At times I feel without alcohol I don’t get laughs, nor do I feel comfortable in my own skin. I know people can tell. Sometimes I can’t look people in the eye if I don’t have a buzz on. I have this theory that you are are the last impression you made on people, and if I’m not drinking in a social situation I notice how boring I am to those around me.
Now to my question, did sobriety provide you with actual cognitive clarity, where you felt you were just as funny/entertaining/enjoyable to those around you and comfortable in your own skin? How long did it take you to be comfortable in your own skin without alcohol?
Thank you. The fact that your article prompted me to ask these questions is brilliant. I’ve only wondered them before.
Dear Uncomfortable Dude,
Oh, how I love this question.
When it first became clear that I needed to stop drinking or else, my first two thoughts were:
What if I’m boring?
Who will love me?
You didn’t exactly ask the second question, but it’s in your letter too. Let’s talk about the first one, though. I honestly didn’t think I’d ever have fun or feel like myself sober: not with a friend eating dinner or at a party, or during a day like today on Thanksgiving, not anywhere EVER AGAIN. In social situations, I thought it was the wine that added the color and animation to life—and even more, to me. When I didn’t have a few drinks in me or even the comfort of a drink in my hand, I felt quite literally naked. Weird. Blah.
Being uncomfortable in my skin was basically the reason I started to drink in the first place, and I’m pretty sure it’s the reason people have drank since the beginning of time. Now, they probably didn’t quite use that language back in the Jesus days (I’m sorry, but just go with this for a minute and imagine Jesus sitting down with Luke at the bar over a pint (goblet?) of wine. I don’t know, man. I just feel so…uncomfortable in my own skin sometimes.) but the sentiment was the same. Alcohol chemically lowers our inhibitions and smooths the chatter of our minds and some of our minds are really, really loud and mean.
I had my first drink around 15—right at the peak of teenage insecurity. I was so self-conscious, so anxious to belong, that I was nearly melting on a daily basis. I wanted boys to like me, but didn’t know what to do if they did; my body was changing and betraying me all the time; I wanted desperately to fit in, to be invited to things, and to be able to behave like someone who knew what to do when I was. And holy sweet mother of God, Purple Passion made that ALL POSSIBLE.
Fast forward a couple decades and I had no idea how to be me without it, or who the fuck I really was anyway.
And as weird as I thought I might be sober, I was so much weirder than that. One of the most alarming things about early sobriety was how awkward and new I felt. It was literally my job to talk, to lead big meetings, to be in front of and with people, but anytime I had to interact outside of work, I was right back in the worst of my junior high awkwardness. Wringing hands, inability to hold eye contact, nervous, inappropriate laughter and the whole bit. I even found myself telling lies to belong, “I LOVED THAT MOVIE” (I never saw that movie). The first time I realized I was sober, in a room of also sober people, and that we were no longer listening to someone speak but instead supposed to talk amongst ourselves—well, I almost fainted. I ran out of there so fast I bet I left skid marks. It was awful. And it didn’t get not-awful for a while.
So yes. I get it And what you’re feeling is normal. I don’t know how long you drank in social situations, but for me it was about 20 years. That’s a lot of neurological and social conditioning. Even if it was less time for you, the effect alcohol has on us is pooooowerful, and so is our instinct to belong and connect. One or two interactions where booze makes it smoother, where we seem to be able to laugh more easily, and people seem to respond to us more positively, are enough to hook us.
The problem is this: you were never exactly you when you were drinking.
Every time you drank, no matter how little, you became a slightly altered version of yourself. And then you began to prefer that version; you maybe even thought it was the real you. I certainly did. I would have sworn I never felt so myself, never so in love with life, than when I was couple glasses of wine deep. But the truth is every time I drank, and every time you drank, we bypassed the part of us that can actually sharpen, grow, engage, and connect. We took the elusive shortcut to those things because it feels like it’s working, but it never really does. It never gets us all the way there. And in the meantime, the real us gets left behind in the dust.
I left my 15-year-old self behind when I started drinking. I found her again when I got sober three years ago and it was even more unnerving then than it was back in 1992, because I was living in a 37 year-old’s body and life. Whoa. What you’re feeling now is the disconnect between what you'd been under the influence (even when you weren't actually drinking) and who you are without it. Plus, you’ve probably got a lot of MOCUS going on. What’s MOCUS, you ask? It’s short for Mostly Out of Focus—a totally brilliant way to describe the ever-present mind fog of new sobriety. I hear not everyone experiences this, but I also hear some people experience a Pink Cloud, and I never did. I was dumb, mostly mute when I wasn’t speaking manically, and more raw than a peeled carrot in early sobriety. There were no rainbows or puppies or unicorns, there was just me, in all my too-tight, itchy skin.
“Cognitive clarity,” as you say? HAHAHAHA.
Now, of course, it got better. A zillion percent better. If I still felt now like I did then I would have gone back to drinking, because what the fuck. But it took time and lots of it. (I can’t tell you how much time, and I know that’s infuriating.) I’m still working through my quirks and discovering new things about myself—some of which I like, some not so much. The thing is, though, however I occur to other people—boring or exciting, funny or totally flat—matters very little to me now. And that is a direct result of getting to know myself for real, without the false wash of alcohol, from one moment to the next. It’s uncomfortable to sit through awkward silences, less than smooth exchanges with people, and discomfort in our skin, but it’s also incredibly useful. It’s called growing. We miss that part when we drink.
Whoever you thought you were when you were drinking or whoever you think you aren't now without it are both lies. The real you is buried underneath all the garbage of who you pretended to be when you were drinking and it's going to take a while to figure out who he is, but you will. Things may seem colorless and bland for a while, which is to say you may seem colorless and bland for a while. But eventually, the picture will start to fill in and you will be beside yourself with how much more color and texture and life it has than the booze-filled version of you. Even when you're boring. Even when you're decidedly un-funny. Even when you're not entertaining at all. Because you will be real, and there's nothing more comfortable than that, even when it's not.