to drink, so the truth did the trick.

When other people at cocktail parties or work dinners asked me, “Aren’t you drinking tonight?” I learned to answer, “No.” If they looked at me as if I had just spat in their Chardonnay, I would follow up with, “I’m just not drinking tonight.” I was pleasantly surprised at how often the conversation ended there. It turns out most people aren’t the way I was before I got sober, heckling and pressuring other people into drinking. I learned that others care a whole lot less about the beverage in my hand than I had ever imagined.

After detox, I realized I needed to chase sobriety every bit as much as I had chased drugs and alcohol. It wasn’t something I could do alone, but it also wasn’t something that had to involve people from the office.

In fact, the connections I made with my work colleagues, as a present, fully engaged team member grew stronger. So what if I missed some work lunches, skipped some cocktail parties, and ducked out earlier than usual for recovery meetings? There has never been a day those choices haven’t been worth it.