Overcoming Stigma: Coming Out as an Alcoholic

“I always drank, from when it was legal for me to drink. And there was never a time for me when the goal wasn’t to get as hammered as I could possibly afford to. I never understood social drinking, that’s always seemed to me like kissing your sister.”

~Steven King

One of the first lessons learned by people new to recovery is to avoid those people, places, and things that might trigger a relapse into active drinking.

Oddly enough, in that regard, drug addicts may actually have it a bit easier than alcoholics.

Life as an Alcoholic: A Daily Double Standard

How could that be?

Simple – drinking is accepted in society. In some settings, it’s even expected. While a person trying to recover from drug addiction can guard against temptation by avoiding other drug users, a newly-sober alcoholic is confronted with alcohol almost EVERYWHERE – restaurants, movies and TV, advertisements, and especially, everyday social situations.

Alcoholic Hurdles: Social Stress and Stigma

Although Alcohol Use Disorder is a recognized illness, it still carries a considerable stigma. At best, making one’s illness known in a social or professional setting is potentially awkward and embarrassing.  But at worst, it can be social or career suicide.

Some alcoholics hide their condition, because they don’t want to call attention to this very private, personal issue  every time they are in a social or public situation.

But at the same time, so many different social settings typically include alcohol – dates, dinners, get-togethers with friends,  and even office parties.   Turning down a drink invites unwanted speculation.

Many people with AUD also struggle with co-occurring disorders such as anxiety. And the real and imagined peer pressure thy feel when turning down a drink can worsen that anxiety.  Instead of  explaining over and over and growing more and more anxious, they give up and try to drink socially.

But the nature of AUD means that ANY drinking can lead to relapse.

The Good Kind of Alcoholic Selfishness

Here’s the thing– absolutely nothing is more important for an alcoholic in recovery than maintaining their sobriety.

Staying sober must come before ANYTHING else – friends, dates, coworkers, and especially the compulsive need to meet other people’s expectations.

That sounds selfish because IT IS – and that’s perfectly okay.

Active AUD is selfish in many destructive ways, taking everything from both the sufferer and from those around them. In recovery, the alcoholic must remain selfish, but in a positive way that preserves their sobriety, their sanity, and their serenity.

So what is a recovering alcoholic supposed to do when they are offered a drink at a social event?

Whatever they are comfortable with.

In most cases, a polite “no, thank you” is enough. Most people won’t push a drink someone else’s hand and insist that they drink. When further explanation is necessary, it’s fine to say, “I don’t drink“. There is no  need to elaborate.

The point is this is – a recovering alcoholic doesn’t owe an explanation to anyone if they’re not comfortable.

Practical Tips for the Newly-Sober Alcoholic

For alcoholics in early recovery, here are some ways to stay alcohol-free without attracting attention:

  • At parties, carry around a cup with a non-alcoholic beverage. No one is going to check.
  • Make a point of ALWAYS getting your own drinks.
  • Deflect questions by answering that you have medical condition that does not allow drinking. This is 100%
  • Give no explanation. You don’t have to.

Lynsey Romo, Assistant Professor of Communication at North Carolina State University, recently authored a study looking at how alcoholics in recovery reacted to temptation within social settings. She talked about the need to remove the stigma attached to AUD.

“The findings tell us that former problem drinkers can find it tricky to navigate social situations where alcohol is involved and makes clear it’s important to support those who aren’t drinking and did not push non-drinkers to disclose their reasons for not having a drink.”

Chapman House Treatment Centers has provided premium addiction recovery services in Orange County since 1978. If you or someone you care about is struggling with alcoholism or any other the abuse of any other substance, Chapman House can help.