5 Tips for Staying Sober at Events Where Everyone Else Is Drinking

By Victor Yocco 08/08/19

You don’t have to miss out on all the fun, just the part you thought was fun but always ended in trouble.

sober woman at festival smiling over her shoulder
It's not complicated. I don't drink. Photo by Michael Benz on Unsplash

Summer is well under way! Everyone wants to be a part of grilling out, parties, concerts, and outings with friends. Often these events include alcohol use. Fear of missing out (FOMO) is a real feeling people struggle with in sobriety. What will I do with my free time? Will I have to find new activities? Will my friends abandon me on weekends? You won’t lose this fear when you first make the choice to go sober; you might not ever lose it.

Imagine any of the following scenarios: 

- A friend invites you to an open bar bash.

- Your favorite band is playing as part of a daylong music festival where folks start drinking in the morning.

- All of your relatives are coming to the traditional drink-till-you-puke Memorial Day pool party. 

What can you do? I don’t advocate putting yourself in a position where you might compromise your sobriety, such as attending an event like Beerfest, where the focus is solely on drinking. But you can enjoy events that include alcohol while staying sober. You need to prepare appropriately and know your limits during the event to set yourself up for success.

You can easily fill your calendar with sober events and dry venues. There are various recovery groups and organizations that throw “sober” parties. I’ve been to many and they are as good as the effort you put into having a good time. You can check meetup.com or google sober events in your city to find them.

I spent the first year of my sobriety quietly healing and feeling bitter that I couldn’t participate in the drunken stupidity I had always been a part of. But I haven’t shied away from events since then. I’ve learned it’s important to do some thinking and planning ahead of the event. Arm yourself and have a strategy – think about who you’ll be with, how you will respond if asked to drink, what you’ll do if you start feeling an urge, and most importantly, how you’ll have your own special fun at the event.

I recently attended a weekend-long music festival. The venue had alcohol and many people started drinking when they arrived and kept going. I felt urges at times, but they weren’t unexpected. Since I had prepared myself, I knew how to handle them. 

Here are some specific ways I approached the weekend and similar events since becoming sober five years ago.

1. Get a Support Person

Attend the event with someone you trust to look out for you. Perhaps this person is also sober, or perhaps you will be their designated driver. I’ve had many people play this role over the past five years. The common thread is that each person knew I wanted to avoid drinking. I felt accountable to them and they felt accountable to check in with me.

I had my 17-year-old daughter as my support person for the music festival weekend. She’s aware that I’m sober and have struggled with alcohol abuse. While I didn’t explicitly ask her to support me, I knew I was accountable to her and responsible for her safety. Attending the festival was my gift to her, so her presence was required. Her age restricted her from purchasing alcohol so we were already on the same page on alcohol consumption. 

2. Have a Line Ready: “I Don’t Drink.”

There’s nothing actually complicated about telling people you don’t drink, but it might feel complicated. I understand the turmoil you might feel when someone either offers you a drink or asks what you’re drinking. That moment feels like you have a spotlight shining on you while the crowd breathlessly awaits your answer. You need an automatic way you can refuse the offer, a canned response you can use without thinking. My response is always “I don’t drink.” Nothing complicated, nothing hedging, nothing apologetic. You aren’t wracking your brain for an excuse. You don’t need one. I assure you, anyone worth your time doesn’t care that you aren’t drinking alcohol.

I stood in the same line to get my seltzer at the festival as the people getting their beer and liquor. Plenty of already lubricated people offered to buy me a beer. “No thanks, I don’t drink.” That’s all it took.

3. Get a Drink – Something Without Alcohol

I love ice cold club soda or seltzer water. I slam these back as fast as the bartender can make them. Add a twist of lime or some grapefruit juice and I’m sipping on something sweet along with everyone else guzzling Long Islands or Gin and Tonics. I don’t feel left out, and you shouldn’t either. I’ve never encountered a judgmental bartender, although I made that a barrier in my mind before I started attending events sober. I was sure the bartender would laugh at me; probably ignore me for future drink requests. Never happened. I still get to tip for service. I still get to relax and sip. 

