Celebrating Sober

By Deanna deBara 06/09/17

What could I bring to the party without a little liquid courage?

Guests sitting at table during wedding celebration
During recovery, learning to celebrate with friends and family without consuming alcohol can be difficult but ultimately necessary to maintaining a healthy social life.

Back in my drinking days, alcohol fueled all of my celebrations. What was a birthday party without a celebratory round of shots with friends? How could someone ring in the New Year without a glass of champagne? And what was I supposed to toast with at weddings - water?

But while drinking and celebrating were closely linked in my mind, as my drinking progressed, there was no denying that one was robbing me of the other. I was a nightmare to be around, drunk and volatile. The more I drank, the less there was to celebrate - and the less people wanted me at their celebrations. As I continued to drink, my life became less about fun and celebrating and more about loneliness and desperation.

And on the rare occasion that I was invited to a celebration (or on the even rarer occasion that I had something to celebrate myself), it was inevitable that my drinking would find some way to ruin the party.

I don’t remember a single birthday from the age of 19 to 25. I would wake up the next morning, a year older but clearly no wiser, and feel a wave of panic wash over me as I tried to recall the events of the night before. As the day went on, friends would get in touch and fill in the gaps with the stupid and humiliating things I had done the night before. As the shame and embarrassment crept its way up my throat, I would immediately pop open another beer and drink it down, trying to drown the feelings that threatened to choke me.

Holidays were a complete disaster. They’d start off nice enough, but my mother always made sure to get the family photo at the beginning of the day, before I had the chance to get into the wine. Because once I was a few glasses in, I’d inevitably find a way to hijack the evening and make my entire family uncomfortable, whether by stealing an expensive bottle of wine from the cabinet in plain view of our hosts or passing out in a plate of mashed potatoes.

I went home with the bartender at my Aunt’s surprise 50th birthday party. I got into a screaming match with my date in the middle of the dance floor at a friend’s wedding. Every celebration I attended ended in a blackout and was followed the next day by a flurry of embarrassed apologies to my exasperated friends and family.

But even as it became clear that there was nothing celebratory about my drinking, I held on to the idea that drinking was what made celebrations fun. That without a few drinks in me, there was no way I could get into the spirit of celebration, dance all night, laugh too loudly, or let loose and have a good time. So when I finally stopped drinking, I was pretty much resigned to the fact that my celebratory days were over - which I figured was an apt punishment for all the damage I’d caused at celebrations past.

But when I got sober, something funny happened: since I was starting to resemble less of a high speed train wreck and more of a normal, functioning human, I started making more friends. I started gaining back the trust of my family. And I started getting invited to things - celebrations of all sorts.

To be honest, I was terrified. I knew I wanted to foster these relationships in my life and I wanted to share in celebrating the people that I cared about, but how would I do that sober? What could I bring to the party without a little liquid courage? And how could I possibly deal with being around a group of people, drinking and partying, and not want to partake myself?

I had my first opportunity six months into my sobriety. I was new to Los Angeles and one of my co-workers was nice enough to invite me to her pajama-themed birthday party. I was nervous and unsure of how I’d be able to handle myself, but I knew this person was someone I wanted to be friends with, and I didn’t want her to get the impression that I was standoffish or uninterested in her friendship by blowing off her birthday party. So I decided to put on my bravest face (and a pair of footie pajamas) and head to the party.

And you know what? It was amazing. It was the most fun that I had had since getting sober. I found that I actually enjoyed myself MORE being sober and present. I was able to hold a conversation without slurring or insulting the person I was talking to. I got into the spirit of the party; I danced all night, I laughed too loudly, I let my hair down and had a good time - and because I wasn’t drinking, I remembered every moment of it. And the following morning, there was nothing to apologize for.

If this was sober celebrating, I was on board.

That party was a huge learning experience, and it opened my eyes to the fact that alcohol isn’t the glue that held celebrations together. It’s the people you celebrate with. So even though I couldn’t participate in the celebratory round of birthday shots for my new friend, the fact that I was there, present, celebrating her? That’s what matters.

That momentous pajama party was nearly eight years ago, and since then I’ve had the opportunity to share in more celebrations than I can count. And what I’ve learned is that as soon as I put down the bottle and allowed myself to be present for life, everything became a celebration.

And that coworker? Turns out I was right about her. Since that first party, we’ve celebrated life's ups and downs together and have been part of every celebration in each other’s life for the past eight years. And just this past weekend, I got to stand next to my dear pajama-party-throwing friend as she married the love of her life. It was the most important and meaningful celebration of my life, and the fact that I was able to be there, enjoying every second of it with someone who means so much to me? It’s moments like those that make the journey of sobriety worth it.

And the toast? I used sparkling water. And it was just perfect.

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