Wednesday, May 18, 2011

On Not Drinking

Sometimes not drinking makes people uncomfortable.

Usually, it is when I'm hanging out with a bunch of Moms and at some point - almost every time - the conversation turns to alcohol.  Sometimes it is tongue-in-cheek:  is it wine o'clock yet?   Sometimes the humor is laced with something edgier:  all the coffee in the world can't touch this hangover.   Sometimes it is simply planning the next girls' night out:  how about Margarita night?  We can do that on a Tuesday... why not?   Usually, though, it is aimed at how moms deserve their wine after the long hectic days:  this might be a three glass night.

Eventually someone remembers I'm standing there and will cast a nervous glance in my direction.    Sometimes someone will say, "Oh, sorry.  Does this bother you?"   Sometimes there will be nervous laughter and a change of topic. 

When I made the decision to be open about my recovery, I did it with an open mind.  I never get offended when people talk about alcohol, or ask me if I'm bothered by the topic.  I don't get to choose how people respond to my recovery.

Sometimes, though, I'll get an edgy feeling, a little twinge of - what is it - jealousy, I guess, when I see facebook pages full of pictures of my friends hanging out, drinking.   I'm not sure what is behind that, exactly.  Maybe it's a realization that there are some events I'm not going to get invited to because I don't drink.  Some people don't invite me because they think it might make me uncomfortable.  Sometimes my not drinking feels like a downer to people who want to tear it up. 

I understand.  Being around people who didn't drink bummed me out when I was drinking, too.

A friend said to me a while ago (okay, after she had a few) that she feels like I'm watching everyone's drinking, keeping tabs on how much everyone is consuming.

"I used to do that, when I first got sober" I admitted.  "I was on the lookout for other people with a problem, because I was desperate to feel like I wasn't the only one."

I don't do that anymore because I know I'm not the only one, and I no longer need to feel better about myself by comparing myself to others.   I also know, now, that there is no way to tell if someone has a problem or not just from watching their behavior at a party.  The quiet one in the corner, the one who only had one or two but is going to go home and drink like she wants to, is just as likely to have a problem as the woman who always makes a spectacle of herself.    Either way, it's none of my business.

"I avoided you in the beginning, I'm ashamed to say," said my friend.  "Drinking in front of you made me feel so badly.  It would be so hard to be at a party and not drink.  I mean, everyone drinks." 

I felt a rush of relief.  It was so refreshing to have someone speak honestly to me about it all, instead of tiptoeing around the topic.   And I had to smile to myself, just a little.  Because not everyone drinks.  Not even close.

Eventually she edged her way around to her point.  "Do you think I have a problem?" she asked, clutching her wineglass.

"Do you think you have a problem?" I responded.  This is how I always answer this question.  And more often than not I only get this question from someone who has been drinking.

She laughed.  "No, I don't," she said.  "But I know I wouldn't want to stop drinking, and sometimes that worries me."

"Well," I smiled, "if you ever feel like drinking is becoming a problem, you know where to find me."

She was thoughtful for a moment.  "I read somewhere that people who don't have a drinking problem never wonder about whether or not they have a drinking problem."

"There is some truth to that," I said.  "It's definitely something to pay attention to.  But I also think that wondering about anything we do that isn't altogether healthy - eating habits, drinking habits, lack of exercise, the excuses we tell ourselves - is a good thing to do.   Far too many people wait until something is totally out of hand before they will talk about it   So I support asking questions, talking about things, getting information."

She nodded.  "I guess I think it's possible drinking could become too important to me if I'm not careful," she said.  "Is that bad?"

"No, that's honest," I replied.  "And very brave.  It lessens the chance that it will get away from you without you knowing about it."

Moments like this more than make up for all the awkwardness of being the only one not drinking at a party, or a few missed invitations.  

I love it when people talk honestly with me about how they feel about my not drinking, or their own drinking - whether they have a problem or not.   I love it when people ask me questions, like whether or not it's hard for me, or if I want to come to an event that will have alcohol.  I take it as a sign of love, respect, for my sobriety.  

I know not everyone feels this way, and I'm not recommending going out and asking someone who doesn't drink all sorts of questions.  Most people, I think, don't want to be singled out in this way, because the stigma is still so strong.

