6 simple ways to be a sober ally if a friend has given up alcohol

Giving up alcohol takes a lot of willpower and confidence but it’s easier with a community of supportive people around you. Here’s how you can be a good friend to anyone in your life who has chosen to stop drinking.

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Giving up alcohol can be a difficult thing to do, particularly in the UK, where drinking is such a big part of the way we socialise. Buying shots for others is often considered an easy method of making new friends and, from football matches to bottomless brunches, many of the ways in which we socialise are centred around drinking. This is why it’s so important that you go out of your way to make an effort with a friend who has given up alcohol.

Whether someone in your life is taking their first steps to try to lower their alcohol intake or they make up the 30% of young people who don’t drink at all, there are various things you can do to help them stick to their goals and make their alcohol-free life a little bit easier.  

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“So many women have given up drinking in recent years and I think mental health awareness has played a huge part in that,” says Millie Gooch, the founder of the Sober Girl Society. Millie gave up alcohol in February 2018, having previously been a self-proclaimed ‘party girl’, due to the anxiety she felt the day after drinking, commonly known as ‘beer fear’.

Millie has not only been through the process of giving up alcohol herself, but she has helped so many women in her community do it too. “The reason I founded the Sober Girl Society was to provide a community for young women who had stopped drinking alcohol,” she says, explaining that having supportive people around you is so important when it comes to cutting drinking out of your life.

Here, Millie shares her advice on how to be a good friend to someone who is pursuing sobriety or is reducing their alcohol intake. 

Don’t sober-shame

Sober people often hold up a mirror to how much you are drinking

Millie describes herself as “a reformed sober-shamer”, explaining that a sober-shamer is someone who questions the decisions of a person who isn’t drinking and tries to pressure them into drinking alcohol. Step one of supporting a friend who has given up alcohol is, of course, to avoid doing this at all costs.

It seems like a simple thing to do but it can feel uncomfortable to be around someone who isn’t drunk when you are and you might be surprised by how quickly you try to make light of it or encourage them to get involved. “Sober people often hold up a mirror to how much you are drinking,” Millie says, explaining that this might make you feel embarrassed or insecure.

Millie also talks about the “collective suffering” of hangovers and how part of what makes hangovers somewhat bearable is that everyone who you socialised with is experiencing the same thing. If someone isn’t drinking, however, they are excluded from this, which also might make you feel uncomfortable.

If you do notice that you’re prone to sober-shaming, Millie recommends taking some time to yourself to figure out why you’re acting this way. Is it because of your own relationship with alcohol? Is it just habit? Either way, you need to get to the bottom of it in order to stop doing it. 

If you don’t know how to respond to someone telling you they don’t drink, don’t respond at all

It’s normal to want to ask questions of people who aren’t drinking but, ultimately, alcohol can be a personal, touchy subject, so avoid being too inquisitive when a friend tells you they’re not drinking, unless they are clearly willing to talk about it openly. “If you’re worried you might say the wrong thing when someone tells you they aren’t drinking alcohol, the best thing to do is to not say anything at all,” is Millie’s advice.

By just moving on from the subject, you ensure that it doesn’t become an issue for the person who isn’t drinking and they can then enjoy their night as normal. You can also tell your friend that you’re proud of them or happy for them if this feels appropriate. 

Ask your friend what they feel comfortable with in a social setting

Although there is no need to question your friend about why they’re not drinking, it can be useful to ask them how they would like to be supported by the people around them, Millie says. “Ask them what would make them comfortable,” she continues, explaining you can ask your friend things like whether or not they’re interested in alcohol-free drinks, if they’d like to be invited on nights out and if they are comfortable with you getting drunk around them.

“You should also ask them what their financial preferences are,” Millie says, explaining that buying rounds can often be a tricky subject for non-drinkers on nights out. “If I’m drinking alcohol-free beer, it’s usually the same price as a normal beer so I like being involved in some rounds,” Millie explains. But she says that the same isn’t necessarily true if she’s joined her friends on a boozy night out and they’re downing 10+ drinks each over the night.

Stand up for your sober friend in social situations

If you’re in a group situation that is centred around drinking, it’s likely that there will be more than one person who isn’t as sensitive to those who have given up drinking alcohol as you are, particularly if they are drunk themselves. “If someone is rude to your friend about not drinking or tries to peer-pressure them, jump in and help them out,” Millie advises.

It can take a lot of confidence for someone who doesn’t drink to attend an event where everyone is drinking alcohol so the last thing they want to be doing is defending themselves all night. One of the best ways that you can make their life easier is to make sure they don’t have to do that by standing up for them. “You should also try to make sure that they’re being included, as it can be easy to get lost amongst lots of drunk voices,” Millie says. 

When I stopped drinking, I was so worried that people would want to stop spending time with me

Make sure your friend knows how much you value them

“One of the most important things you can do to support a friend who has given up alcohol is to tell your friend how much you like them for them,” Millie says. “When I stopped drinking, I was so worried that people would want to stop spending time with me and that they only liked me because I loved a party. I just wanted to hear that my friends liked me for me.”

This is something you can tell your friend at any point, if it feels appropriate, although, ideally, not when you’re drunk, as that might remove some of the sincerity from the sentiment. You could even send them a card or a nice text message to express your gratitude for their friendship! 

Find new activities to do together that aren’t focussed on drinking

Your friend might be happy to continue attending all the same events they went to before they gave up alcohol but if they don’t want to, there are so many things you can do that aren’t centred around drinking. Millie recommends anything focussed on a particular activity like mini golf or an escape room. “A lot of events where alcohol is served are actually no longer centred around drinking either,” she says, suggesting doing something like bingo or a drag brunch.

If you’re hosting an event, it can also be helpful to provide a specific non-alcoholic option with the drinks you’re serving, whether that’s an alcohol-free cocktail or a 0% beer. “Cater to them like they’re a vegan,” Millie says. 

Drinkline is the national alcohol helpline. If you’re worried about your own or someone else’s drinking, you can call this free helpline in complete confidence. Call 0300 123 1110 (weekdays 9am to 8pm, weekends 11am to 4pm).

Charities like Alcohol Change can also offer you support.

  • Millie Gooch, founder of the Sober Girl Society

    Millie Gooch stopped drinking in February 2018

    Millie Gooch is the founder of the Sober Girl Society and is one of the voices leading the sobriety movement in the UK. She recently released her first book, The Sober Girl Society Handbook.

Images: Millie Gooch and Getty

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