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7 Things Never to Say to Someone Who Doesn’t Drink (and What to Do Instead)

The decision not to drink is a personal one, but you wouldn’t always guess it from the comments people hear.

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Don’t Drink? You’re Not Alone

People choose not to drink for a variety of reasons—be it religion, health, dependency, or otherwise. In fact, about 20 per cent of Canadians do not drink. Yet, when someone who chooses not to drink conveys that to a friend, co-worker, or family member, the response is often met with incredulity and insensitivity. Here are some examples from real people of what people have said, how those statements can be harmful, and what to do instead.

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1. “Come On, Just One!”

“The worst thing you can say is ‘Come on, just one!’ That was the sentence that took my aunt from sobriety back to dependency,” says Carry S. While a non-dependent person may be capable of stopping at just one, people with addictions often can’t. For people with alcohol dependency issues, “the executive decision making processes have been compromised beyond their ability to ‘just have one,'” says Brent Canode, the executive director of the Alano Club of Portland, who also serves on the Action Network Advisory Council for Facing Addiction. Comments like this show a lack of understanding and empathy about possible underlying issues, and can ultimately cause a painful and dangerous relapse.

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2. “You’re Missing Out!”

“I always get comments like ‘you’re missing out,’ ‘don’t be such a prude,’ or ‘you’re no fun,'” says Krissy P., a sentiment expressed by many others who choose not to drink. Says Sheila A., “It almost implies that in no way possible could I ever have fun if I’m sober.'” In cultures where there is a strong emphasis on social drinking, statements like these are common. However, they can be offensive and also untrue. Says Canode, for people who choose not to drink because of addiction, the ramifications of drinking—including stress, drama, and misery—are what’s “no fun.”

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3. “Why?”

“‘Why?’ is the worst question to ask someone who doesn’t drink,” says Sarah T. “Live and let live! Do you really want me to break down my life experiences and what has led me to this decision?” Canode recommends: “Instead of asking ‘Why’ if somebody has expressed that they don’t drink, a better idea is simply to say something complimentary like ‘Wow, that’s great!’ And if it’s someone you are close with, you may want to ask them what strategies will help them stay safe in a drinking situation. Maybe they need to arrive to a party late, leave early, hang out with the pregnant friend or keep a seltzer in their hand. Helping a friend or family member develop a game plan before entering social situations where alcohol will be present can help prevent an untimely relapse, especially during the hectic holiday season.”

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4. “We Won’t Tell [If You Drink]”

“I stopped drinking in support of my husband who is a recovering alcoholic,” says Keshia S. “It took my friends years to understand. The most common thing they’d say was things like ‘we won’t tell.'” When a friend tells you they have made a decision not to drink, even if it is not because she or he has a personal problem with alcohol, support that decision. It may not be a decision you would have made, but you can rest assured that your friend came about the decision thoughtfully.

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5. “Er…Okay”

“Sometimes it’s not what they say, but how uncomfortable people that do drink seem to act around you for not drinking,” says Lindsey B. “I do think a lot of time it is them thinking of their own drinking issues. All their shame is seen through me.” Canode agrees that shame and stigma are “two of the biggest barriers impeding people from seeking help for a drinking or substance use problem. If we could find a way to remove the stigma, guilt and shame (through public education campaigns that reframe addiction and alcoholism as the diseases and public health issues they are) people would find it easier to make a rational assessment of their substance use and discuss it openly with a health care provider.”

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6. “Have a Drink, You’ll Feel Better!”

“When I’m feeling stressed/anxious/depressed, I’m always encouraged to drink to solve my problems,” says Allison R. The cultural message about drinking to celebrate, to be happy, or because you’re bored is a strong one in North America. However, Canode says, “the problem is, most alcoholics drank early in their lives to address those very feelings. While substance use might have proven to be a reliable coping skill at the time, eventually drinking as an antidote to experiencing difficult feelings becomes counterproductive and can manifest into the chronic diseases we know as alcoholism and addiction.” Rather than bury feelings with alcohol, Canode recommends investigating those feelings. One especially promising process is the Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction method, which allows individuals to recognize their stressors so that they can choose how to respond.

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7. “You Must Think You’re Better Than Everyone Here”

“A comment I often get for choosing not to drink is ‘You must think you’re better than everyone here,'” says Andrea M. Canode believes that these types of comments stem from old ways of thinking, that addiction is a moral failing. “Of course, today we know that addiction is not a moral failing. In fact, last month the U.S. Surgeon General released the first-ever report on addiction in America, declaring in no uncertain language that the disease of addiction is a chronic disease of the brain and the most pressing public health crisis of our time. I think these attitudes and misperceptions will persist until the judgment, stigma and shame around addiction is addressed systemically as a society.”

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So What SHOULD You Do?

When speaking with someone who chooses not to drink, the best thing you can do is listen. Says Canode, “Good communication starts with a simple goal: to have a conversation where we stay connected and actually hear each other, whether we agree or not. With compassionate listening—listening emphatically and without judgment—we can eliminate shame and stigma and provide an opportunity and space for real healing to begin.”

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Originally Published in Reader's Digest