As COVID-19 restrictions lift, many of us, having been isolated indoors for months, are jumping at the opportunity to have any social interaction.
Our feeling of new freedom in July happens to coincide with the wedding season — perhaps one of the more difficult occasions to navigate as a sober person.
Why weddings are difficult for sober people
Weddings are celebrations, and for that reason, people drink more and get merry. While most guests might be able to handle alcohol, it can be triggering for those of us who are sober. You may be offered countless alcoholic drinks; you have to prepare a list of reasons why you don’t drink when you’re repeatedly asked; perhaps a relative becomes a little annoying after one too many drinks, or maybe you’re naturally socially awkward or anxious and find parties challenging.
I remember really struggling with weddings in early recovery. I was acutely aware of my social anxiety. It’s partly why I drank — to fit in and not feel so awkward. Ironically, it had the opposite effect: I’d get drunk and then everyone was acutely aware of me. Now I have eight years of recovery, and while I’m aware of being sober, it’s actually refreshing to attend a wedding or any social event without drinking. It took a while for me to get here, though.
How to attend a wedding sober
I spoke to Geri-Lynn Utter, PsyD, about attending weddings sober, why it can cause so much anxiety, and how to safely attend and maintain your recovery. She recommends starting with the consideration of what feels comfortable.
“In working with individuals who have a social event such as a wedding to attend and are worried or concerned about maintaining their sobriety, the first thing we discuss is attendance,” she says. “How new they are to their sobriety and how they are currently feeling are also considered when it comes to making the decision of whether or not to attend the wedding. Would not attending be a better option for them?”
She explains that this decision is something that can be processed collaboratively in therapy, but it is ultimately up to the individual. If they make the decision to attend, she cautions it is imperative that they take care of themselves.
Many of my friends and I sometimes opt not to attend at all. And that is ultimately what is best for our recovery. We don’t have to have a reason beyond that it doesn’t feel right and we politely decline. And note that you can change your mind at any time, even if you have already accepted the invite. If however, you feel like attending, it should be on your terms.
“Showing support for the couple tying the knot may be sufficient enough by attending the ceremony and avoiding the reception, where alcohol is often served. This way you are demonstrating your affection for the couple, while simultaneously taking care of yourself,” Utter says.
There are many ways we can prioritize our recovery, from setting physical and social boundaries to planning social support ahead of time.
“If you choose to attend all of the wedding festivities, consider your physical proximity to the bar. Conversing or hanging close to the bar may be a trigger. Therefore, it may be best to create physical space between oneself and the bar as not to trigger or entice one’s desire to drink,” says Utter.
If you choose to attend the reception, it’s wise to consider your stance about not drinking. While it is entirely your right to not have to explain your choices, Utter advises being open but casual about your stance on not drinking, but also be prepared to be direct and firm where you need to be.
“Simply responding with ‘No thank you, I’m not drinking’ is both a polite and sufficient answer. There is no need to elaborate or explain away your reason for not drinking,” she advises. “Continue on with your conversation and move about the day. However, if for some reason you feel as though you are being harassed to drink or toast to the bride and groom, respond politely and firmly stating that you are in recovery and will not be drinking. Again, keep it simple, to the point and move on. If the pressure becomes too much, it is polite to attend cocktail hour, give your gift, congratulate the bride and groom, and quietly make your exit. Those who love and support you will understand that your sobriety comes first.”
Some other physical boundaries might include:
- Driving yourself and parking close to the venue
- Taking your own drinks
- Having an escape plan with something planned after the event, even if it is to have a bath and early night
- Take regular breaks: go for a walk or go for a short drive
- Give yourself permission to have fun: just because you don’t drink doesn’t mean you can’t dance, laugh, and have a great time
- Remember to eat and hydrate. Weddings can go on for hours. It’s important to keep your energy levels up by drinking non-alcoholic beverages and eating regularly. Plus, even if you do feel tempted, you’re less likely to drink alcohol if you are hydrated.
The importance of sober supports
A critical element of recovery is social support, and that’s particularly true of attending a triggering event like a wedding. Family engagements can be emotional, especially when others have been drinking. That’s why it’s important to plan ahead and talk through that plan with a trusted friend, mentor, or therapist.
Utter discusses the importance of letting sober supporters know that you will be attending a wedding that will be serving alcohol.
“This way, if the pressure or temptation becomes too overbearing, you can take a time-out and call your sponsor or sober friend to offer care and encouragement,” she says. “By letting your sober support know that you will be attending the wedding, you can discuss a strategy to help you along the way. For example, you can provide your sober support with an hourly mood check (i.e. give him/her a number on a scale of 1 through 10 — the higher the number the more tempted or pressured you to feel you drink. Once you hit a 6 or above you will call your sober support from the wedding).”
It’s also important to remember that a big part of recovery is learning to both loves and accept yourself, explains Utter. “It gives others the opportunity to love and support the sober you. Those who support you will ultimately support your decisions,” she says.
The bottom line, advises Utter, is “Do what feels right for you and your recovery journey.”