How to Navigate Coffee Social Events as a Sober Individual

In advance of the Specialty Coffee Expo and the associated parties, one industry leader in recovery offers support for folks struggling with addiction.

BY NOAH NAMOWICZ
SPECIAL TO BARISTA MAGAZINE

Cover photo by Anastasia Petrova via Unsplash

Editor’s note: As the Specialty Coffee Expo approaches, many people are looking forward to reuniting with other coffee folks. The Expo is known for a multitude of parties and other social gatherings. Many of those gatherings feature alcohol and can be difficult for people struggling with addiction. Cafe Imports’ Noah Namowicz knows firsthand how challenging the Expo environment can be for people in recovery. Here he shares his story and strategies for success at social events.

My Path to Sobriety

I was 19, not even legal age to drink yet, sitting in a 12-step meeting in Minnesota in a halfway house that was my new home. Someone was getting recognized for being sober one year: a seemingly impossible feat to me at the time. My path to get here involved burning most of the bridges between myself and all my friends and family with a cherry on top of horribly failing out of school, all thanks to my inability to function without drugs and alcohol. I was lost. There were two meaningful relationships in my life in those days: one with a little pill and one with a bottle.

I had been so focused on not missing out on a party or finding that next high that all the beautiful things happening around me were lost on me. All I saw or thought about for too long were drugs and alcohol. My sponsor—my sort of mentor/friend/confidant/guide in recovery—once told me the most profound thing.

“Getting sober is shifting from the point of view to the viewing point. Once you start to put your perspective up in the corner of the room and see the situation from outside yourself, that is where healing happens.”

Today, after 15 years of sobriety, being of service to others, to fellow alcoholics or those in need, gives me a daily reprieve from my disease. That is why I am writing this article today. If one person reads this and finds something helpful, then it’s absolutely worth it to be vulnerable. I have found that making my recovery a priority by taking care of myself is crucial for my continued well-being. Going to meetings, actively working the steps, meditating, exercising, and talking a lot to fellow alcoholics continues to keep me sober today. 

Expect Questions (Whether You Want Them or Not) and Know Your Limits

Sobriety can be tricky, especially while working in coffee. Parties, throwdowns, and other gatherings around shows are often fueled by drugs and alcohol. For most people not suffering from this disease, that’s a wonderful outlet and a great way to let off some steam and make new friends. I would never want someone to change or alter the way they express themselves to “accommodate” me. Through an active program of recovery, we are provided a community and tools to navigate weird situations for our sobriety. 

In my experience, lots of people will say things to you like, “Well, you can just have one, right?”

Because that concept makes sense to someone who is not an alcoholic. But to be honest, to me the concept of just one drink literally does not make sense. My brain cannot compute the construct. That’s often the perspective of an alcoholic: “What do you mean just one? Aren’t we blacking out tonight?” So no, unfortunately, “just one” is not in the cards for me anymore. 

Noah Namowicz uses his experience with sobriety to help others stay sober. Here he stands in a doorway smiling, with one arm on the door frame, wearing a pocket t shirt.
Coffee-industry leader Noah Namowicz has been sober for 15 years, and offers perspective for other coffee professionals struggling with addiction and navigating coffee events. Photo courtesy of Noah Namowicz.

Find Your Tools for Success

One of the most important things I learned early on that helped my recovery a lot, especially when I would be in situations where most people are not sober, is not to allow any gray area of whether or not I drink. In early recovery, when it was on the table right away that I don’t drink, I didn’t have the option to let my disease be sneaky. I was amazed early on by how many people respected that decision, and how many other sober people came out of the woodwork who I previously did not know identified that way.

I began to meet an incredibly diverse group of people who seemed to have what I wanted: peace, happiness, purpose, the whole deal. Following their lead, I just allowed myself to get swept up in the recovery community and began to experience those promises for myself, too. Recovery is one of those things that is self-reinforcing in my experience. When I would be presented with difficult life challenges, I started to realize I had more tools in my toolbox than just drugs or alcohol and started to successfully navigate life. I forget about those tools a lot still to this day. At my core, I am still an alcoholic. I need constant reminders from the program and this community that there is an easier, softer way than my natural instincts sometimes. 

Noah with with his family: wife and two kids. The are all hugging and wearing ball caps and bright colors. They're standing outside on the grass, with trees in the background
Noah with his family in St. Paul, Minn. Photo courtesy of Noah Namowicz.

Seek Out Other Options

During coffee events, I actively seek outside activities like the sanctioned 5Ks, game nights, CrossFit classes, yoga classes, local 12-step meetings, and other things coffee people are doing around the shows. This is actually where I ended up meeting other sober folks in coffee. They were, like me, looking for some emotional/spiritual centering around a usually chaotic weekend. From this group, some other cool things were born, like the digital Zoom recovery meeting for people in coffee some of us did in 2020 during the height of the pandemic, and specific “sober get-togethers” around the shows. There is a small group of us that tries to throw out resources for people looking to plan their weekend ahead of the shows. 

Expect Some Bumps in the Road

Relapse is definitely a normal part of recovery in my experience. I had to have a few experiences with this before I found what I was looking for and could begin to enjoy long-term recovery. I even relapsed once early on, lied about it, and felt like such a fraud. If I didn’t get honest about it, I was going to go back out again. In a way, the sudden presence of a moral compass was actually encouraging. Oh, I literally can’t live through a web of lies anymore? My sobriety wouldn’t let me? Thanks a lot. I had to go on the Namowicz Apology Tour 2005 to tell the groups at every single meeting I attended and every person to whom I told I had a certain time sober that in fact, I had been lying about it. I was so scared about coming clean about it. But surprisingly, most people laughed and simply said, “Oh yeah, I’ve done that, too. Glad you kept coming back.”

You Are Not Alone

If you are struggling with drug or alcohol addiction, please know this. There are others of us in this industry who have your back and would drop anything to make sure you are OK. We all need help, and it’s OK to seek that out. You have friends in coffee.

To end this, I just want to share with anyone struggling: There is zero stigma around actively working a program of recovery. I don’t want anyone to think a potential boss or employer or sponsor or whatever would think any differently of them because they are sober. I find that sometimes people are reluctant to identify this way for fear that it may hurt their career. From my perspective, if someone sober wanted to work with me, I would understand right off the bat that they are actively trying to improve their lives. They are some of the greatest, most genuine, humble, and service-minded folks I know. That kind of person would make a wonderful colleague. 

If you see me around, please come say hi, and we can do this thing together over some coffee.

This article was first published by Barista Magazine Online in April 2022.

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Noah Namowicz is a partner and SVP of sales for specialty coffee importer Cafe Imports. Noah is based in St. Paul, Minn., with his wife and two young kids. He is a former Barista Guild Executive Council member and has been working in coffee for over 13 years.

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