3 Ways to Avoid Alcohol If Your Friends Only Want to Go to Bars

I've written about this once before, but in the past week I've had two friends reach out to ask me this again. Happy to oblige.
Publish date:
September 4, 2013
bars, sobriety, not drinking

I mentioned once before that the question I get asked the most about sobriety (I reached three years this summer) is how to resist drinking in social situations. I offered plenty of tips in that article, which I still stand by. But a high school friend wrote me recently saying that she wasn't even wanting to quit drinking but trying to dramatically cut down for health reasons. She went on to say that she really needed my help because all her friends want to do is go to bars or go "get drinks," and it made me want to tackle the topic once again. So I present to you: Three scenarios which will give you a few different insights of ways to wriggle out of drinking -- if that's what you want to do.

Scenario #1:Your friends ask to meet you at a bar. You get there, order a Diet Coke, and when your friend arrives, she insists, "Oh come on, just get one drink. You have to. It's a tradition. I'm paying."

How you can respond: The main thing I would say is that it's only a big deal if you make it a big deal. Even if your friend were to stand up on the barstool and shout out to everyone, "Look at my friend who is ruining our whole night by refusing to be any fun at all!" -- that's your friend's actions, not yours. It has nothing to do with you. Look at it this way: Decide ahead of time, and then stick to that decision. (And know this: You are deciding that you are CHOOSING not to drink -- not that you can't. Big difference. More on that later.)

Absolutely no one can make you do something you don't want to do. Whatever long story of justification you tell yourself about why you had to do something is just that: a justification. I think it's great if you decide to drink even when you didn't want to do so (drinking is a blast!), but don't play the victim if you regret it again and again and act as if you couldn't help what happened. The decision is entirely yours. So own it.

If your friend is pressuring you (however good her intentions are) that you need to drink with her at the bar because you're there and what else are you going to do and "don't make me drink alone," you don't need to take on and internalize any of those pressures.

Sticking to your guns is just about having a backbone. I've had to refuse as many as 15 times the offer of a drink from someone who really wanted me to drink with them, and each time, it felt the same. It didn't feel as if my resolve was wearing down each time. Instead I felt emotionally removed from the situation. I find comparisons work well here. If the person were asking you to take off your clothes in the middle of the bar because it would make her feel more comfortable, your answer wouldn't change no matter how many times she asked. So look at her request that "you have to drink" as just that: a little bit ridiculous. You don't have to do anything.

Try saying: "Look at it this way, you can order a drink for both of us, and you can have mine too, so it's a better deal for you." Or: "I'm doing a new exercise program, and I can't have any alcohol as part of it during the weekdays." Or, as I said in the other article, the old standby of "I'm on antibiotics" is always a sure-fire way to refuse. You can be on antibiotics forever for as far as anyone else is concerned. Really, it's none of their business.

Scenario #2:You're out on a date, and the guy you're with orders a bottle of wine without asking you first.

How you can respond: Listen, I absolutely understand the difficulty here. You're with a new guy. You're excited. You want the bonding that alcohol provides. You don't want him to think you're weird or you have a problem or there's something wrong with you. But honestly, you can still abstain if that's your goal.

Any of those lines I listed above will work. Improvise: "Oh you got us a bottle of wine? That is so thoughtful. I forgot to tell you that I can't drink because my doctor is doing my physical tomorrow, and he asked me not to. I know, I didn't think it mattered either, but I'm going to go with what the doctor said." This way you don't need to reveal that your doctor has asked you to cut down for health reasons (obviously that would feel a little too personal and vulnerable for most people), and until the time when you are more comfortable resisting easily, you can lay the blame on someone else. If you aren't ready yet to say: "I am not letting myself do it" because you think you'll get talked into doing something you don't want to, then blame that damned doctor. Do what you need to do to take care of yourself.

I really do not encourage lying, but in situations that involve peer pressure that can be very problematic and involve someone's health, I prefer white lies if it's the only way out for you and it works. The societal pressure to always be drinking even when you are trying to cut down is hard. Because it's flexible, and I recognize that can be a tricky balance. Hell, you could even say you promised a friend of yours who is in recovery (you can make that friend be me! there, you're not lying! boom!) you would abstain as a means of support and to show it could be done, and you are taking the promise seriously.

(By the way, thanks for that. You're a very good friend to me.)

If a guy doesn't respect your wishes here, and then guilt-trips you that you've made the evening weird because this happened, I don't know if that's someone you'd really want to be with anyway. Your date should be concerned about how to make YOU feel comfortable -- not what will threaten him. The way people react in these situations speaks volumes about their character.

Scenario #3:It's a special occasion, and you don't want to be the jerk who isn't celebrating.

How you can respond: This is one of the hardest times not to drink -- the holidays, a wedding, a toast to something really special or a goodbye party. But it is possible. You are still the one who is choosing. Look at it this way. If you know that you want to cut down on drinking and it's a special occasion, you probably secretly know that you're not just going to have that one toast. Celebrations are the best time for continuing to celebrate and make toast after toast after toast.

I find calling out the choice you are making not to drink makes it easier. You could say: "I'm celebrating with water tonight." "I'm celebrating by buying other people drinks." "I celebrated so hard last night, I'm actually celebrating by taking a break. But believe me, I'm with you in spirit."

I know several people who don't drink just because it's led them to have more energy. You could tell your friends simply that. If you don't phrase your not drinking as a question, with an upspeak of, "I'm not drinking?" then there isn't much to discuss. "I'm not drinking tonight. I need a break." Who is going to argue with that?

Well -- as you and I both know -- many people.

