Navigating Coffee Social Events as a Sober Individual

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

BY NOAH NAMOWICZ
SPECIAL TO BARISTA MAGAZINE

Editor’s note: As the Specialty Coffee Expo approaches, many people are looking forward to reuniting with other coffee folks. In addition to a busy trade show floor and competition space, 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, and here he shares his story and strategies for success at social events.

My Background

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, watching someone get 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. I had two meaningful relationships in my life in those days: one with a little pill and one with a bottle. \\

I had been so solely 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 is what continues to keep me sober today. 

Noah Namowicz uses his experience with sobriety to help others stay sober.
Coffee-industry leader Noah Namowicz has been sober for 15 years, and has solid perspective about how other coffee professionals struggling with addiction can safely navigate the often raucous social gatherings around coffee events—including the 2022 Specialty Coffee Expo, which begins Friday in Boston.

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

Sobriety, especially while working in coffee, can be tricky. Parties, throwdowns, and other gatherings around shows are often fueled by drugs and alcohol, and for most people not suffering from this disease, that’s a wonderful outlet and 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. 

My experience is 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. 

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 allowing 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 both how many people respected that decision and also 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. I followed their lead and 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 still am an alcoholic and need constant reminders from the program and this community that there is an easier, softer way than my natural instincts sometimes. 

Noah and his family.
Noah with his family in St. Paul, Minn.

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, because 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 also some specific “sober get togethers” around the shows. There is a small group of us that try 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, and 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 that 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 anyone is struggling with drug or alcohol addiction, please know 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, and 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.

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 12 years.

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