Struggles of a Sober Introvert

By Kristen Pyszczyk 02/22/18

A large part of my recovery will need to involve confronting the expectations others have of me, as well as the expectations I have for myself.

A woman leaning on an open book.
I am still struggling to accept myself in all my introverted glory. Photo by sean Kong on Unsplash

I’ve always preferred my own company to that of others. The mother of my childhood best friend called this quality of mine “independence.” Others haven’t been so generous, and I’ve been called everything from “snobby” to “awkward” to “weird” to “lame.” People have told me I need to get out there more, that sitting alone in my room is no way to live.

That may be so, but every time I tried to exit the safe confines of the physical boundaries of my room or to venture outside of my social comfort zone, I relied on alcohol to help me along. A six pack before meeting up with my friends on a Friday night, or a few glasses of wine before I had a dinner with colleagues became essential coping mechanisms for me.

By the time I realized I needed to quit drinking, I was basically going out in order to drink rather than to socialize with friends. Every social occasion was an excuse to get wasted, and every after work happy hour was an excuse to go home and drink more. When I quit drinking, I had never experienced an adult social life without the lubricant and obliterating power of alcohol to help me through. The social events that I could actually recall were few, and when I tried to imagine social events that didn’t revolve around alcohol, I came up blank.

Essentially, I found myself in the strange predicament of having to reimagine how I interacted with people well into my adulthood, at the age of 31. (Sure, it’s not old, but it’s also the age at which people of a different era would say I’m “no spring chicken.”)

Compounding the difficulty of this task is the fact that I don’t really want to do it. As an introvert gradually shedding my social anxiety and lack of social confidence with a pretty heavy dose of misanthropic tendencies, I have to admit that even now I prefer the comfort of my own home and the company of a good book to the most low key social situations.

I’m familiar with the struggles many newly sober people have with figuring out how to build a social life that doesn’t revolve around drinking, but a year into my sobriety, it feels like I’m fighting a different battle. I’ll cancel a movie date with a friend at the last minute. I won’t show up to an after work social event after saying I’ll go. I’ll sit in the corner as my boyfriend hosts a party in our home. It’s beginning to feel as if a solitary lifestyle is just how I prefer to live my life.

I’ve come to realize that a big reason I drank was so I could tolerate social situations that would have otherwise been unbearable for me. I don’t like loud noises or crowds, and I certainly don’t like socializing in large groups. On New Year’s Eve, I elected to stay home, prompting my concerned boyfriend to respond: “you need to get out more.”

But I don’t want to get out more, and the pressure I’ve always felt to change who I am in order to fit certain social conventions is also why I drank. I drank for social courage, to help myself along in situations that were uncomfortable to me, and when I felt I didn’t measure up socially, I also drank to console myself. When meetings went badly or I fumbled an important conversation, I assumed I was to blame and retreated to the safety of an alcoholic stupor rather than having some compassion for myself.

Now I have to confront these feelings without the help of alcohol, and I’ve come to realize how central my interactions with others are to my sense of self-worth. These interactions fueled my alcoholism, whether I was drinking in order to be social or drinking because I thought I had failed at being social.

Because of this, a large part of my recovery will need to involve confronting the expectations others have of me, as well as the expectations I have for myself, and redefining what social success means to me. I am still struggling to accept myself in all my introverted glory, and I’m still working to differentiate between what others think is unhealthy vs what is actually unhealthy.

When I decided to stay in on New Year’s Eve, I reached out to my fellow sober redditors to see if anyone else had the same struggles as me. I was surprised to discover that, no, wanting to stay in because I was newly sober was not necessarily a common experience, and it probably had more to do with the fact that I’ve always been introverted. The community was nonetheless so accepting, and told me that I shouldn’t allow other people to make me feel bad about who I am. (I am so thankful for this supportive group of people, though I don’t log in nearly as much as I should. Anyone who is struggling and doesn’t have resources or the social fortitude to go to therapy or AA should check out r/stopdrinking today.)

I’ve tried to make that message of self-acceptance a key part of how I move through the world. Anxiety, depression, and my aversion to socializing and leaving the house can make me seem selfish and flaky to friends and colleagues. Whether it’s right or wrong, I don’t get a break just because I suffer from mental illness, particularly when I don’t disclose it. But I’ve found that accepting myself and making plans based on who I am rather than who I think I should be goes a long way. I try not to sign on for things I know I won’t do, and I try to be kind to myself when I don’t live up to self-imposed or externally imposed expectations.

Adding to the confusing task of accepting myself is the fact that I actually do love to joke around, I can be too much for some people, and I am vocal about things that matter to me. 

Like most people, I am a set of walking contradictions, and I am not easily categorized or understood. I can be courageous in many ways, including disclosing my mental illness and addiction or speaking with confidence to leaders, while panicking at the idea of leaving the house to go to a birthday dinner.

It’s been a good exercise in resilience to have to weather online attacks on my principles while sober, or to stand up for myself when my reclusive tendencies are disparaged. These experiences have all helped me to gain the confidence to be proud of who I am, and to let unsolicited opinions about my lifestyle roll off my back. My sobriety is only strengthened with each difficult situation I navigate without picking up the bottle, so if I’m proud of nothing else about myself, I’m certainly proud of that.

Humans are social creatures, and I realize that all of us are continually staking out our position in relation to other people. This is an activity that goes on for a lifetime, and it’s hardly unique to me: in fact, this exercise is the most important thing we can do in our society, and it defines who we think we are and who we want to be. It helps me to remember this, as social anxiety and addiction can often be shame-inducing and isolating.

I’m not sure what delights and challenges my sober adulthood holds, but I’m looking forward to tackling them in the comfort of my home with a book in hand (recommendations are welcome!). Self-acceptance is still elusive to me more days than not, but I’m getting there.

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Kristen Pyszczyk is a sober alcoholic and writer living in Toronto, Canada. Her work has appeared in CBC Opinion, the Globe and Mail, and The Establishment. She enjoys hanging out with her cat and eating Danish pastries. Follow her on Medium here. You can also find Kristen on Linkedin or Twitter.