When You Don't Drink But Your Friends Do

How to stay sober in social situations where other people are drinking.

Medically Reviewed by Louise Chang, MD on December 10, 2009
5 min read

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. Learn more: Tips for sobriety.

"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."

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.

Maybe you always downed a six-pack while watching football with the guys, so it's challenging to get through a Super Bowl party sober. Or you always drank when you smoked socially, so being offered a cigarette at a party might make you crave liquor. Any activity that you've closely paired with alcohol in the past may trigger the desire to drink, Willenbring says. Turning down a cigarette, an invitation to a Super Bowl party, or another problem activity can help you avoid high-risk situations.

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."

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."

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."

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.

"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.