The Challenge of Being Sober in 2021

Milena
6 min readSep 29, 2021

If you make an empowered choice, you’ll piss people off.

Image credit: Rirri, Unsplash.

“What are you gonna order?”

My colleague was asking everyone at the table the same question while looking at her drink menu confused.

“Milena, what’re YOU gonna order?”

“A mocktail.”

“A what?”

“A mocktail. A cocktail with no alcohol.”

Everyone at the table gasped and looked at me in disbelief.

Another guy (who was just done lectures to everyone on different types of gin and a proper way to drink Manhattan) asked: “Seriously?! Why?”

“I’ve been taking some meds.” I said.

“What meds?” he asked me this time a bit more aggressively.

I mumbled something about sleep, I don’t exactly remember what.

Has this ever happened to you? After the crazy situation, you can think of eleventy and 5 better things you should have said and you’d love to be able to transport yourself back and tell an eloquent, clever response to the person’s face. Alas, we don’t have time machines yet.

  • It’s none of your business.
  • Would you like my medical history, too?
  • I believe I don’t know you an explanation.

That’s what I should have said. But, in my defense, I was genuinely confused because I had no idea that people found it appropriate to interrogate you about your medication. It’s not like we were good friends or anything. It’s not that it was an intimate friendly conversation. It was a group of 8 and we were colleagues. Plus there were two other people that I barely knew.

I probably don’t need to tell you that medication is private information and that, unless a person is willing to elaborate, you shouldn’t drill and try to find out about it, especially not in a public setting. Basic manners and politeness, that sort of thing.

But there is something else.

The conversations about alcohol.

In 2020, I quit drinking. I was a crazy party girl in my college years. As time went by, I tapered down on drinking significantly, to the point that I had no more than one or two drinks a week. However, even that small amount became too much in 2020. As I was facing major depression, insomnia, and several panic attacks, I decided to eliminate alcohol altogether because it wasn’t helping.

I had to do a lot more than just eliminating alcohol: I started working with a therapist, psychiatrist, breathwork facilitator. I changed my habits, quit my side business, and many months later, I’m slowly recovering.

Among all challenges I faced in 2020, quitting drinking actually came easy. I am well aware that that’s not the case for many people who quit alcohol and have to grapple with serious addiction problems. However, for me, it wasn’t a big deal. I never felt the desire to take a drink after I quit. I was able to sleep somewhat better (even though alcohol wasn’t the root of my sleep problems, it was aggravating them). After quitting alcohol, I felt fresher and healthier, I did a lot of inner work, I set up a good workout regime, I was able to save a lot of money. I only saw benefits from not drinking and, so far, I have no intention of going back.

But here is the thing…

In 2020, I barely had a social life. I avoided damned Zoom happy hours. Being lonely and isolated sucked, but at least, I didn’t have to explain my new habits to anyone. And that was liberating.

Fast forward to 2021, even the small amount of cautious socializing brought up the question of my non-drinking. People knew me before as a person who drank and now I’m not that person anymore.

As most social events revolve around alcohol (breweries, wineries, happy hours, cocktail hours, boozy brunches), “Why aren’t you drinking?” is almost an unavoidable question.

Some people won’t say anything. Some people would ask and, when I mention health reasons, they would nod and not push the matter further. Some folks who knew about my problems from 2020 would be surprised that I am “still doing it”- not drinking, that is. (People would love for you, the same old your, to get your shit together and recover so that everything can be the same as before.)

Some people, however, like the person from the beginning of the story, would push and ask me about the meds rather aggressively. He did not ask me that because he has a medical background or a genuine concern for my health (his tone was aggressive and condescending), but probably to tell me that his friend Joe used the same meds and got hammered in the pub every weekend, so it would be fine for me to do the same.

There are many layers here: patronizing, crossing boundaries, being inconsiderate, but what I really want to touch upon is the relationship our “health obsessed” society has with alcohol.

An underlying assumption is that if you have a choice, you will choose alcohol. If you “can’t drink”, that’s because you’re sick or broken or just the boring party breaker. There is no space for the third option: simply not wanting to drink.

Holly Whitaker says that sobriety should not be seen as the last resort but as a proud choice. If you’re sober, that doesn’t have to mean that you’re weird or broken. It means that you have made a conscious, powerful choice.

Here is another thing, too.

When you make a conscious and powerful choice that goes against the grain, you’re making others question their own choices. This can make people extremely uncomfortable.

Now you may not intend to make people uncomfortable. I did not preach sobriety or health detriments of alcohol, I only ordered a mocktail. But, regardless of your intentions, your new choice will challenge the status quo. People will see another possibility and some of them may get pissed off. They may question you, attack you, explain (or mansplain) to you why you’re wrong, and become defensive, even though you haven’t attacked them. Except that you kinda did because you showed a new way of being that doesn’t resonate with their worldview.

When you change or do something powerful you’re getting you’re giving other people permission to do the same. That is inspiring, but the catch is that many people don’t want to change. Many people don’t want to question their assumptions. Many people don’t want to make uncomfortable choices that go against the grain. And that’s OK. We are all on different journeys and we have different readiness levels to change and evolve. I wasn’t ready to quit alcohol before the age of 33. I will probably never quit coffee. And that’s OK.

Every now and again, your new empowered choice will strike a chord with someone. My husband and I recently went camping with another couple and when they offered us welcome beers, I said that I will not be drinking but that I have plenty of LaCroix to cheer with them. The other girl was puzzled at first and then said: “Awesome! You and I will be LaCroix buddies this weekend.” She told me later that alcohol doesn’t sit well with her and that she often feels obliged to drink because everyone does. But when she was with me, she felt empowered to make a different choice. I find that very valuable.

I learned about the awkwardness tax from Sarah Von Bargen.

When you make a life choice that is unconventional, say you decide not to get married, or have children, or buy a house, or order a cocktail as all grown-ups do, you’ll have to pay an awkwardness tax. People will look at you as if you’re an alien, ask you to explain, try to dissuade you from doing what you’re doing, ask inappropriate questions, roll their eyes, you name it. It will be… well, awkward. But it won’t kill you. Awkwardness tax is a small price to pay for making empowered choices that make sense to you and help you live the life you truly want.

Next time, I will prepare a better response to the question of why I am not drinking to ease the awkwardness. It may not go away completely and maybe it doesn’t need to. The awkwardness will show you where you’re not conforming and where you’re choosing for yourself and not based on groupthink.

And if you piss someone off in the process, that should probably be celebrated.

Your turn. In the comments below, tell me about the unconventional choice that you made and how did those around you react. Have you ever paid “an awkwardness tax”? Have you thought of quitting drinking? Share your thoughts in the comments below. I’d love to hear from you.

Before you go…

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Milena

Engineer. Creator. Sustainability researcher. Obsessed w/focus, mental health, sobriety. On the quest to find gentler and more meaningful ways to live and work.