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How to Handle Near-Drunk Experiences

An accidental sip of beer, cooking with wine and swigging Near Beer are just a few things that fuel anxiety among the newly sober. But do they matter?

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Can a non-alcoholic drink trigger alcoholism?

By Emily McCombs

05/10/11

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Her first sober Fourth of July, Emma, a 32-year-old sales rep in Brooklyn, New York felt left out of the festivities. So she purchased a stash of Haake-Becks, a non-alcoholic beer, and drank a few throughout the course of the day. She felt fine about it. But what really left a bad taste in her mouth was the “judgmental” attitude of a woman who approached her after she shared about it at a 12-step meeting, and suggested that Emma had relapsed. At five years of sobriety, she says she no longer wants to drink non-alcoholic beer, but she thinks it’s important for people to discover their own boundaries for themselves. “Although I wouldn’t recommend it, I wouldn’t judge it,” she says. “I have a pretty relaxed attitude toward that kind of stuff.” That “kind of stuff,” of course, includes a whole array of “near-drunk experiences” from Near Beer, which does contain a very small percentage of alcohol, to using mouthwash with alcohol to eating tiramisu and Coq au vin.

Stephan Gonzalez, drop-in center director for the Council on Alcoholism and Drug Abuse in Santa Barbara, California, takes a less relaxed attitude. “The power of the addict’s brain to want to get high is so strong that even using fakes or substitutes is only going to lead to fantasizing about using the real stuff,” he says.

Liz Scott, a chef in New Jersey who has been sober for 12 years and is the author of several sober cookbooks, agrees that recovering people should avoid alcohol flavors and aromas. “Your brain cells will go, ‘Wow, I remember this, it’s kind of nice.’ Your taste buds will remember it, and your sense of smell is gonna say, ‘Yeah I recall this,’” she says. “It’s kind of like teasing the tiger. Why even go there?”

Anthony, a 44-year-old chef for a luxury sober living house in New York, would never dream of using alcohol for food preparation at work, but he does occasionally at home.  He says his rule of thumb is that cooked dishes made with alcohol are probably okay, but it’s best to proceed with caution around things like desserts where the raw alcohol isn’t cooked off.

Katherine, a therapist in Los Angeles, never even thought about the potential dangers of eating food cooked with alcohol during her first few years of sobriety. “A.A. doesn’t have opinions on these sorts of things and I just assumed I was in the clear,” she says. Then she got a new sponsor who said that this was “dancing too close to the line.” “My sponsor told me about her first sponsor, who used to tell her that she never had to worry about the alcohol content in food because it always cooked off. Then she added, darkly, ‘And she died drunk.’ That had a serious impact on me. I never ordered food with red wine vinaigrette or reduction sauce or whatever again. Why take the risk?”

Scott agrees, citing a USDA study on alcohol retention that showed that up to 85 percent of the alcohol that is added to a dish can remain after cooking. “It’s almost like people think that alcohol is transformed into some other weird substance once it enters a dish of food and that’s not true at all,” she says. “Alcohol is alcohol if it’s in your glass or in your food.”

She stresses the importance of communicating your needs to wait staff, saying that if more people make requests for non-alcoholic options, restaurants will be forced to come up with proper substitutions.  “Restaurants are in the service business,” she says. “People will go in and say ‘No salt, no butter, and oh, can you prepare this without oil?’ There’s no reason you can’t ask for no alcohol, too. It’s a health issue for us.”

Yet cooking at home can present even greater challenges. Gonzalez relays the story of a chef client who wanted to make a stew with beer for his first sober St. Patrick’s day. “The beer never got into the stew,” Gonzalez says. “He drank it instead. It’s a very high-risk situation having alcohol in your kitchen, even cooking sherry or vermouth.”

Of course, those who avoid alcohol in all its forms occasionally end up ingesting it by accident—whether by biting into an unmarked chocolate filled with Baileys or by taking a sip of what they thought was club soda only to discover it’s actually a vodka tonic.

It’s happened to Emma twice in sobriety when different bartenders mistakenly served her alcohol. The first time, she tasted the booze immediately and spit it out into a potted plant. The second time, she swallowed before realizing that her ginger ale also contained vodka. While she’s perfectly clear about the fact that this was in no way a relapse, she also admits that it was a triggering experience. “After that much time from being away from alcohol, I could feel the craving,” she says. “I could feel the allergic reaction inside of me, that craving for more.” Others who have inadvertently sipped drinks over the years report no reaction at all. “I panicked the first few times it happened,” admits Benjamin, a 38-year old writer who’s been sober over a decade and has had bartenders screw up orders and give him vodka in drinks at least half a dozen times. “But honestly? The taste was disgusting. After washing my mouth out with water and declaring to everyone in the vicinity, ‘Oh my God, I’m a sober alcoholic and just accidentally drank!’ I realized there was no need to make a federal issue out of it. It’s more a head-trip than anything. The last time it happened, I just calmly asked for a new drink and went on with my night.”

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