Three things absolutely not to say and what to try instead.
People seemed surprised when I first admitted that not only was I not-drinking, but I was getting sober. As in, seeking-help-to-continue-not-drinking-getting-sober.
Sometimes they were surprised because I’d never really drunk with them and so they had little idea of my love affair with booze. Sometimes they were surprised because I had drunk with them, and the transition seemed unnatural. And sometimes they were surprised because I had drunk less than they did and they had no intention of quitting so why on earth would I?
Believe me, it wasn’t an easy decision to make. I spent years trying not to make it. My dream was to drink without the negative consequences. To drink moderately, on special occasions. I just couldn’t manage it.
And so, finally, after failing to keep away from wine for the hundredth time, I sought help to quit. And almost immediately, I began to be successful. Over three years later, I still haven’t drunk a drop of alcohol.
But my beginner’s luck doesn’t mean quitting was easy. In fact, in the beginning, it was hard enough that I believed it impossible.
If your friend has arrived at this point, where she is quitting something almost universally beloved by humans, trust that there have been more excruciating experiences than she is willing or able to communicate with you. There have been multiple emotional rock bottoms you haven’t witnessed, crushing lows that have pushed her closer to admitting this difficult truth: that she cannot drink and live the life she wants to.
Believe me, they will have done everything they can think of before they were willing to admit they had a problem. It isn’t a popular notion, in our individualistic, competitive culture, to ask for help. So be a good friend, and support your loved one to change their life, by not turning away or minimising their problem, but allowing them to take responsibility instead.
And please for the love of little baby Jesus please don't say any of these things:
1. “You can drink one day though, right?”
The ultimate dream of every problem drinker is that once they are feeling better, once the emotional/literal dust settles, they can drink again. And this time it will be great!
This behaviour looks increasingly insane as a person’s ‘alcoholism’ progresses. The woman who drinks after her husband says he’ll leave and take the kids if she touches another drop, for instance.
This same woman might offer reasons why her marriage was doomed anyway, why her family caused her drinking even, but the truth is she has lost the fight with so-called alcoholism. Scariest of all, she might not even know she is in a fight.
This is the confusing world of addiction. It resides in your mind, it talks in your voice. It is precisely as clever as you are.
The obsessed-by-pints voice in my head already tells me I can and should drink most days. When someone I love says it, out in the world, it can really shake me. Partly because I probably can’t drink one day (though I still prefer to take sobriety one day at a time than acquiesce to swearing off forever) but also because drinking alcohol really hurt me.
The suggestion I could drink one day used to make me question all of the work I’d done to get sober, and all of the ongoing efforts I was making to stay that way. It made me feel very defensive and very misunderstood. Confused and angry too. Don’t risk making your friend feel that way.
2. “I don’t think you’re an alcoholic.”
This one is always said gently, and with hesitation. The beloved person is trying to be kind to you, to prevent you from being tarnished with this frightening and unattractive label.
The problem is, a lot of the time, the person with the drinking problem doesn’t believe they are an ‘alcoholic’ either, and when they don’t believe they are an alcoholic, there’s a good chance they might find their way back to a drink. Thus begins the cycle. Again.
If your problem drinker is a good friend, they will likely have minimised the pain of their problem for you — they don’t want to ruin your day or be a drag. But some things require exactly the opposite treatment, for you to not play the issue down. Not to look away or try to find a quick fix.
Because what greater fix is there than simply saying there isn’t a problem?
Just because your friend’s drinking isn’t a problem for you, that doesn’t mean it isn’t a problem for them. Respect them enough to let them be the expert.
3. “You’re just having a hard time. I used to drink a lot too when I was upset but it always passed when things got better.”
This is what your friend has been drinking on for years, and likely there’s some truth in it. They are drinking because life is difficult for them at the moment. Perhaps life is difficult for them more generally. Life is hard for everyone.
What was revelatory for me, was flipping this idea around.
To consider that I might be having a difficult time because I was drinking.
Because if that was true then I had a simple solution. Remove alcohol. Not easy, but possible, with a little help and a lot of commitment.
This was a much more empowering concept. After all, alcohol could be removed. And life might be much easier in the future. This new idea quickly emerged as a beacon of hope for me to move towards.
What if everything I wanted was on the other side of my final hangover? What if drinking was the thing that prevented me from living a beautiful and peaceful life?
Reinforcing the idea that alcohol is a coping mechanism currently run amok offers less in terms of a longterm solution. Alcohol is the opposite of self-care.
So what should you say to your sober friend?
Tell them that you love and admire them, and try to support them in their quest to live sober in a booze-loving world. Offer them soft drinks and encouragement. Let them lead the conversation. They likely know a lot more about drinking problems and their possible solutions than you. Listen.
If they are very close to you, you might want to educate yourself about the sneakiness of addiction. Relapses tend not to come out of nowhere. There are signs. And though your loved one’s recovery is their responsibility, you might help them by recognising these signs. You may want to find a support group of your own. Al-Anon has helped lots of people who love ‘alcoholics’ lead a good life whether their ‘alcoholic’ is drinking or not.
Accept that your friend might be more distracted and less available for a while. Let them be selfish as they learn how to live without their crutch. Try not to take it personally, and give them space.
It was a while before I felt relaxed being around my friends who still drank, especially when they were drinking. Shame about the way I had been comporting myself, and even about getting sober, made me want to avoid certain people. I’m so glad that my best friends stuck with me as I worked my way through this transition.
The disease model of alcohol is contended and problematic, but for sure, this issue is centered in the brain. It lives within your friend’s desire, motivation and thoughts. It is deeply rooted, and it will take a long time to change. Your friend has to retrain their brain, create new pathways and healthy coping strategies to deal with the pressures and pleasures of life. It’s taken me three years to be free from my booze parasite, and I suspect my freedom is at least partially an illusion.
When a person admits something that makes them vulnerable, you are glimpsing the tip of an iceberg that has been tormenting them for years. “Sometimes my boyfriend gets angry” or, “I’m a bit lonely” or, “I think I might be ready for a serious relationship” offer insight into something this person has been struggling with for months, if not years.
Whether you understand it or not, getting sober is incredibly difficult. Your loved one has come to depend on alcohol to the extent that it has changed their brain function. They may very much not want to drink, while also wanting to drink. They might flip between these two positions in a matter of milliseconds.
This is confusing and exhausting, which is why they really need you to just smile and tell them what they’re doing is admirable, and offer them a soft drink.