Admitting you have a problem with alcohol and getting sober isn’t easy, but it doesn’t always become easier when you stop drinking. Sooner or later you’re going to face another challenge: telling people that you have a struggle with alcoholism.
Sometimes a period of life lived under the shadow of an addiction to alcohol takes place in private, away from public knowledge; sometimes it takes place out in full view of friends of family. Either way, you’re going to have to let the people close to you understand why you won’t be drinking around them, even if they had no idea you struggle or ever saw you drunk. For many, a true commitment to sobriety means no drinks, ever, and imagining that you can do it while keeping it a secret only means that by the time it’s too late to tell somebody—right as they bought you a round at the bar or poured you a glass at dinner, because they didn’t know you’ve stopped—you might be too tempted not to tell them at that point in time.
You Don’t Have To Tell Everybody Right Away
Particularly in our age of reality television and social media, there’s a perception that Big Reveals are part of getting sober. The intervention with everybody present. The Facebook post announcing your decision to stop to everyone you know. The public essay. But you don’t have to do this; in fact, it can be easiest to start small and private.
Try to begin on the people who will most clearly and readily agree with your assessment that you struggle with alcoholism—perhaps somebody close to you who had a front-row seat to seeing how you were harming yourself. If you are sincere and they are specifically supportive, the odds are high that they will be receptive to your news, increasing your confidence in your decision as you tell the next person.
Have A Commitment Ready
The path of a drinker is often filled with near-misses with quitting and periods of regret and apologizing. We have a nasty habit of often, if not always, forming a few codependent relationships and experiencing mood swings before a successful sobriety epiphany actually sticks. This means that people might already have heard you say a few times “I’m so sorry I drank so much last night” or “I got out of control, I promise I won’t do that again.” You should have a commitment ready to help them understand why this time is different.
The only commitment necessary, of course, is “I am sober now and promise to abstain from alcohol,” but it can help to also couple this with a more specific commitment to show you are serious. Your spouse might already have heard “Baby, I swear I will change” before, but what if you said, “I swear I will change, and to show you I mean it, I removed all the alcohol from our house”? Or showing that you are serious by pointing out that your commitment to ending your addiction is strong enough to take precedence over temptation right now, such as “I realize now I will be tempted to use drugs if I attend the music festival this weekend, so I decided to sell my tickets”?
A recent study by Harvard Medical School found that concrete commitments to sobriety (such as “I am definitely not going to consume alcohol ever again, beginning today”) resulted in statistically significant greater success at the one-year mark than abstract thoughts in favor of sobriety (“I ought to stop drinking” or “I believe I should stop”). Help put these statistics to work in your favor by sharing the firm commitments with people who can watch you follow through on them.
You Don’t Have To Tell Everyone, But You Must Be Ready To Tell Anyone
While you don’t need to tell everybody right away, the rest of your life will be filled with social situations in which people will expect by default that you drink, and each of them will need to be informed that you won’t be partaking. A coworker gifts you wine at the company Secret Santa; your friend abroad is visiting home and wants to grab a drink. Not everybody will need to (or should) hear your life story, but you ought to have something ready to say to put the topic to rest. In my experience, it has always been okay to say, with no further explanation or qualifiers, “I don’t drink.”
People will occasionally, naturally curious, then inquire as to why. Some easier chestnuts as a follow-up include “For my health” (technically, very true!) or “I used to, but I don’t anymore” (also true!). But further elaboration is entirely optional—when you say “I don’t drink,” that is completely okay to be considered the end of the conversation, even if the other party does not acknowledge as such. I have had to sometimes meet further pressing by simply repeating “But I don’t drink” in response to every question, and while it can be frustrating, it is unambiguous and leaves no room for misinterpretation.
Coworkers Are Optional
The only caveat to the above advice that it is always better to be clear with people is that in a professional environment, particularly in fields that have a strong “work hard, play hard” culture such as restaurants, tech, construction, law, and finance, an admission of an alcohol problem could be viewed as a liability by your current employer, or a character flaw among peers (despite the Institute on Drug Abuse defining addiction as a chronic disease). It is totally okay to keep this information from coworkers if it helps protect your livelihood.
Remember that religion and pregnancy are both federally protected statuses and completely legitimate reasons for any person, even one who does not struggle with alcoholism, to go from being a drinker to a teetotaler, so it is never okay for any workplace to incentivize or require drinking at work-adjacent functions.
For more information, the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration has a legal assistance worksheet on the intersection of alcohol and employment here.
Kelly, John and Green, Claire. “Beyond Motivation: Initial validation of the Commitment to Sobriety Scale”. PubMed Central. National Institute of Health. August 15th, 2013. Accessed January 3, 2016. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC3840075/