But I don't mind.  I love it when people email questions, ask me the stuff they don't feel comfortable asking anyone else.  I would love to see a world where someone wondering about their drinking can talk openly about it, like someone who is wondering about their weight, starting a new diet.   People often rally around someone starting a diet or exercise program - sometimes they even jump on the bandwagon, too.  Food struggles are so similar to drinking struggles, and I dream of the day when they can both be discussed openly, without fear and shame.


  1. This was a great post. I don't mind if people drink around me. I guess I think my problem isn't their problem. But I still crave it and wonder if I could have just one? I'm going on one year next week and still the cravings persist. Not as strong and not as frequently. And it looks so good. But I'm trying to stay strong in my resolve to not drink. I know I can't go back to just one. But still I seem to question myself.

  2. I think this is a great post. I love the honesty.

    As for your friend questioning if they have a drinking problem-- I've done the same myself-- but it's more along the lines of, "The crazy person never asks themseves if they are crazy."
    If I ask myself, I have to keep myself honest. There are members of my family who have abuse problems, and I don't want to fall into a similar trap. I've found that I ended up regulating my alcohol consumpton just like I regulated my portions at meal time! Now I am more mindful, with healthier habits. I don't think that this is a bad thing-- just being cognizant.

  3. This post made me smile,Iam the mother of a alcoholic who today is 4 calender months dry and I am his mother and I don't drink never have and have never wished to,so there are plenty of us out here who also choose not to drink even when it has never been an issue,people say exact same to me don't you drink and I say no,just have chosen not too,we do have a right to choose what we want to do,and I often wonder why people are surprised at my choice,but beleive you me the reaction is just the same as it is to yours.

  4. I am so grateful for your honesty. The stories you share (among others like Heather and Maggie) have helped me start conversations with some people in my life about whom I'm a little worried. Even being able to comment during a story she's telling, "You know I hear your story in the context of my friends' struggles with alcoholism..." has opened up the conversation in a non-threatening way with someone close to me. Thank you for sharing so those of us who don't really get it can have some insight.

  5. I really love that you write so honestly about this. Thank you!
    On the part about people avoiding you at first. I had friends that did that. It hurt. But it made it really nice when my best friend would go to dinner with me, get coffee, whatever and not drink. I always insisted I didn't mind. But she just said, "I don't have to. I don't mind."
    She's the best.

  6. Don't you also think that not drinking anymore is just getting the biggest monkey off your back ever? I sometimes think about all the energy and time and gas wasted making sure I have had that bottle of wine.

    Can you please please PLEASE do a post on how damn long the afternoons can be now that one doesn't have Happy Hour to blur the time and the last part of the day? And how you don't get to eat an extra 6000 calories a day because you no longer drink....

  7. Sarah, I feel the same way for the same reasons you do. I tend to watch my drinking like I do my eating.
    But I really can't stand to be around people I care about when they are drinking and I'm not. I guess it stems from growing up with alcoholics, but if I'm not drinking and my husband or close friends are, it just puts me on edge. It doesn't happen very often, but I try to avoid it. I'm considered the light drinker in my group of friends so if I know I'm not in the mood to be around drinking or join in myself, I tend to stay home.

  8. HI,
    I went through exactly the same with my friends, at first there was suspicion and I think a huge amount of jealousy. You're also not in the same club as the drinkers and of course everyone knows that those who drank will most likely forget everything that happened that evening, except the one who wasn't drinking, which is why people are initially suspicious.

    But that is all gone now. Its been 5 years now and I'm one of the boys again, just one who doesn't drink.

  9. Johnny Boy - Yes, it's true that sometimes there does seem to be a jealousy factor, sometimes. Usually I hear about it the next day, when someone is nursing a hangover and talking about how they wish they didn't drink, but it's still there. And something else I didn't mention - I do feel a certain amount of pride that I can go to parties, have fun, have genuine connections with people and not drink. Every time I climb into my bed, sober, after a party, and every time I wake up the next morning rested and refreshed, I feel grateful. And proud.


    1. Hi Ellie,
      Still going strong, now 10 years sober. You mention pride at being able to go out without feeling the need to get drunk and relax. I've found life so much better now I've taken the drink out. Like most, i wish i did it years before, but I'm just glad i gave it up. Now writing under my real name, James. (previously johnny boy)