How It Feels to Be the Token Sober One

By Deanna deBara 09/27/17

Sometimes I wonder if it would be easier if I never let go of that security blanket; if I had continued through life surrounding myself only with other people in recovery.

woman standing beside lake at sunset
As you progress in your sobriety, it is possible to reopen your social circle to include people who still drink.

When I first stopped drinking and entered treatment, I spent nearly all of my time around other sober people. I wrapped myself in my new “no substances” friends like a security blanket. I figured if I stuck with people who weren’t drinking or using drugs, I wouldn’t drink or use drugs, either.

And in those early, white-knuckle days of sobriety - the days when not picking up a drink was a minute-by-minute struggle - it was a solid strategy. By spending my time with people who didn’t drink or use drugs, I minimized the chance I would be exposed to alcohol, drugs, and the craziness that surrounded them, which certainly helped me stay sober and get some alcohol-free time under my belt.

But as I moved through day after day of not drinking, something interesting happened. While I will never say that getting or staying sober is easy (because it’s not), it started to get easier. And as staying sober became less of a daily struggle and more of a way of life, I realized that I didn’t want or need to limit myself to only being around other people in recovery. And so I started to unwind myself from my security blanket, make new connections, and expand my social circle.

As the years passed, the people in my life evolved. Many of my friends from treatment moved away. I decided 12-step groups weren’t the right fit for me and found that I when I stopped attending meetings, a lot of the friends I had made in the rooms stopped calling. As life took me in different directions, I made more friends who didn’t have a history of addiction than ones who did.

And while I maintain a few close friendships with people in recovery, these days, I’m typically the only one in any given situation - with friends, with family, with my partner - who doesn’t drink.

Most of the time, this is a complete non-issue; in fact, it’s something I rarely think about.

But there are definitely occasions where being the “token sober one” can be an isolating experience.

Like being on vacation with my extended family and watching everyone sample my father’s famous (or infamous, depending on who you ask) frozen margaritas before heading out to catch an epic beach sunset, drinks in hand.

Or going out with new people for the first time and gauging whether I’ll need to come up with a funny, self-deprecating way of letting them know I don’t drink so things don’t get awkward.

Or getting asked if I’m pregnant or “expecting” when I refuse a drink (yeah… that one’s super fun).

In these moments - the moments when the fact that I don’t drink singles me out of a crowd and puts my sobriety under a spotlight - being the only one who doesn’t drink?

It kind of sucks.

I don’t like feeling different from my friends and family, and I especially don’t like feeling different because of the fact that I can’t (and choose not to) drink.

Whenever one of those “I’m the only sober one” moments happens, I always feel a little sad. It reminds me that, despite the fact that I’ve come along way from my drinking days and am now a completely different (and better) person, I AM different from my friends and family. I will never be able to casually enjoy a margarita at the beach, or a cocktail at happy hour, or a glass of champagne at my wedding.

Because I can’t just have a margarita, a cocktail, or a glass of champagne; once I open those flood gates, there’s no stopping me.

And, at times, that can definitely make me feel alone.

That being said, there are also moments - far more moments, in fact - when being the only one who doesn’t drink is kind of awesome.

Like the morning after a night out when I wake up well-rested and refreshed instead of nursing a hangover.

Or when someone I love has a few drinks too many and I get to give them a ride, making sure they get home safely.

Or when I attend a family dinner or a party or a work event and know there’s a zero percent chance I’m going to say or do something I’ll regret (and have to apologize for tomorrow).

These moments? These are the moments when being the only one who doesn’t drink is a blessing. The moments where I get to be a clear, present, and sober witness to my own life and the lives of the people I love.

So in those other moments - the moments where my sobriety makes me feel isolated amongst my non-recovery friends and family - I try to remind myself of how much the good outweighs the bad. How for every moment I feel isolated in my sobriety, there are a thousand moments where I feel connected.

Yes, it can feel isolating to be the only one on a family vacation who can’t enjoy one of dad’s margaritas. But it’s the fact that I’m able to skip the margaritas that makes the entire vacation possible in the first place.

Yes, telling new friends that I don’t drink can feel awkward. But you know what’s more awkward? Making a drunken fool out of myself, ensuring those new friends will promptly lose my number.

Is it terrible when someone assumes I’m pregnant because I turned down a cocktail? Yes.

(Sorry. There’s no silver lining there. That one is just plain terrible).

Sometimes I wonder if it would be easier if I never let go of that security blanket; if I had continued through life surrounding myself only with other people in recovery.

And the answer is yes, maybe it would have been easier. But it wouldn’t have been better.

By opening myself up to all sorts of people, including people who drink, I’ve put myself in plenty of situations where I’m the “token sober one”: the only person who doesn’t drink. But in return, I’ve gotten the opportunity to have amazing, inspiring, and wonderful people in my life.

And that’s been worth every “token sober” moment: every missed margarita, every big “I don’t drink” reveal, and every awkward pregnancy inquiry.

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Deanna deBara is a freelance writer living in Portland, OR. Free from alcohol for nearly eight years, Deanna writes regularly about addiction, recovery, and mental health. You can learn more about her at