In 2017, I was ready to admit to myself, and others, that I had a drinking problem. It was scary to write a personal essay about my excessive alcohol use, especially in a culture where drinking is such an integral part of how we celebrate, how we socialize, and how we cope. Alcohol is so entwined in our society that even though I was talking about my own struggles with alcohol, I had friends who told me they felt attacked. They thought I was calling them out because their own alcohol consumption was just like mine, or even more extreme. But I wasn’t calling out anyone. I wasn’t passing the blame for my own behavior onto my friends. I was simply owning what I saw was a problem — my problem.
Not only did some of the people in my life take it personally, but I found myself the butt of jokes in the circle of my friends who drank. I was suddenly Amanda “the alcoholic” Chatel, and that stigmatizing language made social situations trying. Was I allowed to have one glass of wine? Could I try a sip of a friend’s cocktail? When I decided to give alcohol the boot completely two months later, that’s when it became very apparent that my personal choice triggered some strong emotional responses in my friends — ones that made me feel self-conscious about my decision. When I told my friends I was going to stop drinking, I received far more negative responses than positive ones. I wish I'd know how to counter the hurtful comments my friends made, and feel secure in my decision to stop drinking.
“The most important thing to remember is that no matter the reaction, people’s reactions are never about you; they’re about themselves and their own relationship to alcohol,” Holly Whitaker, founder and CEO of Tempest, an online sobriety school and author of the forthcoming book Quit Like a Woman, tells Bustle. “If someone has a negative reaction to your choice, you have a few choices of how to proceed.” Although Whitaker says that when you tell your friends you’re now sober, you can expect reactions that range from supportive to defensive to curious, it’s those negative ones that need the navigating.
For me, I didn’t want to alienate anyone by telling them I was sober. I didn’t want anyone to feel uncomfortable, and I sure as hell didn’t want my choice questioned or to be baited by friends asking me, “Don’t you miss martinis?” I did miss them; I still miss them. But what I don’t miss are the blackouts that came with all those martinis, the hangovers, the questioning of what I had done or said the night before, and the huge dent that they put in my wallet.
However, the comment I got over and over (and over!) again was, “You don’t have a problem.” But I did. And I do. Before I was able to say, “alcohol and I have a very unhealthy relationship,” the proof was everywhere. Not only did I drink to excess when I was with friends, but I did the same when I was visiting my family. But because my family has long said I have a problem with alcohol — something that runs in my family on my father's side — I chose to hide it from them the best I could. I took to stashing bottles around the house, at both my parents’ home and my sister’s home. If hiding the fact that you’re drinking, then telling your family that your speech is slightly slurred because of a sleeping pill isn’t a sign of a problem, then I don’t know what is.
Although those outward signs were rare, I didn't need them as "proof" that I had a problem. If you're uncomfortable with how you're drinking at all, that's enough to merit examining your relationship with alcohol. For me, I decided to make the effort to try being sober in order to manage my alcohol use, and with that meant receiving comments that I didn’t need to hear.
“You don’t ever have to explain yourself,” Whitaker says. “This is your choice, about your life, and you don’t owe explanations or need to make cases for your decisions. I’ve found that I’ve learned the most about myself and grown my boundaries, from such conversations."
My personal journey with alcohol isn’t over, and I know it will be lifelong.
According to Whitaker, if someone responds to your decision not to drink with derision, or judgment, or anything other than support, the first approach is changing the topic of conversation, which can mean going so far as to pretend that the person hasn’t even said the comments they’ve made. The second approach can be a bit more direct: You can say you’re not interested in the conversation and tell your friend that your sobriety isn't for them to decide, because it isn’t.
“Third, you can state your needs and ask your friend to get on board with it: ‘What I need the most is support. I’d love it if you trusted that I know what’s right for me, that would mean a lot,’” Whitaker says. “Fourth, you can use this as a teaching moment, if you want to go down that path, and explain that you don’t need to qualify as 'addicted' to quit drinking; that you feel healthier without alcohol in your life and that’s the point.”
Aside from my two sober friends who didn't question my decision, the support wasn’t there. Interestingly enough, after I wrote that first article, the support came from dozens of strangers who reached out to me. While I was sober for several months, I didn’t stay that way. But recognizing my unhealthy relationship with alcohol and going without it for so many months ultimately changed the way I drink, which then made dealing with people's reactions even more complicated.
While I consider myself “sober” now, I will have a couple glasses of wine with dinner while out with friends, or toast at a wedding with one glass of champagne. That means I don't drink enough for my drinking friends, and I drink too much for my sober friends. It was — and is — an awkward place to be. Even having a glass of wine as I'm cooking dinner puts me between two worlds. I experience that feeling of being torn when I’m alone, then even more so with my friends.
“You mean we can’t even split a bottle of wine like we used to?” a friend recently asked.
“Not the way I’m feeling today,” I said.
I’ve finally learned when it’s an OK time to have a glass or two of wine, and when I have to say no. If I’m sad or angry, the wine is going to exacerbate it. I don’t need that. I didn’t need it all those years I drank, and certainly don’t need it now.
Whitaker says when faced with these questions and comments, “The most powerful thing you can do in any of these situations is remember that you’re not just quitting drinking, you’re also learning how to quit getting tangled up in other people’s processing. Work to stay neutral, to not get in to a conversation that isn’t about you anyway. Keep it simple — don’t react, allow them to their process and hold your composure… then steer the conversation to safer ground.”
In a social situation where people are drinking, Whitaker suggests asking about someone else at the event. “[For example], ‘how do you know Will?’ When you’re composed, people will follow that lead,” Whitaker says.
When we talk about reframing our relationships with drinking, whether that's choosing sobriety or intentional moderation, we tend to think about what we’re “giving up,” and not enough about how our friends and family are going to respond. That was my first thought: I was giving up drinking, I was giving up the social life I’d always known, but I was also giving up the sh*t that came with drinking so heavily and so often. It never once crossed my mind to think about how my friends would react. I felt I didn’t owe them an explanation until I found myself in situations where all I was offering up were explanations.
My personal journey with alcohol isn’t over, and I know it will be lifelong. While I know I can go months without drinking, I also know that, at least for now, 100% sobriety isn’t for me. I have made specific choices to limit my alcohol consumption, by trying to only date men who don’t drink and staying away from hard liquor — which are big steps for me — but I also don’t see the occasional couple glasses of wine with dinner as a problem. But that could change months from now; it’s still an ongoing process. And for many others who are sober, the only "healthy" relationship with alcohol is no relationship with alcohol, and that's OK, too. However, I do believe that recognition and being able to tackle those conversations with my friends is something I’ve conquered. As for the rest of that journey, it’s all about playing it by ear.
If you or someone you know is seeking help for substance use, call the SAMHSA National Helpline at 1-800-662-HELP(4357).