The Big Chill: How to Tell People You're Not Drinking

This post is part of my “Dear Laura” series. To read all the letters or write me one, go here.

Dear Laura,

I have recently decided to eliminate alcohol out of my day by day life and see where I end up. I have done this before (for about 9 months while caring for my mother), but I eventually started drinking again. I really enjoy reading about your experiences in sobriety and how you went about it. I don’t want to have to explain to every person I know why I’m not drinking or will I ever drink again or why I’m doing this, etc., at a party or function. Can you please share a few things you would suggest I respond with without having to go into my whole journey of not drinking?

Many thanks and gratitude to you,
Fumbling


Dear Fumbling,

I remember the scripts I used to run in my head: the imaginary conversations and interactions, the perceived judgments and inquisitions! I spent so much time preparing for these theoretical moments. Probably as much time as I spent imagining Ryan Hucker asking me out on a date in high school. Years worth of time, all collapsed into a few months of newish sobriety. Exhausting. 

And you know what? 

Most of those conversations never happened. 

I spun myself up for nothing.

I can think of a few times—maybe four or five—when I’ve been really caught off guard or pushed aggressively about not drinking. Overall, though, what I imagined would be long, drawn-out interrogations lasted about six seconds and went something like this:

Person: Do you want a drink?

Me: Yes, I’d love a Diet Coke. I’m not drinking becau—

Person: *already ordering my Diet Coke*

That said, I know people often do ask for more, especially people with whom we’ve drunk with in the past. And especially in relationships that were largely based on our mutual fondness of, well, getting drunk. These are the ones that really take up mental space because those folks will likely not settle for a simple no. I know I never did!

I’ve separated the inquiries I got about not drinking into three categories: The Well-Meaning Acquaintance, The Neutral Supporter, and The Friend in Drunken Arms.


The Well-Meaning Acquaintance

This is the friend-of-a-friend at a party, the guy (or girl) trying to cozy up to you at the bar, a colleague at the holiday party… that type of thing. Not someone you know well, per se, but someone who probably knows people you know, or at least runs in some of the same circles. It could also be an outright stranger—someone you’ve just met at a party—and you’ve been awkwardly making small talk, perhaps even flirting, and when you’ve both taken your last sip of your respective beverages, they ask The Question: Can I get you another drink?

+++

WHAT YOUR MIND SAYS IS HAPPENING:

They think my Topo Chico is a Vodka Soda! They want me to drink! They need me to drink! Drinking will ease the awkwardness and give us a chance to bond and maybe get naked at some point in the future. If I don’t order alcohol, they’re going think I’m pregnant/a religious fundamentalist/judging them/boring/doing Whole 30/taking medication for a rabid infection in my private parts/have no idea how to have fun/about to go work out/rigid/scary/a raging alcoholic/cheap/a control freak.

WHAT IS (MOST LIKELY) HAPPENING:

They’re running their own mental gymnastics that have nothing to do with you. If you want wine, cool. If not, they might take pause, but...also cool.

HOW TO SAY IT:

 I’m good!

Or

Sure! I’ll have a [insert your drink].

IF THEY ASK “IF THAT’S IT”:

Yep! Thanks.

IF THEY ASK IF YOU DON’T DRINK:

Not tonight. 

(Note: I recommend this for people who are new because a) it’s simple and b) it’s a way of making their own mind calm down. When I used to say to myself “I WILL NEVER DRINK AGAIN” my mind flipped. I couldn’t figure out forever. If I said, “I’m not drinking right now” it was lot easier. All you ever have to do is not drink right now, by the way.)

IF THEY ASK WHY:

I don’t like the way it makes me feel.

Or

It doesn’t work for me.

Honest. Firm. And no further explanation needed. Really!

TIP: For a while, stop going to places where people are drinking heavily or even moderately. Especially if these are the situations where you used to drink a lot. It’s just… give yourself a chance. I promise, you’re not missing much.


The Neutral Supporter

Okay, so this is a friend, family member, or close colleague who you imagine will be suspect of or disappointed in you not drinking, but in reality won’t feel either of those things. They truly love you and want what’s best for you. You may have had some crazy times with them while drinking, but it isn’t at the center of your relationship from their perspective—and it’s definitely not what they like most about you. We often have a lot more people in our lives that feel this way than we realize. And they are gold in new sobriety because they can offer a practice ground for these conversations and also serve as the initial, vital support we need.

Still, it can be very hard to say the words.

+++

WHAT YOUR MIND SAYS IS HAPPENING:

They’ll drop me if I don’t drink. They’ll stop inviting me to things. I’ll be ex-communicated. I’ll have to uphold this sobriety thing if I tell them what’s going on and I’m not sure I want to be accountable just yet. They’ll ask me to reveal every detail of this decision.

