Author’s note: This blog was originally written for our friends at Sunnyside (formerly known as Cutback Couch).
I help guide the organization, Better Drinking Culture (BDC)—a grassroots movement aimed at shifting our culture’s relationship with alcohol in a healthier and more positive direction. We’ve created an inclusive platform safe for anyone who desires a life free from the pain, harm, and regret associated with the negative consequences of alcohol. To be clear, BDC is not anti-alcohol. Rather, we advocate for making mindful drinking aspirational. If you do drink, we encourage you to do so within your own personal limits. And, if that limit is zero, that’s to be equally supported. Fighting the good fight hasn’t always been easy because of stigmas associated with alcohol. In an effort to impact change, we opt to confront them head on.
You are not a disgrace if you drink. Nor should you be shamed if you do by those who don’t. Your relationship with alcohol is unique to you, and one that shouldn’t be hidden. As we learn to be mindful about our consumption we equip ourselves with a practical skillset to approach our drinking with a healthier perspective. In turn, modeling positive behaviors ourselves empowers others to do the same. Combined, we create a safe space in which to reframe the conversation about alcohol, which effectively diffuses the stigmas associated with it that otherwise keep it taboo. We normalize drinking better by talking about it—that means the good, the bad, and the ugly.
Similar to other innocuous characteristics that make you you, biases against a lifestyle that includes alcohol are reinforced by preconceived notions rooted in stigma. Those who have stumbled before us, imbibing without caution, unknowingly and likely unintentionally made it difficult for us to talk about our alcohol use. As we realize the benefits of cutting back we can both leave a trail of breadcrumbs for those also curious and be a guiding light for those who are ready to ditch the stigma of what it means to be a “drinker.”
Why drinking gets a bad rap
When it comes to drinking, sometimes it feels like we’re damned if we do and damned if we don’t. Problematic drinking—those behaviors that put us or others in harm’s way—and total abstinence, go figure, both earn sideways glances from those who identify with the opposing camp. The reason is because we’ve been up against an archaic drinking culture that tends to approach the topic in absolutes: prevention or recovery. Both schools of thought are well-intended and make sense when addressing the appropriate audience and circumstance, but they exist on their own islands. Advocates of the former try to protect against certain undeniable harms while stakeholders of the latter are tasked with doing damage control after unhealthy relationships with alcohol have already put a person at risk.
You can’t fault either side. They exist for good reason. Science tells us that no amount of alcohol is good for us at a younger age. Until our brains fully develop, which generally doesn’t happen until our mid-20s, alcohol should realistically be avoided. And, yeah, bummer warning—that unfortunately conflicts with overlapping milestones like college, our 21st birthday, your best friend’s wedding, and a carafe of vino while slurping pasta and backpacking across Europe during a gap year. If you can’t wait until it’s safe for your still-developing brain, tread lightly friends. Your older, more mature brain will end up appreciating the wise decisions you made while it was in its prime.
Adulting is hard, and sometimes our responses to it don’t do drinking’s reputation any good. Pressures of social norms demand drinking be an expected rite of passage. You can check the box again, but it doesn’t come with a set of instructions. The alluring rewards of being accepted by our idolized friend group or the temporary relief that comes with drinking to cope tend to override what should otherwise keep us safe. And so we learn to drink one inebriated misstep after another.
Thus, the historical necessity of prevention now seems to make more sense. But, once the room starts spinning off its axis in that familiar, vicious cycle it becomes more difficult over time to regain our balance with healthier habits. Otherwise, if our relationship with alcohol becomes permanently severed we must be prepared to adjust to a life perpetually in recovery without it. An elusive middle ground has remained a mirage.
The struggle within
No self-respecting drinker would ever show their cards and tell you they have a problem. That would admit weakness and expose a character flaw, right? False. But, the struggle is real. Why? Because society intimidates us into hiding or rationalizing our drinking. What would anyone do if backed into a corner and had their identity and self-confidence threatened? Defend themselves. Understandably so.
As long as you’re not putting yourself or others in a compromising position, your drinking is really none of our business. Right? Read that again, though: “As long as...” This is where the issue starts to get a little uncomfortable because it’s at the precise mile marker where the crossroads of denial and well-being intersect. This is also about the time when you may notice others inquiring about your drinking. The pressure of being under a microscope can make us feel (more) self-conscious, which adds fuel to stigma’s flame. Some people may fear the idea of drinking less or getting sober because of the potential heightened self-awareness that commonly comes during one’s recovery. But, we can’t continue down both roads at the same time, so it requires a candid conversation with a few hard truths. Remember, this is a safe space, so no judgment.
First, we have to reject any whispers of self-deprecating inner dialogue. Don’t tolerate the harassment from the tiny red devil loitering on your shoulder. Flick him the F off. Second, with distractions aside, it’s time to look at ourselves in the mirror. Proceed at a pace that’s comfortable for you. When you’re ready, ask yourself why you might be even the slightest bit apprehensive sharing openly about your drinking. Consider whether it has anything to do with the frequency, volume, or reason(s) why you consume. If the thought of answering it triggers anxiety—common tells being a knot in your stomach or warm pressure in your chest right about where your heart is—then perhaps now is the perfect time to pause, reflect, and evaluate. Deep breath… Still with me? You got this.
While we cannot control someone else’s reaction, we have full authority to protect our health and autonomy without apology. Own that shit. Succumbing to alcohol’s tempting stigmas continues to feed its power over us. It prevents us from improving our habits (or getting sober) because any positive change in behavior effectively signals to our critics that we had (or have) a problem. Ashamed and more vulnerable to that criticism, we remain silent and feel isolated in the dark. And nothing changes. And that sucks. But, there is a light switch in the room.
