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What You Should (and Shouldn't) Say to Someone Who Doesn't Drink Alcohol

Editor's Note

If you or a loved one is affected by addiction, the following post could be triggering. You can contact SAMHSA’s hotline at 1-800-662-4357.

If you experience suicidal thoughts or have lost someone to suicide, the following post could be potentially triggering. You can contact the Crisis Text Line by texting “START” to 741741.

The other evening, my husband and I went to meet friends for a lovely dinner out and they brought along their friend, “John” (name changed to protect his identity), whom we had never met. As always, within minutes the waitress poured us each a glass of ice water and took our drink order as we chatted and introduced ourselves to each other. My husband and I ordered a Diet Coke and a glass of Club Soda with a twist of lime. We noticed John’s shocked facial expression — just as we have witnessed so many times before. He asked, “Oh, you don’t drink?”

“No,” my husband replied.

“Like ever?” he said.

“Like ever,” my husband and I answered simultaneously.

My husband and I haven’t drank alcohol in more than 25 years and we very much know the reaction of others. For all those years — whether we are at a work function, a wedding, or a Christmas party — almost always someone says something. Sometimes we reply; most times we don’t.

1. A stranger: “You don’t drink? Why, what’s wrong with you?”

Me: “Wrong with me? Why would something have to be wrong with me?” I am met with an awkward silence.

2. A work colleague: “You are going to Las Vegas? Why would you go to Las Vegas when you don’t even drink alcohol?”

My husband: “You mean I can only go to Las Vegas if I drink?”

“Oh, I guess not.” Again, a blank stare.

3. A family member: “You can have just one. C’mon, here, take this.”

My husband: “No thanks, I don’t drink.”

4. An employer: “Why don’t you drink? What’s wrong, are you an alcoholic?”

My husband: “Nope.”

I am not going to explain my whole long, complicated life journey every single time I go out. Quite frankly, I shouldn’t have to. It would make people squirm and feel uncomfortable and I am not sure it would be the answer they are looking for.

Do they really want to hear I come from a long line of alcoholics? That I have watched the lives of some of the ones I love the most in the whole world fall apart? That my younger brother struggled with alcohol addiction and mental illness and took his life in 2012, when he was only 39? Or that my husband of 28 years and I are not alcoholics but that one evening almost a lifetime ago, after an alcohol-filled evening, we got into a fight that ended with a 911 call and almost divorce? All of these things, combined and many more, were our wakeup calls. We decided we wanted a better life for our children than to be surrounded by alcohol like my husband and I were as children. Nothing good ever comes out of it.

Just before dinner was served, about 20 minutes later, the waitress arrived with a bottle of red wine. She began setting wine glasses in front of each of us. Before my husband and I could say anything, our friend kindly interjected, “Oh, they don’t drink.” He said it graciously. Once again, John looked in our direction, “You don’t drink?”

“No,” my husband replied once again.

“Why? Are you allergic? What’s wrong?” he asked, one question after the other.

Without skipping a beat, I answered, calmly and matter-of-factly: “Many members of our families are allergic, only they don’t know it. So, we choose not to drink.”

Everyone at the table was silent for a second. They knew what I meant, even though those particular friends don’t know our history or our reasons either. My family members aren’t allergic. Alcoholism isn’t an allergy per se and sadly, yes, many in our family don’t acknowledge they have a problem.

“Good one,” my husband replied.

After taking a sip of wine, our new acquaintance proceeded to tell us all a story, one he began with: “Want to hear a really sad story?” Years earlier, John had owned a restaurant and worked with an amazing employee, “Chris” (name changed) — one of the hardest working and best guys he had ever worked with.

So, we were not surprised when he proceeded to tell us that, on many occasions, he asked Chris to sit with him after work and have a cocktail, which he always declined. I can’t recall if he said weeks or months later — it doesn’t matter — but after Chris had declined his boss’ invitation for so long, John finally said, “Listen, you do a great job. I am your boss and I want to thank you. I insist, let’s have a drink together.”

And then the four of us listened as he said, the very next day, something changed. That great, hardworking man became someone else. Chris started calling in sick to work and John watched, over the course of the next few months, Chris’s life self-destruct; he wasn’t able to stop drinking.

“How sad,” our female friend chimed in.

I remained silent. I was saddened for a few reasons. You see, I knew a man just like that. A wonderful, sweet, kind, soft-spoken, loving, hardworking man: my brother Brett. And what I know by watching him through his 12 years of attempting sobriety is the effects others’ comments had on him.

My brother was ashamed he had a drinking problem. He wasn’t confident. He had low self-esteem. He struggled with anxiety. He struggled with depression. He didn’t want to be different, or an “outcast.” He felt like he was doing something wrong, not right, when he was sober. He didn’t want to sit down at a dinner table or an event and have the finger pointed in his direction. “What is wrong with you? Why don’t you drink?” — years of comments just like my husband and I continue to receive 25 years later. These comments are not only from strangers but sometimes from family as well. Our own father, fearing he would lose his favorite drinking buddy, wouldn’t even encourage and support their having a sober evening, let alone a sober life. That became another reason for my brother, harboring guilt and shame, and believing his relationship with his own parent depended on this “male bonding.” My brother, just like Chris, couldn’t have even one drink. Ever. One becomes two, becomes three, and ends in destruction.

What is also incredibly sad is that this man sitting across from me at the dinner table didn’t learn anything from that experience. No life’s lesson. No insight. He still has no idea he was a huge part of that person’s downhill spiral. That, although unintentional, those comments are a form of bullying. Ridiculing. Shaming. And not only can words affect someone else’s attempt at sobriety but their mental health as well.

Chris had been doing the right thing — saying no on numerous occasions until he felt saying no was no longer an option. I know some people may disagree with me — why can’t you just be honest with your employer about your alcoholism? But that is naïve. There is probably, more often than not, a fear not only of judgment but also fear of losing your job if people were to find out.

I sat silently when he finished his story. I could have told John about my brother, or that he missed an opportunity to learn about what it is like for around 164 million people worldwide who struggle with substance use disorder. There is not only shame and stigma from society, but often behind closed doors in our own families as well. But I didn’t. I didn’t want to make him feel uncomfortable, embarrassed or ashamed. Sometimes we have to sit back and just listen. Maybe that’s another important life’s lesson. Absorb. Listen.

So, what should you say when I say I don’t drink alcohol? The same thing you should say to anyone. Nothing. Absolutely nothing.

Jodee Prouse is a speaker and outspoken advocate for childhood trauma and its connection to addiction and mental illness. She is the author of the powerful memoir, “The Sun is Gone: A Sister Lost in Secrets, Shame and Addiction and How I Broke Free.” She has written articles for The Mighty, The Fix, Iam1in4, Thought Catalog, Recovery Today Magazine and Sober World Magazine. To learn more, visit www.jodeeprouse.com

Photo by Bruce Mars from Pexels

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