Very few things rattle my sobriety like a wedding reception. After a couple of years of this whole not-drinking thing, I’ve mentally steeled myself to be around people who drink. It’s just part of the gig. But wedding receptions are different. They still often manage to sliver their way under my skin. For me, they’re less celebrations of happiness than alcoholic calls to action. They’re the one place where I find myself wondering what I’m missing, how I’m not laughing and dancing my face off, or why I’m not “normal” like everyone else.
By year’s end, I’ll have attended three weddings. This is either a testament to how in-demand I am as a wedding guest, or just how much the universe is trying to test me. If the weddings were cash bars, maybe—just maybe—I’d feel differently. Those always slowed my roll and had me considering whether watered-down cocktails were worth the $20 in my wallet. Either way, wedding receptions make me romanticize drinking in the same way that my grandfather used to go to his favorite restaurant for years, even though the service was terrible and the food was only passable. You see, it hadn’t always been bad. That’s what kept him going back, over and over again. That place reminded him of better times, of golden moments never to return. Similarly, at receptions, I can focus in on the rainbow of colored bottled glass and the graceful, almost sexily robotic drink-slinging of wedding bartenders. I only remember the good times—not the violent vomiting or next-day apologies.
For alcoholics like me, wedding receptions are always going to be minefields. The alcohol flows too easily and, nine times out of ten, I’m surrounded by strangers who don’t know my backstory. I could get away with it if I wasn’t so passionate about my recovery. Receptions are the only place when I truly feel on-guard with my sobriety, like I have to protect it. Then again, there’s something as artificial about receptions. Pretty-perfect smiles; fitted vests and tailored tuxes; rehearsed, yet still-awkward movements. Wedding receptions used to be a free-for-all when it came to alcohol. In my mid-twenties, they were just dressed-up, Best-Behavior extensions of our college parties. We’d all have way too much to drink, hug each other one too many times, and that’d be that. The only true question was who was getting married next so we’d have another excuse to party.
Many weddings later, I discovered I was the one going to the open bar more than most people. I also started discovering (much to my surprise, because I’m an idiot) that not everyone had a cocktail in front of them like they’d all been cartoonishly issued a drink at the door. Some people simply didn’t drink—a fact that seemed like it broke every law of physics. In fact, it was at a wedding where I first considered I was an alcoholic. The ceremony and reception were held in a beautifully ornate old bank that’d been converted for events. All the seats were arranged in the granite-and-glass lobby. High ceilings, columns, and an upper level where I imagined people used to get declined for loans. There was plenty to look at, but I felt myself zeroing in on the bank vault off to the side. That’s where they’d set up the bar. During the ceremony, I found myself staring at that bar, anxiously watching the bartenders busily setting things up. I could feel myself sweating in anticipation; I even ticked off every beat of the wedding on the program as they happened. I was getting closer and closer to that first drink. I’ll never forget the relief when the bar was open, like air escaping from a balloon.
Now, I treat wedding receptions differently. I expect the unexpected—like an old friend I haven’t seen in forever to hand me my favorite beer, not knowing I’m sober. I expect the alcohol-fueled spectacle of it all to seem fun, if not entirely innocent. I even expect people to treat me differently, perhaps distantly, if they do know I don’t drink. I just focus on why I’m there. It takes a surprising amount of mental energy to remind myself, but I manage to do it every time. Wedding receptions don’t exactly happen every week, so the anxiety is as surprising as it is potent. It rises up every single time when I draw nearer to the venue. After all, I used to crush wedding receptions. My wedding game was strong. I could’ve listed Wedding Reception Drinking on LinkedIn as a skill. At one wedding, there were two bars and I was careful to bounce back and forth between the two so that the bartenders didn’t notice or comment on how often I was going up for gin and tonics.
Very early on in my sobriety, I found myself seated at the outer rim of a wedding reception, its own kind of purgatory. I could’ve stayed home and spared myself the agony. Before any speeches were delivered or the DJ played that goddamned “Electric Slide” song, I was in the bathroom, furtively texting my sponsor. He quickly texted back: You’re doing fine. Receptions are the worst. I went to the bar and got another coffee. After each reception, just like delivering a kick-ass presentation at work or following through on a promise, I’d get a jolt of newfound confidence. They take practice to survive. They’re endurance tests. Every alcoholic has a real moment of pause now and again. They doubt things; they question their strength and commitment. It may last only a second, but it happens. Anyone who says otherwise is lying. After all, if a commitment wasn’t fragile, it wouldn’t mean anything. Same goes for sobriety. A commitment to staying drink-free is as strong as any commitment between any newly married couple, which is what makes weddings such unique battlegrounds.
With receptions, I’ve arrived at a point where I’m just genuinely thankful to be part of the celebration. To be counted in someone’s inner circle of loved ones is a gift I don’t take lightly. Any event that involves drinking has that moment when things imperceptibly shift (I can sense it like I’m in The Matrix). The alcohol has kicked things up a notch, and it’s simply time to go. I tell the bride and groom goodbye when three-quarters of the wedding guests are still there. I recently visited relatives in Chicago who later revealed that they’d asked themselves: “Should we hide our alcohol when Paul’s here?” Truth be told—no one can protect alcoholics from the real world. We can’t treat everywhere like all the electrical outlets suddenly need baby-proofing. Wedding receptions are no different. I appreciate the fact that I’m inches from a potential relapse. I find real strength in it. Wedding receptions are as much the celebrations of new beginnings between two people as they are reminders of my own new beginning.