One of my biggest fears about quitting drinking was that it would dissolve friendships. Alcohol was the bond I shared with certain friends and without it, I feared we’d inevitably part ways. Once I took the risk of quitting drinking – and of seriously changing my social circle – the results were surprising. While some friendships fizzled, others grew stronger.
Simon (names have been changed to protect the [mostly] innocent), who has become very dear to me in the years since I stopped drinking, was once someone I would have called a drinking buddy. He and I went out to gay bars and straight bars and drank cocktail after cocktail. As the nights progressed – our eyes narrowed, voices raised, and speech slurred – we would flirt with the people around us and vehemently argue whatever points we were making. Stumbling home, we were often too out of it to really be concerned about our own or each other’s safety.
Since I stopped drinking, my friendship with Simon has evolved in unexpected ways. While we still go to bars together – he orders his usual cocktail while I sip seltzer with lime – we do other things too. Usually we see movies (especially horror and indies), go for walks around Cambridge and Boston, and meet for coffee or Indian food. These times have afforded me the opportunity to get to know Simon in a different way than when we got together primarily to drink. I’ve learned about his extensive knowledge of, eclectic taste in, and extremely strong opinions about music. I’ve heard stories about what it was like to grow up gay in a rural New York town. Most of all, I’ve had the opportunity and privilege to really discover Simon as he is, with all his beautiful quirks, wisdom, humor, and curiosity.
Other friendships I assumed would last forever have ended. Ned was about my dad’s age. He lived upstairs from me in the North End of Boston and we became one another’s friend and confidant. Ned and I didn’t drink together, save for the occasional glass of wine (one for him, two for me) at his favorite pizza place. We preferred long walks to Harvard Square – a 6-mile distance for us that provided plenty of time for him to tell me his stories and me to tell him mine. Even though we were separated by about 30 years, Ned and I were at similar stages of self-discovery, especially when it came to relationships, and we often discussed our current love interests, or lack thereof. Our exchanges were quid pro quo and tended to be very balanced except if one of us was experiencing a particular relationship crisis.
About a month after I stopped drinking, everything seemed to fall apart. I needed the support of friends in a way I hadn’t before. At that time, Ned was in a stable relationship and needed our talks less. My desire to work through the subtleties of what I was feeling became too much for him. When we did speak, I sensed his urgency for his turn to talk. Sometimes we could only connect for 15-minute increments that were scheduled days in advance.
Sobriety provided me the time and clarity to evaluate situations honestly. I realized that my friendship with Ned no longer provided what it once had; what started out as mutual respect and friendship had evolved into rote exchanges in which Ned assigned himself a superior role. At one point, I decided to tell him how I felt, that I was glad he had found peace and happiness in a relationship and that our 10-year friendship had meant a lot to me but that I could not continue it in its current state. Sadly, I never heard from Ned again.
As it turns out, some of the people I thought were drinking buddies were really strangers I happened to share a table with while others were true friends. Other friendships lasted beyond their natural expiration date; though they weren’t necessarily drinking buddies, my decision to continue the friendship – conscious or unconscious – was likely also under the influence.