A few weeks after I got sober, I wrote a lengthy post entitled “What Do I Drink If I No Longer Drink?” expressing a state of great bewilderment. How anything could ever replace wine in my hand, in my glass, in my life?
I had two great concerns that seemed like opposite problems: what to drink when alone and what to drink in social situations. My pattern as a daily drinker was to consume the majority of my alcohol intake alone or away from other people. Socially, I seemed quite normal and was careful to avoid appearing drunk in front of others (part of my charming social anxiety and extreme need for control). I would definitely need a glass or two of wine to feel more comfortable at an event, but I couldn’t wait to get home from the party so I could get in those last few drinks that “did the job”. Without alcohol, how would I manage socially? And how would I manage alone?
When alcohol has become an obsession it is unfathomable that anything could take its place, let alone satisfy. The idea of watching tv without a glass of wine was utterly mystifying. I could remember a long-ago time in my life when I’d choose a glass of water or a cup of cocoa and I didn’t recall being unhappy, but still I couldn’t picture enjoying it either. Now I love to sit down for the evening with a cup of herbal tea and am understandably partial to the flavours that offer some promise of comfort: Sleepy Time, Tension Tamer, Calm.
The solution I have settled on for a social situation is most often a non-alcoholic beer. I like that it arrives at the table in its can or bottle and I know for certain what I am getting. I will be very honest – if I ordered plain tonic water and accidently received a gin and tonic, I am not 100% certain that I would send it back. There is a devious part of me that might drink it anyway and act like nothing’s amiss. I am three years and eight months sober, and I don’t want to play games with my recovery success. Even when I order a plain Diet Coke in a restaurant I will often have my husband take a sip to ensure it is safe (“Oh that’s gawd awful – yes it is plain diet coke,” he’ll grimace, taking one for the team).
I have become very specific when ordering and say, “I will have a non-alcoholic beer and also a big wine glass to pour it into please.” I specify the wine glass for two reasons. First, I still like holding a wine glass. It feels feminine and familiar, and it makes me happy. Second, other people do not generally drink their beer from a wine glass, so it lessens the likelihood of picking up the wrong drink if I am mixing about the room. If I feel happy and safe, then mission completed. Servers do not care what customers order, their focus is to deliver what is asked for and keep the customer happy.
I was sharing my brilliant ordering logic with a recovery friend recently who expressed mild shock that I drink non-alcoholic beer. “Oh, yes!” I said, “It is kind of my go-to. Strangely one is usually more than enough. I also keep a stock of non-alcoholic cider in the fridge as a treat for parties or with dinner.”
“Jean,” she said with serious concern, “non-alcoholic drinks are only safe for non-alcoholics. No one with a drinking problem should be messing around with pretend booze.”
Whoa, this was news to me. I posed the question on Twitter (@unpickledblog) and one response that stood out was, “I don’t tease my disease.”
This is a serious debate. Are non-alcoholic beers, fake coolers, de-alcoholized wine, and mocktails dangerous for sobriety? Was I putting myself in more danger than I realized?
The internet abounds with articles (here is an example) encouraging alcoholics in recovery to refrain from drinking NA (non-alcoholic) beer because it does contain a very small amount of alcohol that could trigger a relapse, as could the mere experience of simulated “drinking” . Many AA discussion board participants are adamant that drinking NA beer is considered a relapse, and many recovery organizations say avoiding it entirely is a best practice.
Here is my opinion, one that comes with no expertise except my experience of 1333 days of continuous sobriety: know your triggers and stay away from them.
I eat some food that is cooked with wine (i.e. pasta, soups and stews) but I don’t eat deserts such as tiramisu or rum cake. I feel safe drinking NA beer and the occasional NA cider, but I don’t drink de-alcoholized wine. To me, the benefits of having a NA beer delivered to my table outweigh the risks of ordering a mocktail and possibly getting the wrong drink. I stay aware and keep myself safe, but what works for me might not work for someone else.
After a recent Bubble Hour episode in which I discussed being married to a “normie” (that is, a normal drinker) and allowing alcohol in our home, a commenter suggested that I should have left my husband if he wouldn’t give up alcohol in support of my recovery. That is pretty extreme and frankly, a little offensive. However, I acknowledge a kernel of truth to that sentiment – if I was struggling to quit and if having alcohol in the home was a threat to my sobriety, then we would have to make some hard decisions. But that wasn’t necessary in my particular situation.
Best practices are important to know and aspire to, but each of us must understand our own needs and tailor our lives accordingly. If beer triggers you, then best stay away from NA beer. If bars trigger you, stay out of bars. If wine was your downfall, drinking fake wine could be playing with fire.
Do whatever it takes to get (and stay) sober. Understand that my way might not be your way, and that the next person might disagree with us both. There is no definitive “right” way, but when in doubt err on the side of caution.