What will my friends think of my decision to stop drinking?

Health cannot attach to unhealth - When we choose to get healthy, unhealthy friendships are an unfortunate fallout of that decision.

Relationships are an interesting thing in sobriety. On the surface, it seems like you should be able to decide what’s best for you, and those around you would simply support you and do their thing. You do you and they do them. Unfortunately, anyone who’s tried to stop drinking knows this isn’t the case. We’ve been so conditioned, through mass media and popular culture to view drinking as the norm, so when someone stops or decides against it, it feels unnatural.

Drinking is the only drug that when someone decides they no longer want to partake, we label them as having a problem. We put alcohol on this pedestal and think of it more highly than other addictive substances like cigarettes, marijuana, or even cocaine. Consider the basic idea that when we’re looking at the adverse effects of alcohol, we label the category “drugs and alcohol” as if alcohol isn’t a drug. Alcohol is far more dangerous than all the other drugs we fear such as cocaine, heroin, and methamphetamines. We’ve been raised in a society that demonizes hard drugs due to their addictive nature while not so subtly labeling alcohol as a sophisticated social lubricant. I don’t know about you, but when I was growing up, the image portrayed to me of those using “hard” drugs was that of homelessness, while people who drank alcohol were successful, admired, and health conscious. Knowing that our biological disposition towards addiction doesn’t discriminate between alcohol and other drugs and that alcohol is consistently propped up as an element of a heart-healthy diet, which do you think ends up being more dangerous?

Alcohol is the only drug we have to justify not taking.

– Annie Grace, This Naked Mind

I digress, but it’s an important point when we start considering the reaction of those in our social circles. For this conversation, let’s take the whole idea of quitting off the table. Sometimes I think when I talk about quitting, it feels too long-term and definitive. More often than not, when someone is reevaluating their relationship with alcohol, they’re probably looking at doing 7 days or 30 days alcohol-free, not a lifetime. I am a proponent of this experimentation because when we start thinking of forever that’s when we get in our heads. Hell! I still get in my head about this. I don’t want to drink…today, and I want to not want to drink tomorrow and the day after, and so on and so forth. I don’t think about forever because when was the last time we needed to be so definitive about anything? So, let’s say you decide to take a break from alcohol, when you share this with your friends and family, you’ll encounter a few predictable reactions. Some won’t care at all, they might say “good for you” and that’ll be the end of the conversation. Some will be caught off guard and might be curious which could open an interesting conversation. And others might not like it one bit and will either spend time telling you why they don’t like your decision or spend the evening trying to pressure you to drink anyway.

The reason for the different reactions is that your decision to abstain from alcohol holds up a mirror for them on how they feel about their drinking. How much they actually drink may be irrelevant, it’s how they feel about their drinking. I know in my story; I was drinking very little at the end and I was also hyper-sensitive to those not drinking because it was my ultimate goal. This is where we start to feel the tension in our friend groups. I’ve always struggled to listen to podcasts or thought leaders in this sober space talk about this topic because it’s usually framed too simply as “true friends vs not true friends”. This wasn’t necessarily my experience. While it is true that my friend groups have shifted considerably on this journey, those shifts can’t be so easily summed up with the whole true friend explanation.

Friendships often come about and are solidified because of mutual interests and proximity. Consider your coworkers, fellow sports parents, church groups, workout buddies, and mom groups. These relationships exist because you have shared interests and proximity. If you were to stop and take inventory of your relationships, you might find that some of the people you interact with regularly might not be the exact people you’d choose to be around. That’s not a dig, it’s just the truth. Over time the relationships are strengthened because you’re consistently with them and you get to know one another. Friendship is formed and trust is built, it’s a beautiful thing. Now imagine that your child stops playing on that sports team, you change jobs, start working out at home or pick a different church to attend. With these changes comes distance in those once-consistent relationships. This is how it feels when you stop drinking because, in a lot of friend groups, drinking is the activity.

When I decided to drink less, the activities I wanted to partake in shifted as well. In my heavy drinking days, I loved to go out to eat and enjoy long, expensive dinners with friends. I also found myself going to bars on occasion or having nights out bouncing to different establishments. Even the way I did business was different. It often included nice lunches with wine or happy hours for meetings. When you remove the alcohol, those things just don’t sound like as much fun as they once were.

This subtle shift in activities had a profound impact on friend groups. As hard as it was in the moment, I quickly found that some connections had very shallow roots. It’s not that they weren’t true friends, they were, but our connection was based on activity and proximity. The friend groups that were hit the hardest were the ones where drinking was the activity. When I stopped partaking in the activity, it just didn’t work anymore and we lost connection. On the flip side, I also found that other connections, even if there was heavy alcohol consumption involved, weathered the shift easily because the activity wasn’t just drinking, and the connections were more substantial.

When someone decides to stop drinking or drink less, one of the hardest experiences to walk through is the relationship changes. It’s inevitable that some relationships will fall away and that’s incredibly painful. I’ve had many moments on this journey where I’ve felt alone and lonely. I’ve had to remind myself that what I’m doing is worth the painful present and moving me toward what I want my life to look like long-term. Here’s what you need to remember – if most people took an honest assessment of their friendships, they would find what you discover when you start healing, that a lot of our relationships are surface level. The other thing to remind yourself of daily is that you need to prune or cut off before you can allow for new growth. If you don’t make space for new relationships, it’s very hard to allow someone to step in. Trust my experience when I share that the healthy relationships I’ve allowed to form in my life are so much more life-giving and fulfilling than what I’ve walked away from. My work is only just beginning but I can see the fruits of this change already. Health cannot attach to unhealth so it’s natural that when you start healing, the unhealthy relationships in your life will come to a close.

As with every newsletter, there is so much more to say on this topic but we can’t tackle it all in a day. For now, trust the process. Trust your growth and continue to focus on what’s best for you and your path.

XOXO - Jess