I definitely know, as it has happened to me multiple times. But, regardless of what anyone does or says, you're the one who ultimately has the control. No one can make you do anything. If your friends say, "Oh come on, screw taking a break. Just have one little drink. Please don't suck. You cannot suck tonight," just laugh at their persistence and say, "Unfortunately, I think I am going to suck tonight. I know, I know, I'm a total buzzkill." What can someone say after that? They're not going to put a gun to your head and physically make you.

I totally understand the pressure. I've had friends say: "You don't have a problem, trust me, I would tell you. Come on, I'm telling you that you're fine. Just have a drink with me." Or: "You're so much more fun when you're drinking." Or: "Be a good friend and have a drink with me."

But none of these things have anything to do with me.

It's the other person talking about themselves usually and projecting these insights on to me. Obviously, you don't need to say that. But you also don't need to drink.

Just casually deflect: "Thanks, I know, I'm being lame tonight, I'll try to be extra fun to make up for it. What do you want me to do to be more exciting? I could rob the bar?" Very often I find playful sarcasm (but without the bite of defensiveness or anger) is sometimes actually a good tool when people aren't being angels themselves. It also shows that you aren't taking the whole thing too seriously.

At the end of the day, the choice for anything that you imbibe or inject is always yours. And remember, you will drive yourself crazy if you think to yourself: "I CANNOT DRINK I CANNOT DRINK I CANNOT DRINK."

Don't do that to yourself. It just makes the obsession worse. You are choosing not to drink. Change that thought to: "I AM CHOOSING NOT TO DRINK I AM CHOOSING NOT TO DRINK I AM CHOOSING NOT TO DRINK." That makes the feeling of abstaining a thousand times more tolerable. Because no one is making you do anything. This is your choice. You can do anything you want.

Why does framing it as a choice make it so much easier? Because we're human. And what do humans very often want to do very badly because it is exciting and tempting and fun and wrong and gets their adrenaline going? What we're not supposed to. If you recognize the behavior as YOUR choice -- and call up whatever little elevator speech you have which represent your reasons (I know I will feel better, I've made a commitment to myself to give it a shot, etc.) -- it's easier to stick to that resolve. I think a lot of times it doesn't feel like a choice when you are trying to have a stick-to-it-iveness about your decision because it sure as hell can feel like "I CANNOT DRINK."

But it is still a choice. Everything is. Don't take away your free will, and you will immediately feel saner and more relaxed. (This is also a proven way to quit smoking.)

The reality of this whole situation is: You can't always avoid bars. Of course you can suggest other places to hang with your friends. Let's see, here are 10 off the top of my head. #1 The movies. #2 A picnic or a frisbee game in the park. #3 The gym. #4 A dessert place. #5 Renting bikes. #6 A museum. #7 A play. #8 A shopping trip. #9 A yoga class. #10 Taking a course at the local college together.

But the flipside of this reality is, of course your friends are frequently going to suggest "going out for drinks." It seems a little socially bizarre if you were always to respond with, "LET'S GO TO THE GUGGENHEIM -- AGAIN."

Getting drinks is just what people do, and that is what it is. So why not try this: Say yes! The thing is: You can get drinks. I get drinks with people all the time. A Diet Coke is a drink. A gingerale is a drink. A mocktail is a drink. When someone invites you to drinks, you don't actually need to confess your litany of sins or the myriad reasons for why you're trying not to drink or to cut down. Just go -- and then order something non-alcoholic. Getting drinks absolutely does not have to mean alcohol. Your friend can drink. You don't have to. If the temptation is too great and you really are wanting to cut down or resist and being around alcohol is just too much to handle right now, then don't go to bars for a while.

Will you have less of a social life? Not necessarily. If you can't find one friend who will hang out with you in a non-bar environment, look at this as an opportunity to expand your social circles. I've met wonderful people volunteering, through MeetUps, adult education, improv classes, support groups, even online communities.

If you can, look at what your goal is -- to cut down on drinking -- as a fun challenge instead of a prison of doom, and you're far more likely to be successful. Set your boundaries and see if you can stick with them. I have a friend who simply never drinks on weeknights any more. It's her rule, and it works for her. She doesn't let anyone talk her into anything else. Because she has set boundaries that work well for her life, and if other people don't respect it, that's their problem.

If you change the framework with which you're setting out on this mission, it will be a lot easier to handle. I love to see what I'm capable of -- even if it means looking like a fool, it's exciting to take the risk -- rather than just accept the status quo the rest of my life. Choosing to cut down or drink less is just a goal like everything else, and it can be one that you're curious to see how you handle (which can be exhilarating) or it can be an impossible task that is impossible because you say it is (which is a fortress of defeat of your own making).

A big trick that I apply to a lot of areas of life in resisting something tempting is a very standard 12-step tool, which is asking yourself: How did that work out for me last time? Play it through. If 9 out of 10 times drinking has stopped working out so great, then play it through before you get started so you can consider making some different choices -- before the scenario plays out yet again, and you feel helpless and sad. You can do anything you want. Experiment with it. See what works for you, and monitor how you're feeling.

The choice is always yours. And whatever you choose, try to own up to the choices you are making. I think choosing to go on a bender and wake up hungover and wondering what exactly you did the night before is an absolutely great choice (no sarcasm) -- because a lot of times the fun the night before is totally worth it. Trust me, I get it. Some of the funnest times in my life have been spent completely wasted. But the times when the downside was worth it got fewer and fewer -- and at the of the day, I'm a practical person. If something is not 51 percent more of a benefit for me, then it's time to re-examine whatever that thing is -- be it a relationship or a job or a lifestyle habit.

Just recognize: It is you who is making every choice, every time.

No one else.


Find Mandy long-form at http://tinyurl.com/stadtmiller.