Keeping sober in an unsober world

When alcoholics sober up one of many quandaries they face is how to reconfigure their social world, beyond their previous circle of friends—many of them unreconstructed alcoholics—and also beyond the initially supportive, but ultimately confining, cocoon of Alcoholic Anonymous meetings and other recovering alcoholics.

Sooner or later Stew and I felt as if we should graduate to the so-called “real” world, populated by folks who drink alcohol, most of them moderately, but also some who can’t tell the difference between convivial and blotto.

In fact, whether they be private parties, candlelit dinners, cruises on the high seas or African safaris, the world is blissfully oblivious to the fact that, alas, there are lots of folk who don’t drink alcohol for religious, health or other reasons. Some are recovering alcoholics; just as many simply don’t like the taste of booze. You need to navigate in that world, one that doesn’t always cater to your needs.

We continue to be either amazed, or amused, when a friend or a waiter asks us what we would like to drink and the choices are either twenty iterations of alcohol—or lemonade.

In Mexico we’ve found a few restaurants that offer wider choices. OKKO, a local “Asian fusion” joint can whip up a couple of different varieties of lemonade, some with mint and other herbs. Aguamiel, a new place, offers a choice of a few non-alcoholic concoctions as well as a bottle of chilled apple cider. Go to Dulce Patria, a world-class restaurant in Polanco, a wealthy corner of Mexico City, and the drinks menu has almost as many non-alcoholic drinks as wine and liquor.

Yeah, there are always the standbys of Diet Coke or iced tea. Blah. But doesn’t the management care about a potential clientele of non-drinkers of various stripes? If a growing number of restaurants offer vegetarian or gluten-free entrees, why not non-alcoholic drinks?

Traveling can present its own challenges. We went to the Galápagos Islands, which involved a flight from Ecuador and then several days aboard a small ship with fourteen other passengers. Every day there was an alcoholic happy hour, but for us only Diet Coke and mineral water. I asked the guy in charge of the ship if he’d ever considered a wider selection of non-alcoholic drinks and he looked at me as if I were wearing a Charles Darwin costume.

After approximately twenty years of sobriety in Chicago, Stew and I had learned to navigate around all manner of boozy obstacles. In a big city, dining and drinking alternatives abound. Vegan Tibetan cuisine with yak milk? No problema.

Then came San Miguel, and its expat enclave, in effect a small community with an even smaller community inside. Most retirees by definition have little to do. Socializing, frequently lubricated with ample quantities of wine and liquor, consumes a disproportionate portion of everyone’s time.

Aside from the few restaurants with more than a booze-and-Diet Coke drink menu, we’ve also been fortunate to find several friends who respect our sobriety and stock their fridge with a variety of juices or soft-drinks when they invite us over. Thanks for your thoughtfulness.

There’s no way to gauge the extent of the boozing in San Miguel, but I’d guess it’s more than adequate, thank you. One hint is that during the ten years we’ve lived here, the number of meetings at the English-speaking AA club has multiplied substantially. That’s good news in a way.

Still, socializing for us can be tricky. There’s nothing more awkward than being ambushed at a dinner party by someone halfway to plasterdom, who insists on babbling incoherently at your stone-sober face. Do you dart to the other side of the room? Do your impression of a sphinx? Complain that your hearing aids just quit? Or ninety minutes after arrival develop a sudden stomach ailment and run for the door, grandly blowing kisses at the hostess on the way out?

The awkwardness can flow both ways. Heavy drinkers often become fidgety and self-conscious in our presence, as if Mother Theresa and St. Francis of Assisi had crashed the party. The hosts might not realize that Stew and I don’t mind drinkers. Most of our friends drink. We keep a decent supply of liquor, wine and beer in our home. It’s drunken behavior and rudeness that we definitely mind.

All that awkwardness can cut into your social life, as your name is quietly dropped from invitation lists. Frankly, we don’t mind it that much anymore. Life is too short, particularly when you’re old, to hang out with people that for some reason make you uncomfortable. We understand.

Perhaps the touchiest situation for non-drinkers is dealing with close, high-value friends whose excessive drinking has become unpleasant. Mentioning your concerns can make you sound like Carrie Nation or a Salvation Army drill sergeant, and ruin a good friendship.

We recently had a situation like that, and an honest talk seems to have alleviated the problem. We doubt our friend gave up drinking but he did acknowledge our feelings and concerns, in a way that, if anything, cemented our friendship.

In other cases, editing our Rolodex may be the only solution to unpleasant drinkers, even at the risk of some isolation in San Miguel’s already small social circle. That’s tough, but for Stew and me, not nearly as much so as jeopardizing our sobriety.



10 thoughts on “Keeping sober in an unsober world

  1. I have discovered that a lot of mixed drinks are great for non-drinkers (like me) simply by leaving out the alcohol. That is how I discovered the joy of spicy tomato juice. Don't need the alcohol in a Bloody Mary? It is every bit as good in its virgin incarnation.


  2. Anonymous

    I'm a social drinker, and occasionally have a bit much. I can hold my liquor well, and you'd never know that I'm plotting a taxi ride instead of driving in such circumstances. But I can't stand the sloppy drunks either. They're either boring (repeating themselves endlessly) or babbling a mile a minute and completely incomprehensible. Or worse. So that problem, at least, is also shared with the social drinker. Saludos,Kim GBoston, MAWhere we once saw a man so drunk he was literally clutching at a light pole to stay afoot.


  3. My husband isn't a big fan of beer so he will order a lemonade and the waiter will blink and ask,”Cerveza?” like old white guys only drink beer? I can order lemonade and no problems, but they seem to think beer is the only manly drink.regards,Theresa


  4. I totally sympathize with your situation. I am (mostly) a non drinker 'just because' and am totally uninspired with the 'conversations' one has to endure with those on their way to blotto. We can't change them and hope to not have to change ourselves just to fit in.


  5. I choose not to drink and almost always order limonada natural or jamaica. Interestingly at the Democrats Abroad event, all they had was Coca-Cola or water. I was very surprised. Sometimes I stick a bottle of Ginger ale in my purse and walk into a party with it. I'm continuously amazed at how much wine and alcohol is drank at lunchtime in San Miguel………I'm also amazed at how many women have a drinking problem. It is surprising.


  6. Steve: That's a great idea and we have a bottle of Clamato in our pantry. My only problem with “virgin” drinks at restaurants is that often they charge you the same price as if they had liquor. Also, some exotic non drinks are great. Nothing beats virgin incarnations though. LOL


  7. I have this suspicion that waiters like to push drinks because it adds to the bill and the tip. I remember working as a waiter in college and it was the policy of the restaurant owner to shove diners to the bar to “relax” and “wait for a table” even if they were totally relaxed and there were tables available! Argh.


  8. Those conversations, particularly with drunks who think they're being hilarious, can be a real pain. I try not to sound or behave like a scold, or make people feel uncomfortable, but sometimes time I wish those folks would have mercy on me too…


  9. Barb: After last year, we avoid Democrats Abroad, like a plague. Last year the food was awful and the Stars and Stripes had only 48 stars—no one had noticed. Women with drinking issues might be a function of a disproportionate number of women here. Al


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