How to talk to your mates about your relationship with alcohol
Because honest conversations can lead to a healthier approach
words Sophie Lou Wilson
In the UK, we talk about alcohol a lot. It’s in the texts that pop up on our phone asking, “pint?” Or the stories from uni about the time we did too many sambuca shots and threw up in the middle of the club. Or the friend who jokes about being an alcoholic because they’ve gone out for three nights in a row. Talking and joking about alcohol can be a way to relate to other people. You might not have much in common with your colleague who’s in her mid-40s and has two kids at home, but you can both bond over your excitement for that first glass of wine on a Friday night.
What we don’t like, however, is having difficult, honest conversations about alcohol. In fact, we shy away from it. This is partly due to the misconception that sober people are boring or judgemental. No one wants to hear about the wonders of sobriety when they’re ordering a round of tequila shots. But as more and more people question their relationship with alcohol, we should be able to have open conversations about how it’s affecting us.
Research by Google in 2019 revealed that 86 percent of Gen Z feel mental health is just as important a consideration as physical health when thinking about alcohol and 41 percent associate drinking with “vulnerability”, “anxiety” and “abuse.” However, just because more of us are drinking less, it isn’t always easy to talk to your friends about your own relationship with alcohol. Perhaps they see you as the group party boy/girl/person and adjusting to your new sobriety or sober curiosity means accepting you have grown out of that era. Or maybe they don’t think your drinking is ‘bad’ enough for you to be questioning your relationship with alcohol, but you don’t have to be drinking in the mornings or blacking out every weekend to decide you want to have a healthier approach to drinking. Sometimes the hangxiety just isn’t worth it anymore.
We often rely on alcohol and other drugs to have deep, honest conversations so opening up without alcohol can be a challenge in itself. Millie Gooch, founder of Sober Girl Society, originally downplayed the reasons why she wasn't drinking by telling her friends she had to get up early the next morning. "Unfortunately, this was only seen as a challenge to my nearest and dearest to get me to drink," she says. "When I fessed up and said honestly, ‘Drinking is really affecting my mental health and I’m actually struggling’, my friends could not have been more supportive.’”
Honesty, therefore, really is the best policy. “Try to be as honest as possible,” Millie continues. “It might feel uncomfortable, but the more info your friends have, the more empathetic and understanding they’re likely to be.” Opening up to your mates about booze could in turn make them feel comfortable talking about their own relationship with alcohol. “By being open about my sobriety generally over the past five years, I’ve had friends, friends of friends and even work colleagues come to me about their own relationship with alcohol so it’s also nice to know that being so open could help someone else too,” Millie adds.
You don’t have to tell everyone you know about your reasons for going sober or drinking less. You don’t owe people you’ve just met in a bar or at a party an explanation for why you’re not drinking alcohol. “You don’t owe anyone an explanation,” says Sion Hebert, aka The Sober Gay, “but I believe that if you tell your friends that you are doing this for you, they have no other choice than to support you. Last weekend, I went to stay with some friends and there were two of us in the group that don’t drink so our friend got us a bottle of Nozeco. It’s the little things like that that make you grateful for the friends who support you.”
Some friends might mourn the old you who drank until you got loud and funny and up for anything. Their feelings are valid and some friendships come and go, but the friends who are meant to be in your life long term will understand and appreciate your growth. At first, your mates might playfully tell you to “just have one” or try to encourage you to have a drink, especially if drinking together is something you’ve enjoyed in the past. Explaining your reasons for not drinking could help them understand and better respect your boundaries around alcohol.
“Try to remember that a lot of negative reactions are often a reflection of people’s own relationship with alcohol,” says Millie. “I know this as someone who really used to hate it when people said they weren’t drinking as it used to hold a mirror up to my own drinking habits.” But if you talk about your relationship with alcohol, you might get a better response than you expect. “The people I have talked to about my sobriety have either been interested in my ‘why’ or they have opened up about their relationship with alcohol,” says Sion, “but it’s always been a very mature and adult conversation in my experience.”
Conversations about mental health have improved vastly in recent years and more of us feel comfortable telling our friends when we’re not feeling great mentally. The next step is to open up about alcohol, too. You don’t have to hit rock bottom to talk about sobriety, moderation or adopting a damp lifestyle. If you’d rather spend your weekends doing daytime activities like going for walks or checking out a new exhibition, mention it to your friends. You never know. It might be exactly what they’ve been waiting to hear.
If you need help with a drinking problem you can ask a GP or alcohol service about what support is available in your area.
You can also phone Drinkline, the national alcohol helpline on 0300 123 1110 or Alcoholics Anonymous’s helpline on 0800 9177650. Both are free and anonymous. You can also visit alcoholics-anonymous.org.uk.
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