More than 23 million people are estimated to be in recovery from addiction to alcohol and other drugs. With prominent individuals like former Congressman Patrick Kennedy “coming out” publicly – in a new book and on shows like “60 minutes” – about family alcohol “secrets” (including his own), you’d think that stigma would be lessening about having had a substance use disorder.
You’d also expect that guidance would be abundant about how to decline alcohol in the many social situations in which alcohol flows freely in our society.
The Issue of Handling Social Situations
According to the authors of a small, new qualitative study published in Health Communication on how former problem drinkers handle disclosure about being abstinent, Alcoholics Anonymous (AA) – the world’s largest support for such people – offers little guidance about how to handle social situations that can place people at risk for drinking again.
Two recent studies of non-drinking college students found they were ostracized, mocked, and bullied because they violated drinking norms of their schools.-Anne FletcherNorth Carolina State University’s Lynsey Romo, Ph.D. and colleagues also cite numerous studies concerning the stigma of being a nondrinker, even for those who choose that route for reasons other than having a history of problem drinking – say, because of a health issue. Two recent studies of non-drinking college students found they were ostracized, mocked, and bullied because they violated drinking norms of their schools. Disclosing that you are in recovery or were an alcoholic can lend even more of a black mark.
As part of a larger study on non-drinkers in general – not just people in recovery – Dr. Romo and several colleagues in communication studies published their findings on how a subgroup of 11 former problem drinkers handle disclosure about not drinking. The participants, who had between 1 and 19 years of sobriety, were interviewed by telephone or in person.
The Common Thread
After looking for patterns and themes, the researchers found that one common thread was concealing their nondrinking status to fit in. All of them hid the fact that they didn’t drink when they felt more costs than benefits would result. (One man compared his nondrinking status to being a Democrat in his conservative Texas town and said it would do him no good to let people know he doesn’t drink.)
…the researchers found that one common thread was concealing their nondrinking status to fit in. All of them hid the fact that they didn’t drink when they felt more costs than benefits would result.-Anne FletcherSome gave reasons for not drinking that didn’t pertain to having had an alcohol problem – for instance, abstaining helped them lose weight or feel better. Many skirted the issue by saying things like they had to drive home, and some tried to pass as drinkers – particularly early in sobriety – by doing things like holding a cup at an event. Some used humor. They generally didn’t reveal their primary reason for not drinking, that they’d had a problem with alcohol. However, about half of them would open up if they felt it would inspire other problem drinkers to quit, and most indicated that they go out of their way to reassure drinkers that they’re not judging them for drinking.
Dr. Romo’s group stressed that its findings can’t be generalized in large part because of its small size. However, it makes me reflect on all the times when people said things to me like, “You can have just one, can’t you?” or “You’re not really an alcoholic, are you?” The study shows how important it is to be considerate and supportive of nondrinkers, whatever their reason for being abstinent. Moreover, nondrinkers shouldn’t be pushed to disclose the rationale for their choice.
Building Resistance Skills
AA’s “Big Book” recommends that in order to minimize drink offers members disclose to their friends “at a proper time and place” why alcohol “disagrees” with them. AA also suggests reassuring people not to act differently around them. However, in recovery groups, there’s often talk about “people, places, and things” associated with past use of alcohol and drugs. The idea is to avoid triggers like former using buddies, places (like bars) at which you drank, and items such as special glasses used for drinking or paraphernalia for drug use.
Since triggers are prevalent and social pressure from friends, colleagues, and relatives can make it hard to quit or cut back, the National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism (NIAAA) offers guidelines to help people refuse drinks in its “Rethinking Drinking” materials. (Many could be helpful for drug refusal, too.) The NIAAA suggests first thinking about situations where you feel pressure to drink. Then, for each situation, choose some resistance strategies such as the following:
- Avoid pressure when possible.
