Before I quit drinking over a year ago, I was a person who didn’t trust non-drinkers.
They were boring, I told myself. Goody-two-shoes, holier than thou. They were judgmental. I avoided them at social events. When we did interact, I would go on high alert because I self-conscious of my own behavior. It seemed that whatever I was holding in my hand instantly felt a little colder, a little heavier.
God forbid I do anything in front of non-drinkers that revealed how much I’d actually been drinking. It was a screwed up source of pride for me that I could “handle” myself when I drank, that I was never the sloppy one. But this hypervigilance was not the badge of honor I’d wanted it to be, and rather a sign that I was questioning my own relationship to alcohol.
As a writing program student, I’d bought into the stereotype that writing and drinking went together. I believed it the same way I assumed being sober made you boring. Before I quit drinking, I spent a lot of time fantasizing about sitting at a well-worn wooden desk, a tumbler of whiskey (always whiskey) close at hand. In reality, the last thing I wanted to do after a couple of drinks was to write. Drinking didn’t make me want to do anything, something I found increasingly hard to ignore as I edged into my mid-thirties. I watched friends hitting all these milestones, while I couldn’t for the life of me figure out how to exit where I found myself: On a distracting, no-end-in-sight hamster wheel of meh.
For all of my arrogance, I didn’t realize why I avoided non-drinkers until I got sober myself. It hadn’t been because of anything they were doing, but rather because of their easy, alcohol-free lives reflected back to me my own bad habits.
Why am I telling you all this? Because this cultural obsession with alcohol, and the associated stigma toward people who choose to quit, must change. We have to push back on the faulty narrative that if someone chooses to abstain completely, that they’ve somehow failed. We have to question why, despite alcohol being considered by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention as one of the deadliest drugs in the world, we still consider quitting the problem, not the drinking.
We have to question why, despite alcohol being considered by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention as one of the deadliest drugs in the world, we still consider quitting the problem, not the drinking.
Believe it or not, this isn’t a call for you to quit drinking (though, if you’re sober-curious, or want to support the sober folks in your life, there are so many great resources). Rather, it’s a call for us to do better. To imagine, and then live into, a world where it isn’t normal for 88,000 people to die every year from alcohol-related deaths in the U.S. alone.
One of the ways to shift the stigma is to start with how we interact with the sober and sober-curious folks in own lives. We have to reconsider how we might support people who want to change instead of making them feel like something is wrong with them.
Here are three ways you might consider interacting with a friend or loved one when they tell you they’ve chosen to quit, or are considering it:
1. Be Curious
Instead of assuming that a person is either a few drinks away from ending up destitute on the streets, or that they’re boring weirdos like I did, ask them questions. There are a zillion shades of gray between those two opposites — and you might be surprised what you learn.
Besides, it’s not true what they say about curiosity killing the cat. Instead, use curiosity to open up a new dialogue with your friend or family member about why they are considering or have chosen to quit alcohol. You never know what these conversations may bring and, truthfully, your questions may help to show them your support. Of course, there is a time and place for these conversations, and be willing to respect your friend if they’d rather not discuss it (see point numb
2. Be Willing
Next, turn the questions on yourself. Be willing to question why you drink alcohol — and be honest with yourself.
There are many questions to explore about society, too, like why we commend people when they quit smoking cigarettes but not when they stop drinking, or why we’ve all agreed that lowering our inhibitions is something to be desired. What can we learn about ourselves if we can’t imagine being social without a substance?
We commend people when they quit smoking cigarettes but not when they stop drinking.
Simply being willing to ask yourself some of these questions can help to reframe how you think about why someone might proactively quit shy of a crisis. Just remember: This isn’t about judging yourself or the person in your life who has decided to quit but simply to evaluate your own feelings surrounding alcohol so that, if you do have any negative ones, they don’t impact your friend’s recovery.
3. Be Respectful
If a person doesn’t want to talk to you about their decision, let it go. I can’t tell you what I wouldn’t have given, in those beginning days and months, for my revelation of sobriety to have been met with something like, “Oh, that’s interesting. I’m here if you ever want to talk more about it,” and then we move on, no biggie.
Those tender, already awkward days of early sobriety could have been so much different if I’d been met with kindness and respect, rather than concerned questions at best, total avoidance at worst. I know I told you to be curious, but it’s also true that as stoked as I was about quitting drinking, sometimes the last fucking thing I wanted to do was talk about it, especially if I was just trying to cut loose at a party (though, this time, without alcohol). Some people simply need their space when they first quit, and it’s important to keep that in mind.
At the end of the day, quitting drinking can be very scary for many people. Telling you — their trusted friend, colleague, or family member — can be just as scary and difficult. If they’ve shared something so intimate and private with you, it is likely because they are hoping for something; be it support, understanding, or simply for you to be clued in on what is happening in their lives at the moment.
Don’t make the mistake that I had previously made when I judged non-drinkers for being boring or having a problem. Instead, treat them the way that you would undoubtedly want to be treated if you had shared something so intimate with someone. Be curious, be respectful, and, most of all, celebrate their achievement (with a zero-proof cocktail, perhaps?) when they’re ready.