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Substance Abuse and Addiction Health Center

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When You Don't Drink But Your Friends Do

How to stay sober in social situations where other people are drinking.
WebMD Feature
Reviewed by Louise Chang, MD

There's no graceful way out: Your best friend's getting married. Your boss says the holiday party is mandatory. Your mom expects you to play Santa on Christmas, like always. But now that you're sober, you're nervous about social functions where everyone will be drinking and expecting you to follow suit.

"You should be prepared for those feelings," says Donna Cornett, founder and director of the Drink/Link Moderate Drinking Program in Santa Rosa, Calif. "Before you get there, say, 'I am going to feel awkward.' That kind of takes the edge off of the anxiety and temptation."

Although it may seem intimidating to face a familiar social situation without the comforting familiarity of a cocktail in your hand, you can survive.

"Over time, some people get so comfortable with the situation, they don't even think about it anymore," says Mark Willenbring, MD, former director of the division of treatment and recovery research at the National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism. "They order a club soda with lime, and it doesn't bother them."

Try these tactics to get through those touchy situations with minimal worry and no alcohol.

Plan Ahead

"Most people go into drinking situations cold, which leads to problems," Cornett says. Picture yourself arriving at the party, getting a non-alcoholic beverage, eating appetizers, and steering clear of the bar area. Focus on conversations and catching up with friends, not your desire to drink. Have the phone number of a supportive, sober friend to call if you feel tempted. And decide how long to stay before you even step in the door; you may want to leave before everyone gets buzzed.

"I hold a glass of soda and keep it refreshed, so no one else has to offer to get me a refill," says Laura of Chicago, a recovering alcoholic who asked that her full name not be used. "And if it's a 'party hearty' crowd, after a little bit, they won't even notice if I quietly leave."

Know How to Say No

Practice turning down a drink beforehand so you'll sound confident at the event, Willenbring says. "Look them in the eye, say it very firmly, and try not to leave an opening for argument or discussion," he says. "Some people wonder, 'Should I tell them I'm an alcoholic?' But just say, 'No thanks, I'm laying off it tonight,' and if they press, simply say, 'I feel like getting healthier.'"

The word "tonight" can be powerful when turning down a beer. Some people may pry if you say that you never drink. Maybe tonight you are the designated driver, have to wake up early tomorrow, or are taking cold medicine - keep them guessing.

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