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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.

Use the Buddy System

For many recovering alcoholics, it's too difficult to be the only nondrinker in the room. Whenever possible, ask a friend or relative to attend a social event with you sober. Alternately, invite another recovering alcoholic. "Many spouses or partners will voluntarily stop drinking," Willenbring says. "I don't think it's fair to require it, but there's nothing wrong with asking."

Be the Designated Driver

This tactic won't work for everyone, and its success depends on your comfort level around people who are drinking. "Some people do find a positive role in [transforming themselves from the drinking buddy to the designated driver]," Willenbring says. "The group can accept them in a different way; they don't have to expel them."

For others, being the only sober person in the room can be awkward, and being responsible for getting other people home may be too much pressure. "I've been the designated driver before, but I don't like to do that, in case I want to leave early to protect myself," says Elaine from Aurora, Colo., a recovering alcoholic who asked that her full name not be used. "I make sure that I have my own transportation - either my own car or a taxicab phone number."

Accentuate the Positive

Staying focused on the reasons why you've decided not to drink can get you through difficult moments. "Really think about your payoffs for not drinking," Cornett says. "You won't have the hangover in the morning. Maybe when you drink too much you behave like a fool, so your reputation and self-esteem will be intact the next morning."

Consider Medication

If you're newly sober but have to be the best man at your brother's wedding, you may want to ask your doctor about medication that can help you fight the urge to drink. Only a doctor can decide if it's appropriate and tell you about the risks and benefits.

Antabuse (disulfiram) blocks the breakdown of alcohol in the liver. "It doesn't affect you unless you drink, and if you drink, it will make you sick," Willenbring says.

Naltrexone keeps you from feeling high from alcohol. "If you have a slip, it makes a full relapse less likely," Willenbring says. "It's much easier not to take drinks two, three, four, or five because that initial rush is blunted; it doesn't do anything for you."

Campral is another drug that is approved for treatment of alcohol dependence.

Have an Emergency Plan

"There's a moment, the 'oh, screw it' moment, when you're frustrated, hurt, helpless, and miserable, and your concern about the more distant future is overridden by the desire for some relief for that feeling," Willenbring says. Alcoholics Anonymous members call their sponsors, so opening up to a trusted sober confidant may help. So might leaving an event, even if it offends the host.

"Which is more important: a temporary misunderstanding by family or friends, or your life (and the lives of others you threaten by getting drunk)? Alcoholics who want to recover choose life," says Jim of Baltimore, a recovering alcoholic who asked that his full name not be used.

Reviewed on December 10, 2009

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