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How to Tell People You Don’t Drink

Two women sitting at a table talking to each otherPhoto credit: Mimi Thian via Unsplash

A few years ago, I sat across from a sober friend who was telling a story about a recent outing with coworkers.

“We had to go to a baseball game, and I was the only one that wasn’t drinking. Most of the people didn’t care,” she recalled. “But there were a couple of people that just wouldn’t let it go.” 

It made her uncomfortable. “I’m just not in a place where I want to tell people that I’m sober. I’m not comfortable with that.”

Even in 2021, there is still plenty of stigma surrounding alcohol use disorder. My friend didn’t want to have to explain to these people from work that she was sober because she didn’t want it to potentially affect her job. That’s completely valid. 

And yet, for some reason, it seems like there will always be someone who just won’t stop asking why you don’t drink. 

It happened to me too, about five years ago. I was also at a work event and we went to a wine tasting. Most everyone was fine with the fact that I wasn’t participating but one woman just couldn’t let it go. 

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What I’ve realized over the past 12 years of sobriety is that most of the time, people couldn’t care less whether I’m drinking or not. They’re too wrapped up in their own experience and that is 100% okay with me. When someone is overly concerned about the fact that I’m not drinking, it’s usually because it has stirred up insecurity within them. 

This isn’t always the case: some people are just naturally inquisitive. In any case, sometimes, we just have to deal with these situations. If you’re wondering how to tell people you don’t drink, I can tell you that I’ve had the same question over the years, and the answer isn’t always the same. With that in mind, I’m sharing five different ways you can tell people why you don’t drink.

It’s a personal choice.

Sometimes, the answer is as simple as, “It’s just a personal choice I’ve made,” when asked why you don’t drink. This usually suffices for those who are less inquisitive. Still, there will be others who won’t just let it go with this answer. 

There are other variations to this answer that you might want to try that are a little more succinct but still illude to the fact that you won’t be drinking:

“I’m not drinking today/tonight.”

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

“I’m not drinking right now.”

“No thanks, I’m giving alcohol a break.”

It never works out well.

I’ve used this one quite a few times. For the person that won’t accept the aforementioned response and is pressing me for more info, sometimes I just say, “It never works out well for me. I have one and love it, and I just end up wanting more. I just don’t want to go down that road tonight.” 

People that understand this experience usually accept this answer and go about their business. If it doesn’t work though, not to worry. There are a few more options.

The filtered truth.

Maybe you’re at a work outing or a wedding and the people you’re around are familiar enough to divulge some of the details. Something like, “Drinking is kind of a slippery slope for me and I’m just not willing to take that chance tonight,” could work. 

You could also use something like, “When I start drinking, things tend to go a bit sideways, and trust me, you don’t want to be around for that.”

If it makes you more comfortable, say it in a light-hearted way and laugh it off a bit. 

The unfiltered truth.

This is personally my favorite at this stage in my sobriety, but it wasn’t always that way. 

I’ll be honest with you: For the first eight years of my sobriety, no one knew that I had a problem with alcohol. Most of my family didn’t even know. I was wrapped up in the pervasive stigma about alcohol use disorder, and I wasn’t ready to share my story. I know today that not sharing was perfectly okay and that sharing is also okay, so long as I am okay with the decision. 

One day, though, after I watched the world rip Demi Lovato apart for her slip—the one that landed her in the hospital and fighting for her life—I seethed at how stigma robbed this woman of support from the outside world. I felt compelled to write an opinion piece about addiction for a national publication. It was only after the piece went live on the outlet’s website that I realized, “Oh, whoops, most of my family still has no idea this is an issue I’ve faced.” In any case, they were about to find out. 

For me, it felt good. It felt like a weight had been lifted to be able to fully express who I was. The day I decided to out myself as someone who struggled with alcohol dependence was the day I could let go of a veil of guilt and shame that I’d been carrying around for years. 

I’m in a position, work-wise and in my personal life, to be able to do this. I realize that’s not the case for everyone because it wasn’t the case for me for several years. 

Today, I just say, “Oh, I won’t be drinking because I’m in recovery. I got sober 12 (or whatever you want to insert here) years ago.” If you don’t identify as someone in recovery or someone dealing with addiction or simply don’t want a label, you could say something like, “I used to drink too much and I don’t anymore”

That usually shuts people up pretty quickly, though sometimes it turns into a conversation about what made me realize that I had a problem with alcohol and how I got sober. Today, I’m completely okay with answering those questions.

It’s none of their business.

This is my other favorite answer and that’s because it’s true. It really is no one else’s business why you’re not drinking. “I just don’t want to drink tonight, and honestly, that’s not something I feel like I need to explain.” 

It really is that simple, but it isn’t always easy to assert one’s self in this way. Still, if you’re feeling forward and don’t mind if things get a little awkward, go for it.

* * *

Quitting drinking in a society that essentially worships alcohol is tough sometimes. We have to have conversations we just might not want to have. We have to answer questions we’re not ready to answer sometimes. No matter which approach you take, though, this is your truth. Your story. And you are in charge.

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