WHAT IS (MOST LIKELY) ACTUALLY HAPPENING:

They love your new sweater.

HOW TO SAY IT:

You know, I’ve been trying on not drinking. I’ll have a [insert your drink].

IF THEY ASK WHY:

It depends on the situation, but here’s where you have to take a risk and invite them in. It’s the only way the magic can happen. Err on the side of generosity—people are often more supportive than we imagine they will be.

I’ve been thinking about it a lot and it’s not working for me anymore.

Or

I feel so much better without it, but it’s also been hard, I’m not gonna lie. I feel lame asking, but I could really use your support.

IF THEY ASK IF IT’S PERMANENT:

Yes, but I’m just trying to take it day by day right now.

Or

That’s my intention, yes. 

+++

In my experience, this almost always opened the door to a bigger conversation or a more genuine connection. Maybe not in the moment, but down the road for sure. It also served to get me more integrated. You know, thoughts and actions aligned and all that. The more people who knew what I was doing, the better: less isolation, more accountability, more transparency, which—for someone who lied as reflexively as sneezing—was necessary and, my God, refreshing.

Additionally, this person may ask you how they can support you. This is what I said early on:

I don’t know. I feel different all the time. Just keep asking. And please just keep inviting me to stuff, even if I don’t come.


The Friend in Drunken Arms

Okay, this is one of your closest drinking buddies. The one who will definitely notice if you’re not drinking ethanol in some form because you can count on one hand the times you’ve hung out together without clinking glasses.

The moment always passes and you will never be disappointed that you didn’t drink.

First, I wouldn’t make plans with them without first telling them you’re not drinking. It doesn’t need to be a complicated, drawn out conversation. A simple, clear text does the trick. If you don’t, the whole situation is just stressful and you’re likely setting yourself up for failure, as well as setting them up to be surprised and confused.  I don’t know about you, but I avoided other people’s discomfort at all costs, even if it meant sacrificing myself. So, just don’t do it. Yes, I know that’s annoying. But you know what’s more annoying? Breaking that promise to yourself again. Waking up hungover again.

If you get caught in the moment, though, here’s what to do.

+++

WHAT YOUR MIND SAYS IS HAPPENING:

They’ll never talk to me again. I am the boringest, loseringest, lamest person on the planet. I will never have fun again. They’re so lucky. WHY CAN’T I BE NORMAL. This is all so dumb. Panic panic panic panic panic panic.

WHAT IS (MOST LIKELY) HAPPENING:

They want you to order your damn drink already.

HOW TO SAY IT:

Actually, I’m not drinking tonight.

IF THEY ASK WHY:

Not feeling it, too much going on tomorrow. But I’ll have a club soda and lime!

Resist the urge to over-explain. Or apologize. Yes, this is hard. Yes, you may have to endure some prodding. It’s okay. The moment always passes and you will never be disappointed that you didn’t drink.

TIP: In my experience, these relationships will either fade away quickly or you’ll eventually find new common ground.

Don’t leave the “Are you drinking?” question open in these relationships. It causes far too much internal friction within you. Send a text, email, or make a phone call (you have to decide what’s appropriate based on the relationship) that makes your decision clear. An example:

Hey, so the other night when I wasn’t drinking, I wanted to talk about that. I’ve been seriously looking at my relationship with alcohol and have realized I am better without it. I’m going to keep exploring that, so if you notice I’m around less for the drinking activities, that’s why.

If appropriate and you do want to keep in contact with them: I love you and I’d love to grab coffee or [x activity you both like] anytime. 


Some closing thoughts:

Each “no” to drinking is a big “yes” to life.

I want to assure you that almost no one really wants the whole-journey version of why you’re not drinking. Actually, maybe not no one. I always wanted to know people’s whole-journey version and, well… just know you don’t owe it to anyone to explain and the impulse to do so, while normal, is more about you than the person you’re talking to. Nobody is thinking about you drinking (or not drinking) as much as you are. Really.

The most difficult part of this is the fear of social extermination. It’s normal to fear this—it triggers one of the most primitive parts of our brain that tells us rejection equals death. We live in a society that normalizes and largely prizes drinking. To step out can feel like social suicide. Couple that with the mental and physical power of addiction and you’ve got yourself one hell of a pickle. But, each time you stay with yourself in these moments, you’ll be fortified. You’ll learn to trust yourself. Remember: there is a necessary space between where you are and where you will be.

Each “no” to drinking is a big “yes” to life.


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