Sometimes, it’s best to avoid high-risk situations completely. If you feel guilty about not attending an event or turning down an invitation, tell yourself that this won’t necessarily be forever. After becoming more confident, you may be able to ease gradually into situations you now choose to avoid. In the meantime, you can stay connected with friends by proposing alternate activities that don’t involve use of alcohol (or drugs.)
- Script and practice your “no.”
Many people are surprised at how hard it can be to say no the first few times. You can build confidence by scripting and practicing your lines. First imagine the situation and the person who’s offering the drink. Then write both what the person will say and how you’ll respond, whether it’s a broken record strategy or your own unique approach. Rehearse it out loud to get comfortable with your phrasing and delivery. Consider asking a supportive person to role-play with you, someone who would offer realistic pressure to drink and honest feedback about your responses. Whether you practice through made-up or real-world experiences, you’ll learn as your skills grow over time.
- Ask others to refrain from pressuring you or drinking in your presence. (This can be hard.)
- Have non-alcoholic drinks always in hand.
It’s great when hosts are thoughtful about providing nonalcoholic alternatives such as flavored water or iced tea for nondrinkers. But often don’t. So BYO just in case there’s nothing special for non drinkers at social gatherings where booze is served.
- Practice coping skills for situations you can’t avoid.
When going to an event at which you know alcohol will be served, it’s important to have resistance strategies lined up in advance, such as the following:
- If expecting drink offers, be ready with a convincing “no thanks.” Be clear and firm, yet friendly and respectful.
- Avoid long explanations, hesitation, and vague excuses since they tend to prolong the discussion and provide more of an opportunity to give in.
- Look directly at the person and make eye contact.
- For those who persist, plan a series of more assertive responses such as, “No thank you;” “No, thanks, I don’t want to”; “I’m cutting back/not drinking now to get healthier – I’d appreciate your helping me out.”
- Use the “broken record” strategy – that is, each time the person makes a statement, simply repeat the same short, clear response – for instance, “No thanks, I don’t want one.”
- If words fail, walk away.
How Masters of Sobriety Handle High-risk Situations
For Sober for Good, I interviewed 222 people (I referred to them as “masters” of sobriety) who had at least 5 years of sobriety. (On average, they had about 13 years.) Here’s how some told me they handle high-risk situations, such as social pressure, one of the most common ways that people get lured back to drinking:
- Just say “No.” By far, the most common response when pushed by someone to drink was a simple, polite and/or assertive, No thanks.” Dorothy W. said, “I firmly say, ‘no thank you’ and realize the pressure is about them and not a shortcoming on my part.”
- Simply say, “I don’t drink.” Charles S. firmly and gently said, “I no longer drink.” Emerson A. told people, “Thanks, I don’t drink,” feeling no need for explanations. Marguerite sometimes handled her sales and marketing situations with, I’m not drinking tonight. (In hotels, she would decline taking the minibar key.)
- Explain that you have or had a drinking problem. A number of masters were blatantly honest. Janet C. said, “If they get really pushy, I tell them I’m an alcoholic.” Lance L. said,
“If they don’t know my history, they get a quick lesson.” Elise C. told people, I had my quota years ago.”
- Blame it on a health problem. Rebecca M. simply said that drinking made her sick. Quite a few others said they had an allergy to alcohol. Alison D. would tell friends and colleagues that she was on antibiotics which meant she couldn’t drink.
- Leave the situation. Annie B. asserted, “If they push, I leave.” Similarly Marguerite E. either left or walked away from the situation. Clarence C. excused himself right after business meetings before socializing began.
- Ask the person to stop pushing. Violet F. asked, “Why is it so important to you that I drink?’ Muffy G. stopped people in their tracks when they asked her why she doesn’t drink with, “Because when I drink, I tend to take off my clothes and dance on the tables, and my husband doesn’t like it!”
Adapted from SOBER FOR GOOD, © 2001 by Anne M. Fletcher. With permission from Houghton Mifflin Harcourt. All rights reserved.
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