We must not allow our struggle, no matter how seemingly insignificant or daunting, or someone else’s hurtful ignorance to be an excuse to repeat the same mistakes. Smashing the stigma requires guts. And allies. Surround yourself with people who care about you, not those impressed by how high your tolerance is. If they’ve ever seen you low or at your worst, imagine their love and support watching you live your best life! That bold transparency shows courage and demonstrates strength. There is zero shame in taking care of yourself.
A more mindful, vocal approach
Not talking about (our) drinking can have an adverse effect in perpetuating its stigmas, so it’s time to speak up. Sometimes with a polite, empathic invitation for those interested and paying attention. Sometimes with a megaphone for the people in the back. In both cases, one thing is consistent—we need to engage the conversation. We’d be doing you an injustice if we continued tip-toeing around the sensitive stuff. These matter-of-fact conversations are long overdue.
If you need help calling out the elephant in the room, we got you. To spark the convo with a diverse group of your people, here’s some perspective on how you might consider talking to...
Before you can put a noticeable dent in alcohol’s stigmas, you’ve got to make sure that you’re in the right headspace to tackle what you’re going to be up against. Whether it’s unrelenting marketing by the alcohol industry or pressure from those who have yet to understand the power of empathy for others, you may, at first, feel uncomfortable talking about your alcohol use, particularly if you feel it’s problematic. Focus on positive self-talk and affirmations to get over any initial hurdles that might make the rest of the journey intimidating.
Your friends who already drink mindfully or live a sober lifestyle
These are going to be your people, at least until you’ve honed in on the self-confidence to share what you’re struggling with as much as you should also celebrate your progress. They probably won’t hurt either if you kept ‘em around after. Whether your goals are to moderate your consumption or entertain the sober-curious movement, these folks can provide some boots-on-the-ground insight. Ask questions, pick their brains. Find out what's both difficult for them in having a relationship with alcohol as well as what benefits they experience as a result of drinking better or living an alcohol-free lifestyle. Just tread lightly around anyone who may be too all-or-nothing extreme in their approach to sobriety. On occasion, that can be counterproductive for some.
Your drinking buddies
This is probably going to be one of the toughest types of relationships with which to address. They were your people, your coping network, your crutch. If you’re serious about ditching the hangovers as much as the stigmas, you’re going to have to get a little transparent and vulnerable with your crew. Keep in mind that they may not be ready to admit that they’re consuming more than they know they should. They deserve dignity, too, but that doesn’t exempt them from respecting boundaries you may have to establish in order to protect your friendships. If keeping them is still good for you. If not, now’s the time to audit your circle. Be honest with them and state explicitly why you can no longer joke about pre-gaming before intentionally getting drunk as your go-to social activities.
You were chosen, and brought into this world without any say in who your family is. It should go without saying that they should love you unconditionally. That should also include the ability to talk about your (or their) alcohol use without risk of alienation. They should also want the best for you and be a trusted source for authentic, wholesome love and support. But, family bridges can be burned, too—both ways. Maybe a family member is struggling with their drinking, and maybe you’re the one who can help them rid themselves of their own shame. You’ll find that even the most difficult conversations are easier when we come from a place of love and grace. And, similar to how you may have to evaluate your friend group, as suggested above, it’s okay and healthy to set boundaries with your blood, too.
They want you to perform at your highest level. You should. You are too important to get out of bed to go into a job that isn’t good for you only to end up half-assing it because you’re uninspired or feel too threatened to be human. You can test how healthy your current career path is by how your boss sets the standard for company drinking policies. If there are none, then we have a problem. Participating in office Happy Hour that starts on Tuesday at 1:00 p.m. perpetuates a whole list of potentially problematic scenarios, none of which ever end well. Call it out. Tell them that making your month-end goal takes precedence. If you want to be successful, but think your ceiling is limited because you’re not playing into office politics that aren’t considerate of all types of drinkers, perhaps you skip Happy Hour and finally start that side hustle you’ve been eyeing.
Bartenders and servers
Push back against their lame jokes that assume you’re there to get hammered. Tell them you actually enjoy the taste of alcohol and also waking up before noon. If you work in the industry, you know this opens the door to an entirely different, equally significant conversation, which we’ll eventually unpack. But know that the service industry is riddled with unhealthy coping mechanisms and a shameless lack of internal support. This translates into setting up patrons for failure because those who are responsible for serving alcohol already may not be in the business of respecting it themselves. To navigate a bar’s pressure for you to have “just one more,” try asking them about their selection of low or no-ABV options, smaller pour sizes, or what they do to support their staff in advocating for a better drinking culture. If you’re met with a deer in headlights, you might want to start posting up at another local spot.
Your social media network
Unfollow everything and everyone that triggers a negative response. Stop liking, hearting, and lol’ing posts that glorify and make light of excessive consumption. Otherwise, they will not think twice about turning you into the next viral meme if they catch you passed out with your shoes on. Listen closely—they are not laughing with you. #endrant
Lastly, here we have another similarly unjustly stigmatized topic: mental health. This, as we generally understand, can be affected by problem-drinking and vice versa. If you drink to cope, it’s time to evaluate some things for your own good. Do so by talking about it with a professional. Take it from yours truly, this may be the single most important person you talk to, especially if you’re having trouble talking to yourself in a positive, healthy way. They will help you identify root causes and empower you with the ability to navigate the tough conversations that sooner or later need to be had.
The beauty of all of this is that your experience matters, and talking about it openly and honestly is the sharpest tool you have. The insight into your own journey is a wealth of perspective that others can lean on for the same support we’ve needed ourselves one time or another. Consider this an open invitation. So, start talking, and use your outside voice because you deserve to be heard.