When I stopped drinking, one of my biggest concerns was how my friends would react. It might sound silly – schoolgirlish, even – to be that bothered about what other people think, but it mattered. Ideally, I wanted to stop drinking without anyone noticing. But that was never going to happen.
Back then, much of my social life revolved around alcohol. I’d meet friends for drinks in the pub. We drank cocktails in fancy bars. We downed shots in noisy nightclubs. BBQs were another excuse to drink. Even watching TV at a friend’s house involved drinking wine.
In the UK, alcohol is in our blood. Drinking is what we do. It’s our way of bonding and letting our hair down. It’s a bridge to fun city, helping us skip over the awkward parts of socialising and get straight to the good stuff. If you don’t drink, you can be seen as a bit standoffish. If you’re not drinking, then you’re not joining in. You’re refusing to have fun.
I knew people would be surprised by my decision to stop, because most of the bad stuff happened when I was alone. Around other people I was quite good at staying in control. So I suspected that some friends would try and talk me out of it. My biggest fear was that they might think I’d become boring. Or that I was judging them for continuing to drink. Or – worst of all – perhaps I would actually lose some friends.
So what happened? Well I’ve got good and bad news for you. First, the bad stuff: all, (yes ALL) the things I was worried about did actually happen to me. Eek. Urgh. Sigh. But it wasn’t as hard to handle as I thought. I coped. I moved through it. It didn’t derail me. And all is – by and large – hunky dory now.
At first I told people I’d decided to stop “for a while” because I was training for a half marathon (this was true) and because alcohol had been giving me bad hangovers and making me feel quite down (also true). Some people did accept that and left it there. But others looked at me like I’d just told them, very casually, that I like to eat people. My news was met with suspicion and a demand to know exactly why. They couldn’t understand why I didn’t have “just one” or “just a small one”.
Initially I put a lot of energy into proving that Sober People Really Are Fun! Sober People Do All The Same Things! But I had a bit of an epiphany about this in the early hours of one morning, during a terrible hen do. I was surrounded by comatose hens. The bride to be was just about conscious and she kept asking me why I wasn’t drinking, like some tape stuck on repeat. We were in a horrible bar turned club and I felt like shouting, “Look! You should be honoured that I’m happy to spend time with you without needing to use some addictive substance to numb parts of my brain!”
I didn’t say that, of course. But I realised that something was going to have to change, or else I’d be miserable. Nowadays I give everything a go – but if it’s crap, I just leave. I make sure I always have an escape plan. As a result I have definitely drifted apart from some friends. I don’t get invited to the pub as much. But on the plus side, I’ve become a lot more aware of who my real friends are – because they’re the ones who’ve stuck around! They don’t give a damn what’s in my glass because they’re interested in me.
I’ve had a couple of other big realisations about friendships and drinking. Firstly, most of my real friends don’t drink as much as I did. So it’s not a big deal for them that I don’t drink. Secondly, very few friendships are founded entirely around drinking. Most of my friendships have been formed through work, uni or even school. And as I’ve got older, catching up with friends increasingly means going out for a meal or a few drinks. It’s not an all night bender. It’s easy to kid ourselves that “everyone drinks all the time” but when you look hard enough, you see that’s nonsense.
I think I’ve changed too. I realise that not drinking makes me stand out sometimes but I’m much less bothered about that now. In fact, I rather like standing out from the crowd.
My advice for someone starting out? Roll with it. Know that there will be tricky times, but that awkwardness does drop away sooner than you imagine. Choosing not to drink is fundamentally a pretty reasonable choice to make – kind of up there with choosing not to smoke or eat gluten. Opting out doesn’t make you less fun or less cool. And most of all, remember that any friend who falls out with you because you don’t drink is not really a friend at all.
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