How to Not Drink At a Wedding

You can help, you can hide; you can even leave

Image: Cleavers

Weddings are like the Oscars: a few big emotional moments against an overall backdrop of administrivia and waiting around. Sometimes there’s reason to suspect it’s all downhill from here for the couple, so the wedding feels like one of those Best Supporting Actress acceptance speeches from a talented ingénue you know you’ll never see again. And even if you wept (with happiness, with hope, for your lost youth) throughout the ceremony, let’s face it: it’s hard to sustain that rush while you’re sitting with a bunch of second cousins waiting for your table to be called to the buffet. Or during the vaguely unsettling father-daughter dance, or the dreaded cake feeding moment.

I mean, no wonder people drink at weddings. It’s not just because they’re celebrating and in Western culture we celebrate happy occasions by ingesting a depressant. They’re also bored and nervous. And guess what? If this is your first stone-cold-sober wedding, you might be a little extra bored and nervous. Your challenge here isn’t celebrating in your right mind. It’s dealing with your real-time discomfort.

First of all, know that you are off the hook for feeling any certain way at this wedding. It’s not your job to be happy, or reflective, or anything else. Your job is to bear physical witness to the event and not make an ass of yourself. If joy sneaks up on you — if you really hear the wedding vows for the first time in your life, if your body is seized with electricity at the bass line of “Brick House”—then it’s a bonus. If not, that’s just fine. Let your brain do what it wants.

Next, you need a strategy for keeping yourself busy. One option is to have a job. If you’re close to the wedding party, maybe you can arrange an official duty, like guilting people into signing the guest book or standing by the gift table, glaring threateningly and patting your gun pocket when anyone lingers too long. If not, then assign yourself a job. For instance, you could decide to initiate small talk with anyone who is standing or sitting alone.

That’s how I survived my first big sober social event: I worked the room, even though I’m such an introvert that I almost don’t exist. Playing Sober Butterfly turned out to be surprisingly easy, partly because I was doing it on purpose, to work a muscle, and partly because I didn’t have any of my old drinking worries (am I slurring? Am I steady on these heels?) nagging at me. Did I make new lifelong friends or have fascinating conversations? No. But it was fine, and the time passed, and I even felt like I’d done some good. And I didn’t drink, which was really all that mattered.

Is the idea of walking up to total strangers just too much? Then figure something else out. Take lots of candid photos with your phone and send an album of the best ones to the newlyweds the next day. Hound the DJ with requests to play “Bastards of Young.” Dance with little kids. And for the love of God, give yourself breaks if you need them. You won’t be the first wedding guest to hide out in the restroom doing the New York Times crossword puzzle on your phone, because I’ve already done it.

And if staying sober isn’t just a circumstantial need, but is close to a matter of life and death for you — like it is for me — and it’s that after-cake time when people are starting to get really tanked, and the balloons are sagging, and it’s just too much? Leave. If your friends are drunk and try to talk you out of leaving? Leave anyway. They won’t remember, and if they do they’ll understand, and if they don’t understand, well, let’s not worry about that right now. Just say your good nights and go. Always giving into what other people want won’t keep you sober anyway. So work that muscle now.

Those are some starter options. If you’re not white-knuckling it, another is to use your clear eyes to read the wedding like the epic novel it is. The newlyweds have just made huge, scary promises to each other in the face of vast uncertainty. What got them to that point? Faith, madness, a fierce practicality? Look at the parents, the marriages that made the newlyweds exist. See the parents making the same enormous promises to each other however many decades ago. How many marriages exist among the parents now? Still two? Or four, six, ten?

Now look around the room. If it’s a big wedding there will be people who made those promises fifty years ago, and ten years, and ten months, and people who didn’t even have the legal option to make insane promises until June 2015. Someone is pregnant with someone else who will also get married someday. Someone is planning their way out of a marriage. Someone’s marriage was ended by death. Someone is wondering when this dumb capitalistic tradition finally dies out. Someone, hopefully many someones, would do it all again.

You are in a room crammed with enough dead and living promises to make you go “Whoa” like Garth from Wayne’s World. There is no booze (or weed) required to be like Garth. Just eyes to see and the patience to let things mean what they mean. You have both. Let them work for you here. If you need to drown in something, drown in promises.