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When I'm Pressured to Drink Even Though My Illness Means I Can't

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“Go on, have a drink — you know you want to.” Who of us with chronic illnesses hasn’t heard these words on the rare occasion we get to attend some sort of celebration? For some of us, the answer has to be, “No, thank you.” But it doesn’t stop there.

When I was younger I could drink alcohol, and I did! Nights out, nights in, nights on the town. You get the picture. As I started towards my 30s I found that drinking copiously, but not to excess, didn’t really interest me any more. Then, I began to enjoy the odd drink here and there and I must admit that an exquisite single malt whisky on a windy, rain soaked, wintry night while sitting by the fire with my dogs for company was just bliss (living in Scotland, we get a few of these opportunities). Just the one and sipped over the course of a couple of hours brought a warmth and depth of feeling to me and whatever I was reading at the time. A comfort and coziness, if you will.

Along came severe myalgic encephalomyelitis (ME) and my ability to drink any alcohol ceased in one fell swoop. I had never equated my level of enjoyment with my level of drinking and as I was virtually unable to move for the first couple of years, it became a moot point. As I slowly returned to the “real” world I found my first social hurdle — how to say no when offered a drink. The saying no part was easy — it was what inevitably followed, and still does, that causes me to grit my teeth and speak through a clenched jaw. The conversation goes like this:

“Would you like a drink?”

“Tea would be lovely, thank you.”

“No. Do you want a real drink?”

“Yes, tea or water would be nice.”

“It’s a [insert the occasion here, like wedding/birthday etc.], you need to have a drink.”

“Honestly, just tea or water will be fine.”

“No. I mean an alcoholic drink.”

“I don’t drink alcohol.”

“Oh, you’re a recovering alcoholic?”


“Is it against your religion or something?”


“Then why don’t you have a drink?”

“I have ME.”

“Oh right, but everyone needs a drink now and then. Go on, have a drink, you know you want to.”

At this point my brain is swimming in a pool of “get up and walk away” and veering towards the “let’s explain exactly what ME is and every increment in that spectrum.” Instead of further wasting my energy I reply:

“I get really ill if I drink alcohol…”

I don’t get to finish before they interrupt with “Doesn’t everyone?” followed by them doing a bad impression of Monty Python’s “nudge nudge wink wink” sketch.

At this point I lose the will to live and wish the ground would devour me, as by now everyone sitting around us is watching and listening intently to this strange and alien conversation.

I usually end my torture by saying, “It’s OK, I’ll get my own,” which I find ends the conversation and the loss of my precious energy.

It is a sad statement of society when we equate how much alcohol we can, or do, consume with our level of enjoyment. Not everyone is able to drink alcohol and many of us with chronic illnesses do not want to lay our medical histories out for everyone’s perusal at an occasion that should be happy and filled with joy. I still remember the taste of my single malt whisky and the memories it invokes are wonderful. I just can’t drink it anymore. I know the person is trying to be generous and they probably have no inkling of what living with a chronic illness is like and they just want to include me in the occasion.

But by making assumptions, our lives outside with our chronic illnesses is made harder than it needs to be. We lose valuable energy, we lose time we would like to spend enjoying ourselves and all too often it makes us think twice about attending any celebration. So please don’t make an assumption, as it is one of the most tiring things I have to deal with.

Originally published: August 23, 2016
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