The language you use is very important, much more so than I could have imagined. The words “I’ve given up drinking” are loaded with symbolism for the recipient of this news and for you yourself. Let’s face it, this only matters if you were a regular high-end user of alcohol. If you were a “normal” drinker (more, much more, to come on that) you wouldn’t be telling anybody that you’ve decided to stop drinking alcohol, there would be no need for such an announcement, apropos of what exactly?, your bemused friends might say. If, on the other hand, you haven’t wandered in here off the street looking for advice on trout fishing, then you will be making that very announcement to two sets of people, so-called “normal” drinkers and your drinking buddies. The normies will wonder what’s brought this on and might even start questioning you on whether or not you have a “problem”. To those who have regularly accompanied you through several iterations of “just one more”, “one more no more”, “never again”, the response: “I’ve given up …” when they go to pour you a glass of the usual, or come back from the bar with a very large glass (these look enormous when you’ve stopped drinking, more like goldfish bowls!) of wine will be met with a variety of responses. Your erstwhile drinking partner, at this stage, might even start laughing at you and carry on pouring. “Heavy night? Why wasn’t I invited?”.
One of the first lessons I learned in my Master Class on living alcohol free (AF) with Soberistas was that there is a whole vocabulary of words and phrases available to the newly sober depending on who is asking, what the circumstances are, and the age and social circumstances of the now ex-drinker. I was initially surprised by the number of blogs written by people seeking advice on what to tell people. It turns out that Rachel Black (Sober is the New Black, 2014) had written a book on this very subject: How to tell them you don’t drink (and deal with the questions they ask) (2014).
If, for example, you are newly sober and feeling less than confident in your status, you might want to restrict conversations about it. You might not be ready for a full-on interrogation, questions like “Are you on a diet/pregnant/an alcoholic?”. “Is this temporary, you will be drinking again for Christmas/your birthday/my wedding/the weekly book club …?” for example. Likewise, if you admit that you’ve stopped drinking, it might appear to people that your relationship with alcohol makes you unreliable, subject to lapses in judgement, capable of acting irresponsibly and they may decide that you are not, after all, a suitable child minder/teacher/general practitioner/nurse/pilot, any number of roles that require clear headed reliability. They may have an image of the alcoholic as someone to be avoided. It is advisable to go carefully, be aware that there are issues of trust involved and it’s best not to trust people you don’t know very well.
I felt a bit like a stranger in a new land, where I didn’t speak the language and couldn’t read the signs. I came up to speed quite quickly when I saw the advice being offered to seekers of advice on this matter. A whole host of potential excuses were put forward, like being on antibiotics – but with an awareness of those antibiotics that interact badly with alcohol and which conditions they were used to treat, yikes! An early start tomorrow and a long busy day ahead. Taking a break after a heavy couple of weeks socialising. A diet. Driving. One Ista suggested, if someone asks “Do you have a problem with drinking?” to answer “Only when I drink alcohol, everything else is fine.” I loved that and am still waiting for the perfect question for that answer.
I was surprised because, perhaps naively, I had simply told people that I had stopped drinking alcohol. I don’t recall now whether I said “stopped drinking” or “given up”, either way I didn’t get any negative responses to the announcement and nobody made any effort to talk me out of it. This seemingly insurmountable issue for some people was a non-issue for me. I began to realise that I really was “that bad” (we’ll return to that too!). The people I told about my decision, by and large, appeared happy for me, supportive even. My bestest drinking buddy said she was disappointed that we would no longer share those occasions when we drank together, always to excess, but she respected my decision and has always supported it. Another friend asked if I considered myself to be an “alkie”, but when I told her that was a label I didn’t consider to be particularly helpful she immediately backtracked and to this day has been a staunch supporter. My husband, hereafter known as JW, received the news with enthusiasm and decided to take a break from drinking himself, to support me in the early days. He hasn’t had a drink since then either.
In light of my own experience it not only came as a surprise to find that others were experiencing difficulty with the reactions, responses and attitudes of others to their decision to stop drinking. This surprise quickly turned to indignation when I discovered that many people were hiding their non-drinking behaviour, even from their nearest and dearest. One woman went so far as to accept a drink at social events and put it down somewhere when no one was looking! I was horrified by many of the accounts I read and it took me a while to discover that there was a pattern emerging. Those who encountered censure from amongst their peers were invariably younger than me, still in employment and/or raising children – they were the Mummies, working or not. This raised a whole host of issues for me, some of which will be expanded upon in future episodes.
The language we use to tell people we don’t drink alcohol any more matters on another level too. There is a distinct difference between saying “I’ve given up” and saying “I’ve stopped drinking”, or “I don’t drink”. Giving up suggests that you are denying yourself one of the pleasures of life, suggests it not only to the person on the receiving end of this information, but to you too. The more often these words are repeated the more you come to believe that you are denying yourself something worth having, something that you can’t live without, almost as though you have “given up” on life itself. Announcing that you have chosen to stop drinking is much more powerful, it acknowledges agency, you have not given anything up, rather you have chosen a different way of being.
I don’t get asked very often although sometimes I volunteer the information in conversations where I want to talk about the role of Soberistas in my life. Recently I’ve taken to saying “I got into trouble with alcohol and so I stopped drinking.” Another Ista says “My life works better without it.” People often say “I’m sick and tired of being sick and tired”, the words of American civil rights activist Fannie Lou Hamer (Democratic National Convention 1964, Atlantic City). Whatever you choose to say, say it with conviction and then move the conversation on. The fact that you no longer drink alcohol and why, is nobody’s business but your own.
 My attitude to the term “alcoholic” has ebbed and flowed over the years. As a teacher of criminology I taught students that such labels reinforced the individual’s belief that they have an almost incurable disease and can have the effect of inhibiting them from tackling their addiction. This view has been reinforced over the years by other commentators.