Getting past “I’m not drinking”

Why friends react badly, and how to get through it

But you’re so fun drunk!”

“I could never go out sober”

“How do you even stand drunk people when you’re out?”

“Isn’t it boring?”

“But how can you not drink when everyone else does?”

Do any of these sound familiar?

They’re straight from the textbook of social circle reactions to the news that you’re cutting down or taking a break from drinking. These remarks can make you question your decision and start to self-doubt, “actually, why did I stop drinking?” Or they make you feel isolated, as if no one understands your situation.

But let’s discuss an alternative narrative. As you become more familiar with your decision and you start to feel yourself gaining more control, you will no longer really need their understanding. It’s like waking up from The Matrix.

Why it’s so hard for people to accept socialising alcohol-free

The first obvious reason that hangs over our head like a cloud is our socio-cultural pressure. Taking a fairly brief look into the history of drinking in Australia, author of The Rum State, Milton Lewis says heavy drinking was an established cultural norm transported to Australia at the time of colonisation. The Rum State points out two drinking practices that were established then and still exist presently. One is ‘shouting’, in which each person in turn buys a round of drinks for the whole group. The other is a bit of a ‘work hard, play harder’ mentality where we award ourselves with an overindulgence of alcohol for getting through a hard week of work.

‘Shouting’ and ‘rounds’ come with many implications. First, it doesn’t give people much choice in the matter; in how they want to drink, how fast they want to drink and how much they want to drink. It also makes it harder to refuse a drink when you’ve reached your limit, and your limit may differ to the others involved. Once everyone has finished their drink, another person from the group will buy a round and so on. But what if there are 10 people in a group and you have gone out to only have a couple of beers with friends?

It’s not just Australia that adopted ‘shouting’, according to the Social Issues Research Center’s document on social and cultural aspects of drinking, almost all drinking places, in almost all cultures, have unwritten laws and customs around some form of reciprocal drink-buying or sharing of drinks:

“This practice has been documented in drinking-places from modern, urban Japan and America and rural Spain and France to remote traditional societies in Africa and South America.”

A cursory search for ‘the etiquette of a round’ yields some interesting insights:

Immediacy — Never accept a beer if you do not intend to shout on that evening. Shouting “next time” is not acceptable no matter how much interest is involved.

Egalitarian — No matter how much money is earned by each of the party members, or where their money came from, the same shouting rules apply.

Abstaining — From time to time an individual may wish to stop getting drunk. Ideally, they should wait till the completion of every group member’s rounds before abstaining from future rounds. If it is essential that they abstain mid-round, they should request a non-alcoholic beverage. This ensures that the first volunteer is not punished for putting their hand up first. It ensures group equality and it also ensures that the person buying the next round does not feel like a bludger by being remiss in their obligations.

From: The evolution from drunkards to alcohol connoisseurs

Australia’s ‘work hard, play hard’ psychology may be due to “a self-perpetuating cycle as work causes stress, which renders people more prone to addictions to substances and work,” believes Dr. Richard Wise, psychologist at Windana Drug and Alcohol Recovery.

“As stress increases the activity of brain regions responsible for drug seeking and craving, stressful work is often ‘addictive’ in itself.”

In fact, Roy Morgan Research found heavy drinkers in Australia were more likely to be males aged 18 to 35, single, earning a good income from working hard and long hours and over-represented among tradesmen. It is known that those enduring active alcohol dependence often seek out environments that facilitate and camouflage their drinking, like bars, pubs, RSLs and Friday night knock-off drinks at the workplace.

The Social Issues Research Center identifies a ‘drinking place’ as a facilitator of social bonding.

This function is so clearly evident that even in ambivalent drinking cultures, where research tends to be problem-centred and overwhelmingly concerned with quantitative aspects of consumption, those conducting research on public drinking places have been obliged to “focus on sociability, rather than the serving of beverage alcohol, as the main social fact to be examined.” (Campbell, 1991)

For many, socialising is one of the main functions of drinking. The Research Center points out that “the perception of the value of alcohol for promoting relaxation and sociability is one of the most significant generalisations to emerge from the cross-cultural study of drinking.” (Heath, 1987, 1995)

This is why it’s no real surprise that negative reactions and a lack of support from your social group can be the hardest thing to overcome, as people often feel as if your going without a drink is a judgment of them and the way they choose to drink and socialise. And, hell, in some situations this may just be the case. It’s important to be a realist about your situation and recognise that friends may be lost when you open up about your decision to change the way you drink. Understanding that they don’t have your best interests at heart if they’re not empathetic or supportive is not easy, but it is a vital process of moving forward in your progress.

Dealing with negative reactions from your social groups, family, colleagues or everyday interactions can be one of the most difficult obstacles to overcome. And while the decision to drink less does not define you, for most of us, our social interactions do on some level stand to shape our identities.

Just because you have changed the way you’ve been drinking doesn’t mean you can no longer have a social life. The association between drinking and socialising remains pretty persistent, but remember that you’re cutting out alcohol, not friends. Wine, not dinner. Beer, not footy.

You don’t want to fall into the trap of resenting your decision to improve your relationship with alcohol because you no longer enjoy your time out with friends.

Strategies to help cope with an unsupportive friendship group

Methods from cognitive-behavioural therapy, a highly regarded clinical technique as used in the Daybreak app, can help you deal with a friendship group that may not be as supportive as you need. One example is the recognise-avoid-cope approach, where the first point is to recognise two different types of social pressure to drink — direct and indirect. ‘Direct social pressure’ is when someone offers you a drink or an opportunity to drink. ‘Indirect social pressure’ is when you feel tempted to drink just by being around others who are drinking, even if no one offers you a drink.

The second point in the module suggests to avoid any pressure to drink when possible. Moderation is key, but for some just having a few is not an option — and that’s okay. Certain social situations may need to be avoided altogether if you know that the people there will make it difficult for you to reach your goal in changing your relationship with alcohol. If you feel that you’re strong enough to resist these types of social pressures, you can gradually ease yourself back into these situations.

The third gives some advice on how to cope with those situations that you simply cannot avoid by knowing your ‘no’.

“When you know alcohol will be served, it’s important to have some resistance strategies lined up in advance. If you expect to be offered a drink, you’ll need to be ready to deliver a convincing ‘no, thanks’. Your goal is to be clear and firm, yet friendly and respectful. Avoid long explanations and vague excuses, as they tend to prolong the discussion and provide more of an opportunity to give in.”

Hello Sunday Morning’s ambassador Talitha Cummins recently shared her relationship with alcohol, along with her simple guide on how to make socialising sober easier on you. She emphasises why you should do it for yourself and no one else:

  1. Don’t put yourself in the situation — changing gamblers don’t hang out in casinos.
  2. Arrive early, leave early. By 10 o’clock people are usually talking Spanglish — this is your cue to leave.
  3. Explain to friends what you’re trying to achieve before a social engagement.
  4. But most of all, recognise this is something you’re doing for yourself and you don’t need to answer to anyone.

At the end of the day, we need to recognise that the complex issues around social drinking are due to factors like our ingrained cultural expectation, other people’s expectations of socialising and our own self doubts. It will take a lot of campaigning, a lot of educating, enabling and understanding for people to start to accept that drinking doesn’t have to be part of your identity as a social individual, or your identity as part of a community. This is your road to follow, and if that road leads away from the idea of the traditions of social drinking and starts to lead elsewhere, we will support you to follow it.

Originally published on Hello Sunday Morning’s medium platform. 

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  • I have many issues with addiction dating back to my teenage years,

    May 9, 2019
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