I'm Getting Sober, Can I Still Go to Bars?

I’m Getting Sober, Can I Still Go to Bars?

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This post was originally published on August 25, 2015.

One of my most horrifying thoughts prior to getting sober was that if I did, I wouldn’t be able to go to bars anymore. Never mind that I rarely left a bar without being legally intoxicated and as a result I would wake up each morning with the shakes. What the hell would I do with myself if I couldn’t hang out at the bar with all my drinking buddies?

The answer turned out to be “plenty,” but I couldn’t fathom it at the time.

One of the first things that I remember hearing in AA was if I didn’t want a haircut, I should stay out of the barbershop. Which, roughly translated, means that if you don’t want to get drunk, you should probably stay out of bars.

I just laughed at this bit of folksy-sounding, Salada teabag wisdom and continued to go to an Elks Club on Sundays to watch football with my now ex-wife (who doesn’t really drink) and lots of people who were—at the very least—heavy drinkers (Elk-aholics). They would sit and get hammered and I would spend most of the afternoon trying to feel comfortable without drinking. Of course I didn’t tell my sponsor or any of the people that I talked to at meetings what I was doing, mostly because I was afraid that they would try and talk me out of it. In my experience, this is the reason most people don’t tell their sponsors things they shouldn’t be doing.

I didn’t drink and have stayed sober for nearly a dozen years now, but in hindsight, not hanging around in bars does make a lot more sense. Although I think it might be time to update the “barbershop” analogy to something that doesn’t sound like something you’d hear on an Alzheimer’s unit. Awkward phrasing aside, there’s a lot of common sense involved in not hanging around barrooms when you’re trying to get sober—particularly if you’re not exactly sold on the whole sobriety concept in the first place.

For one thing, hanging around in bars where I used to drink wasn’t as much fun as I remembered—something I discovered in my previous attempts to get sober on my own. In fact it was a kind of mental torture, because other people (including those I thought were way more depraved than me) could drink and I couldn’t. To make matters worse, when I was not drinking and my bar friends were hammered, I found a lot of them to be really fucking boring. They told the same unfunny stories over and over—to the point of being obnoxious. Even the ones that weren’t drunks of my caliber were hard to be around, simply because I didn’t know how to hang out with people when I was missing my social lubricant.

So, eventually I would pick up a drink. My reasoning was that life without booze really wasn’t worth it anyway. I forgot that only a few weeks before, life with booze only made me fantasize about ways to die other than suicide. My favorite was being killed by terrorists, so that people would feel as bad for me as I did for myself. I have a friend that describes his strategy of trying to hang around bars sober this way: “It was ginger ale, ginger ale, beer, shot of Jack—court case.” While that wasn’t exactly my MO, I was always back in the shit not long after I picked up that first drink.

But is that the case for everyone? Of course not.

There’s a guy in my men’s meeting that says, “If you really want to stay sober, you can do it even if you’re bartending in a crack house—but I wouldn’t recommend it.” Which is kind of where I am now. I don’t personally think there is a hard and fast rule around this, but if you’re in early sobriety, it’s probably not a good idea to spend a lot of time in places where a drink (or a crack pipe) is within arm’s reach.

That goes double for places where the only purpose for most of the patrons being there is to drink (and/or score pills and blow), which describes most of the places where I drank at the end of my boozing career. One place was a rock n’ roll club at night, but if you spent a lot of time there during the day (like I did), chances are you were an alcoholic/addict. Sure, there were other activities like pool and darts, but any “sport” where your performance actually improves when you cross the legal limit for a DUI isn’t really a sport. Neither are Keno and scratch tickets—two of my other drunken pastimes.

There are old-timers in AA who will tell you that going anywhere in early sobriety where they serve booze is like “square dancing in a minefield,” and if you still have the obsession to drink, it can be. But like a lot of things, it really depends on circumstances once you put a little time together and lose the craving to drink every time a beer ad comes on.

There are plenty of good reasons to go places where they serve booze, as long as the booze is not the main attraction. The thing I was told to ask myself was this: Do I have a good reason to be there? Good reasons would be music, food, or entertainment, while bad reasons would be things like thinking my dealer misses my wit and charm.

That’s another lesson I had to learn after I got sober. People who hang around in bars don’t miss you as much as you think. A year after I got sober, I stuck my head in that rock n’ roll joint and several of the patrons asked me where I had been for last couple of weeks. It bruised my ego for a day or two, but then I realized that if they were really my friends, they might have called to see how I was doing and not one of them had.

Do I miss going to bars now that I’ve been sober for a little while?

No. I go to lots of places where they serve booze now, like comedy clubs and music venues, but I don’t have time to hang around places where the primary purpose is to sit and drink. I’m too busy doing all the things I only talked about while my ass was glued to a barstool.

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About Author

Johnny Plankton is the pseudonym for a freelance business and comedy writer/editor (and recovering alcoholic) who lives in Boston. He is also a grateful member of America’s largest alcohol recovery “cult” as well as Al-Anon.