You can start with making some mocktails or non-alcoholic drinks at home so you know what you’d like to order. Perhaps you’re a simple cola or lemon-lime soda drinker. That’s fine. I personally don’t recommend non-alcohol beer – I found it makes me crave the real thing, which is dangerous when it’s available. Experimenting at home will give you a feel for the taste and action of drinking various non-alcoholic options, but in a safer setting.

Sometimes sipping club soda or coke without rum leads to stressful conversations with drunk people as the night wears on. I’ve had countless conversations with people about why I’m drinking “Perry Air (Perrier)” and why I don’t choose something alcoholic. I do my best to not act offended on the outside even though I am offended on the inside. No one needs to know what the fuck I’m drinking. But it’s not the time or place to set the person straight. I look at this as a misery loves company situation: Someone gets drunk enough and realizes how miserable they are, so they want to spread the cheer. Fuck them and walk away. (See the next suggestion.)

I was pleased that I didn’t encounter anyone trashed at the music festival. I drank my seltzers and relaxed. I’d prepared for the worst, considering the heat and length of the event. I was ready to leave if anything felt too uncomfortable or anyone became confrontational. I avoid trouble when I’m sober.

4. Remove Yourself from the Situation When Necessary

You are responsible for your sobriety and the choices you make and you need to be aware of your limits. You will learn which situations intensify your cravings to drink. In the beginning, you might try setting time limits: spend one hour at a bar and then check in with yourself to see if you think you’re okay to stay longer. If you begin feeling overwhelmed, you need to have a plan in place. Your support person should be aware that you will leave an event as soon as you feel uncomfortable or vulnerable.

I knew I’d have several cravings over the course of the music festival weekend. I had one as soon as I parked and saw people pre-gaming with 24-ounce cans of swill in the parking lot. As badly as I wanted to join them, I knew I couldn’t. I had my daughter next to me. We walked to the nearest gas station and bought a coffee, which helped. I followed that up with some texts to a supportive friend who replied that I was certainly not going to let a temporary craving prevent me from hitting my fifth full year of sobriety. She was right, I wasn’t. The cravings went away and the music played on. The weekend went well.

5. Treat Yourself

Here’s a fun one. Focus on giving yourself the best time you can without alcohol. If you’re at a sporting event or concert in the U.S., you are saving at least $8 for each drink you don’t have. Reward yourself. Repurpose some of that money for other tasty treats. Most venues have plenty of tempting snack and meal options, easy replacements for drinks, hangover not included.

Another strategy is to track what you don’t spend. For example, you went to a concert and didn’t drink five beers. That’s a $40 savings so spend $40 on something to spoil yourself or a gift for someone else. Or spend $20 and save $20. You’ll quickly reach high numbers, while realizing you wasted a terrible amount of money on alcohol.

I used the money I saved from not purchasing alcohol at the weekend festival to justify buying my daughter additional memorabilia during our trip. Win-win.

Enjoy Yourself

I’ve struggled to have fun on more than one occasion. You can lose track of the point of going out when you focus on what you can’t do. I used to imagine there was a spotlight focused on me when I’d order my seltzer with lime, cue sound of record scratching, and then I was done for. I can’t promise you’ll have a great time not drinking while others are, or focusing on staying sober while alcohol is around. But I do know that you can still attend events with alcohol if you come prepared. You don’t have to miss out on all the fun, just the part you thought was fun but always ended in trouble.

You deserve to be with your friends. You deserve to listen to live music. You deserve to be at family gatherings, and you deserve the respect of yourself and others. You’ve likely overcome mountain-sized challenges already. With some planning and structure in place, you can have the social life you deserve.

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Victor is a researcher and author living near Philadelphia. He writes and speaks on topics related to UX research and design, and recovery. He has written for A List Apart, McSweeney's, Internet Tendency, Vox.com and many others. Find Victor at his website or on Twitter.