Celebrating sober: How to support non-drinkers in a boozy holiday world

As we move toward a new year and the revelry that comes with it, there is a good chance we know someone who isn’t drinking or is thinking of giving it up.

A tropical, non-alcoholic Shirley Temple.  (AP Photo/Larry Crowe)

A tropical, non-alcoholic Shirley Temple. (AP Photo/Larry Crowe)

On Dec. 28, during a time of New Year’s Resolutions and right before “Dry January,” I will mark two years of sobriety. If you asked me a few years ago, never in my wildest dreams would I have hit this milestone.

For some sober people, this pandemic has made sobriety an even greater challenge as we face trauma, worry, and isolation. For others, like me, the biggest challenges are from social pressure and interactions when others. When many of us picture the holidays, we picture raising a glass of champagne with our nearest and dearest. When sober people picture the holidays, many of us picture a minefield of temptation and awkwardness. Even if we are just celebrating with our closest family members, we face questions and comments that could jeopardize everything we are working for.

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I am grateful that I stopped drinking two years ago. But I have dealt with a lot of questions and assumptions over these two years, as alcohol is such a big part of our culture. I have had restaurant staff give me blank stares when I ask if they have mocktail options and I have smiled through tears during social situations where people make jokes about how much they need a glass of wine.

But for every person who has made me cringe or question if I can really do this, there have been others who have really helped me feel like I can keep going. I have true, eternal gratitude for friends who send mocktail recipes or keep some non-alcoholic prosecco on hand for backyard BBQs, and restaurants that have non-alcoholic options clearly outlined on their menus.

As we think up our New Year’s Resolutions, or use this pandemic to reevaluate our priorities, there is a good chance we know someone who isn’t drinking or is thinking of giving it up. And while their reason is nobody’s business but their own, there are things you can do to make life easier for someone who isn’t drinking.

First, under no circumstances should you ask someone why they aren’t drinking. There are tons of reasons why someone isn’t drinking, from pregnancy to health reasons to substance use disorder to family history to personal preferences. People who aren’t drinking shouldn’t be forced to reveal sensitive information. Much like you (hopefully) wouldn’t ask someone about personal or health information, don’t ask them why they aren’t drinking – and don’t assume you know the answer.

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Likewise, don’t assume that everybody drinks. I remember being at a gathering of school parents, and someone making a joke about how it’s impossible to parent without drinking. For me, it would be impossible to parent and keep drinking. It’s understandable that people make jokes, but alcohol is a deeply painful topic for many people. I’m not sure there’s actually a solution to this, but I think a good start would be to lead with the assumption that alcohol isn’t for everyone.

And that’s where holiday celebrations come in. All year long, and especially this time of year, please don’t make the sober people in your life an afterthought. If you are hosting someone at your home, don’t just serve flat soda you have laying around or have sober people bring their own drinks, unless you are asking everyone to bring their own. Why not serve a mocktail or two, stock up on a non-alcoholic craft beer (they are better than they used to be!), or try something new?

This is a good way to show your support and care, and it doesn’t force people to out themselves as non-drinkers. If you know someone doesn’t drink, ask what they prefer, some people in recovery prefer drinks that don’t mimic alcoholic beverages.

Not everyone is comfortable around alcohol. You should understand if someone declines an invitation or leaves a gathering early, or you should think about removing alcohol from the equation. Alcohol is a big part of the holidays, but it’s not the only thing. If there is one thing we have learned in this pandemic, it’s the importance of togetherness. And that’s better than any drink.

As I hit my two-year milestone this month, I am so grateful to my husband, friends, and family who have stocked me up on my favorite non-alcoholic drinks, and who have cheered me on and supported me throughout this journey. The truth is, you can’t make someone be sober. Unless someone is ready, it won’t work. But you can support the non-drinkers in your life. And that’s worth celebrating.

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