After giving up the drink, you will soon find out that facing the world newly sober is like going back to middle school.
You will suddenly morph into your 14-year-old self, and struggle to fit in. You are tongue-tied, awkward, overeager, and shy, all at the same time. Your clothes are weird and don’t fit right.
And you have to learn the basics of socializing all over again.
It doesn’t matter what personality you had in your drinking life, because with liquid courage, we were all super confident, talkative, funny, … charming even. (Until we had a little too much, but I don’t have to tell you that.)
Alcohol, being the great equalizer, has brought us all to this new playing field: middle school.
Your sober community (if you have one) is a great place to start honing your skills, but often they are as stunted socially as you are. And thriving in this community involves learning to speak in monologues and emote on cue, which are NOT assets in middle school. Still, try to hang out with some of the older kids in this group who know their way around the schoolyard. (And AVOID the ones selling pot on the playground, even though your lizard brain thinks they’re cool. Tell yourself you don’t want to be cool. Cool is for fools! Write this on your notebook where no one else can see it.)
Sooner or later, you will be forced out of your sober safety zone, like an eagle out of the nest. A gangly, awkward eagle who spits when he talks.
You might then begin venturing out with your old drinking buddies because that’s all you know. This doesn’t count. You can’t practice having a sober conversation with people who are drinking. They want to do all the talking, for one thing, and they aren’t listening to a word you say anyway. (You do this too.) They are performing. They need an audience. All you have to do is nod your head and laugh at their stories. Even little kids can do that.
Instead, after a few months of sobriety (a year, in my case), you must seek out some normal people and attempt to hang out with them.
I did this recently. My husband and I met another couple for dinner at a restaurant. I was pretty sure that no drinking would be involved because the other couple looked so respectable. We did our best to look respectable too. Drinking never even came up. (Did you even know people like this existed? People whose lives don’t revolve around whether or not they are going to order a drink?)
After I ordered my decaf coffee, right on cue, I morphed into a kid sitting at the grown-up’s table — tongue-tied, awkward, overeager, and shy, all at the same time.
I had to consciously think things like, Now it’s my turn to say something. Say something! I no longer even recognized the simple give and take of conversation.
The inner angsting continued. Don’t talk with your mouth full. Shift eye contact to the guy who’s talking. Don’t stare. Don’t say ‘shit.’ Don’t mention Trump. Wait, he just said ‘fuck.’ Does that mean I can say ‘shit’? No! It will seem like I’m trying to be cool. Be cool. Be cool. There’s a lull in the conversation … say something! Anything!
This from a girl who once smugly described herself as a social butterfly.
Mercifully, these middle school years don’t take as long as the first time around. They’re in dog years! Even faster. Right there at the table, I advanced to tenth grade.
I became that eager to please high school girl I once was. I jumped in to the conversation now and then, testing out my growing confidence. And the evening continued on pleasantly. It was fun even. We’re going to do it again soon.
What I remember now is that before I learned to drink, I learned to talk.
I learned to express myself. I watched what other people did to learn social cues. I risked talking to people, and then built on that experience to talk to someone else. I risked telling a joke. I failed, but didn’t let it destroy me. I tried again. I learned to be myself in a group. I found out that I have something to say.
Now, I get to learn who I am all over again. To relearn what I forgot mattered. To begin again with a clean slate.
And this time, I can do it right.