First and foremost, remember that it’s not about you.
It’s a May wedding and I am so freshly sober that I don’t even know I’m getting sober.
I mean, sure, I’ve given up drinking, and it’s been a while, six weeks, maybe, but I know it’s only a matter of time before I start again.
In the past, weddings meant daytime drinking into nighttime drinking, watching everyone get gradually sillier and wilder. Sober, it turns out that weddings are an anxious affair.
Simultaneously I wish I were more and less dressed up. Everything is wrong. Heels make me feel unfeminist; no heels makes me feel frumpy. How can I win?
Everyone is talking about Jojo’s legs. She recently completed her fifth ultra-marathon. Nina’s outfit draws comment too. I bounce between craving compliments and resenting the world for making me need reassurance in the first place. It’s just getting dressed! I think, at the same time as I wish I was better at it.
This is why we drink, my brain reminds me.
On and on she goes, the inner assassin, while I smile and chat, overly aware of my arms and legs and neck and mouth.
How I’d love to know a drink was coming.
Since I banned booze I’ve become much more conscious of how I crave it.
Once upon a time, if I fancied a drink, I’d grab one. There wasn’t much executive functioning to negotiate.
Since trying to moderate or abstain completely, those previously short-lived, casual urges have become agonizing. A general thirstiness I barely noticed before is distressing once beer is not allowed to quench it.
“Focus on helping the day be a success,” my sober coach, Harry, said when I asked her how you survived a wedding. “Talk to people you don’t know and be present. Remember not drinking is an opportunity. It’s something you get to do, not have to do.”
After we smile and clap and throw confetti, it strikes me that my current relationship is unlikely to last the year.
My sobriety threatens it even more than our drinking did.
I look forward to the champagne reception, then remember I’ve banished myself. Harry’s voice again.
“Remember you have your higher power with you.”
Uh. What does that even mean?
“You can always walk away from the party and say a prayer,” she said, and I wish, for the hundredth time that there was something a bit more concrete. Like vaping, but for booze.
Thinking of others and ‘handing it over to your higher power’, that was the alternative to intoxication?
“But how will I dance?” I asked, and Harry smiled knowingly.
“When the right music comes on, your body will dance itself, I promise. Just remember, the wedding just isn’t about you. You’re there to celebrate your friends’ love. It’s a privilege. If you have fun, that’s a bonus.”
It isn’t only the insane relationship with alcohol that sobriety is revealing, but a selfish streak, too.
Driving to the site of the party, I thank the gods/universe/my bank account that at least I have a car and can leave whenever I want.
We stop at a supermarket for everyone to stock up with booze, and I freeze in the foyer, confused about what to buy. I settle on sparkling water, elderflower cordial and, as a treat for somehow still being sober in spite of how hard being a person is, I buy myself a book.
The field is set up with bunting, a marquee and hay bales, and everyone takes a glass of champagne.
Here we go, I think, as my boyfriend takes his first glass. Taking a deep breath, and checking in with my entirely imaginary higher power, I choose the soft option.
Getting sober is an opportunity. It is something you’ve dreamed of for a long time, Harry’s voice rings in my head.
The drink is sweet and fizzy and cold, and the champagne flute feels thin and sophisticated. My boyfriend goes back to get more champagne, and I settle down on a hay bale.
The sun is shining and cabbage whites drift over the Devon hedgerows while I chat with friends. More champagne appears and people help themselves. I take another soft drink, impressed with myself. I’ve almost made it to dinner.
Nobody knows I’m not drinking, but I feel incredibly self-conscious.
As though any moment the whole group will turn to me and demand to know why. It feels like a betrayal, booze is so entrenched in my identity. I plan to say I’m drinking gin and elderflower if anyone asks. I’m horrified at the idea of making anyone uncomfortable.
We check the table plan and take our seats, and before I notice the sweet details of the couple’s courtship (the tables tell their love story) I clock the wine. Red and white, alternating bottles. I am aware of them, like a soldier might be aware of emergency exits, like Gollum is aware of The Ring.
The voice starts up. You’re being very puritanical, here. Maybe we could just have one glass. Maybe-
But there’s a new voice, too. Come on! It’s never just one. Play the tape through.
The booze is free, and I’m not going to have any. Groundbreaking. I make an effort to chat with the rest of the table. The bride’s and groom’s friends are lovely, and we catch up on how we know the happy couple. We eat hog roast, and laugh at the speeches, and make a toast, and I’m happy.
My boyfriend is a bit wobbly by now, affectionate and sentimental, talking to people in a very sincere way that isn’t typical of him. I feel self-contained and calm in a way that’s not familiar to me, and I think how nice it will be not to gush or fawn or reveal any better-kept secrets.
After dinner, he wants to dance with me, but he is so unbalanced I feel embarrassed.
“I love you,” he says, and it’s sad because I love him too, but our dancing is like our relationship: unbearably out of sync. Was it always this way? How did I deal with this?
Because you were drunk too.
He almost knocks me over as we turn and I decide to take a toilet break to debrief my ‘HP’. Not because I want to drink, but because I need a moment. Tears prickle the backs of my eyes as I walk away from the marquee, through the long grass, letting my fingers drift through the fronds.
Thanks for helping me stay sober, mate, I internal to the trees/sky/space biscuit. Thanks for helping me remember this day isn’t about me or white wine, but about my friends who love each other.
The sun is getting lower and people are starting to take their babies home to the babysitters they’d arranged.
Bottles swamp every table and the serious drinkers are starting to stagger. The drunkenness feels almost scary to me. Where did everyone go? I’m itching to leave with this first wave, but it feels so rude. It’s not even eight o’clock!
“Don’t force yourself to stay if you start to feel uncomfortable,” Harry said. “You’re very newly sober, and you need to look after yourself. Sobriety’s hard-won and easily lost.”
I’ve got a strong urge to disappear and the perfect excuse. Could I just… leg it? Because I know it isn’t about me, but this is too hard. I’m rooting in my bag for my car keys, wondering if an Irish goodbye might suffice when a familiar sound hits me.
It’s the first bars of Tina Turner’s River Deep Mountain High blasting out of the speakers. I see my friends run to the dance floor, and without thinking I run with them.
In a marquee overlooking the Devon countryside, we wave our arms and jump around — kids, teens, adults, strangers and friends — and I am amazed at how freely I move without booze. What else am I capable of?
The newlyweds circulate the dance floor, looking young and beautiful and happy.
I feel privileged to have seen them make this life-changing promise to each other, and we dance together for a minute, grinning. And when the music changes to something more bassy I recognize it’s time to go. Not because I’m scared or uncomfortable, but because that, for me, was the peak of the party, that dance with my newlywed friends. I know it. Without booze to confuse things, my body tells me what’s next.
It’s time to go home.
How glorious to say goodbye to my friends as the sky turns dark, to drive, fresh and alert, along country roads to my holiday cottage. To let myself in, and make a camomile tea, and climb into bed. My boyfriend won’t be back for hours, but I’m finally grasping that that isn’t my problem.
Pushing hot, knackered feet under cool, clean covers I settle in to read my new book. Not a page, with one eye closed, as a drunken me might attempt, having left a party early, but whole chapters.
Turning out the light, I thank my higher power that I don’t believe but am growing to love for one more sober day — a sober wedding day! — and I fall to sleep.