Keep up the pub invites and don’t ‘sober shame’: how to support a friend to stop drinking

Those of us who don’t drink, whatever the reason, know that being alcohol-free doesn’t mean the end of socialising or having fun. But for some people, giving up or cutting down drastically – perhaps for Sober October, Macmillan Cancer Support’s fundraising campaign – is a big step. “Many people – 5 million in the UK – have mild or moderate alcohol dependency,” says Richard Piper, chief executive of Alcohol Change. “It’s incredibly common. It doesn’t mean they are at death’s door [but they] will have an elevated risk of cancer and liver disease. Most importantly, they won’t be able to cut back when they try – that is clearly the sign of someone with a problem.” Here are 10 tips on how to support someone who has decided to go sober.

Treat it like giving up smoking
Alcohol is ingrained in our culture and so anyone who gives up may be questioned about it by friends and family, even though it is potentially addictive and harmful. Piper suggests viewing it like cigarettes. “How would you feel if a friend wanted to give up smoking and had started to succeed? You would be positive, supportive. And if they were wavering, you would remind them how much they have to gain and how well they have done. If they are struggling to give up, it’s because they have a mild or moderate addiction. So help people who are cutting back on drink, in the same way you would help someone give up smoking.”

Be actively supportive
If someone is giving up because they recognise that their alcohol intake has become harmful, encourage them to create a support system. “Whether that is joining an online sober community or seeing a therapist, [or] perhaps offering to take them to their first AA or recovery meeting,” says Emily Syphas, founder of Sober and Social, which runs alcohol-free events. “Listen to the person, while offering a non-judgmental space to explore how they are feeling.” However, not everyone wants to talk, says Katie Brunsdon who writes the Stylishly Sober blog. “Maybe somebody is worried that they have an addiction problem but isn’t ready to admit it, so they just want to see if they can stop drinking.”

Find out what they are comfortable with
Syphas suggests a chat about what is and isn’t acceptable (remember, these things can change depending on the stage this person is at). “Not everyone likes to use the word sober, not everyone identifies with the word alcoholic and they might feel more comfortable using terminology such as alcohol-free, non-drinker or teetotal, or even ‘retired booze hound’ – whatever works. Create an understanding of their needs: Are there any people, places or things you need to avoid? What are your triggers?” For some, alcohol-free versions of wine or beer can be helpful; for others, it’s the opposite. Do they mind if you have a glass of wine when you’re together, or would they find that difficult? These are the things to find out in advance, but also be wary of how things can change in the moment. “Triggers are not always easily identifiable,” says Brunsdon. “If somebody is struggling and feels they need to leave, be open to that or leave with them.”

Suggest alcohol-free activities
“It might be difficult for them, particularly at the beginning, to be in a bar so plan something else,” says Syphas. “It could be an exercise class and coffee or brunch, a theatre trip, bowling or hiking – something where alcohol is not the main event.”

But don’t stop inviting them to the pub
If this is where a longstanding group continues to meet – for a pub quiz, say – it would be worse to stop inviting a friend, says Syphas. “Just because they are not drinking, it doesn’t mean they now can’t socialise and be your friend. So invite them and let them decide if they are ready to do that with you.” Socialising can improve without alcohol, points out Piper. “Listening quality is better, people don’t raise their voices as much, conversations aren’t as repetitive. A lot of people learn that it wasn’t about ‘being in the pub with my mates with alcohol’, it was ‘being in a pub with mates’ – that’s the good bit.”

Go sober in solidarity
This helps in a situation where drinking is expected. “Sometimes social situations can be tricky, and they might have a fear of being left out or a bit of social anxiety about not drinking,” says Syphas. “Offer to be their sober buddy.”

Don’t ‘sober shame’
“One of the most common experiences,” says Piper, “is that you seem to be interrogated about giving up. Avoid the ‘why?’ question. They don’t need to justify not drinking.” Sober shaming, he says, “is where someone’s not drinking and is made to feel that is a wrong choice”. Even if you wouldn’t sober shame a friend, others in a group might, so try to challenge it when you see it.

Have alcohol-free options – and serve them in a proper glass
If hosting, or inviting people out, ensure there are plenty of other drinks available – this could involve phoning ahead to the pub or restaurant to check what alcohol-free drinks they offer (and lobbying for more if its a meagre selection). “The days when alcohol-free meant Coca-Cola or orange juice and you felt like a seven-year-old are long gone,” says Piper. Serving booze-free drinks in proper glasses is a tiny thing, but it makes a big difference, says Brunsdon. If everyone else has a champagne or wine glass, it helps to feel included and valued “to have a nice glass to drink from, rather than just a beaker”. One of her friends got her a sticker to put on her “wine” glass so that “everybody knew not to fill it with anything other than water”. This, of course, is down to individual preference, she stresses – not everyone wants to be so open about not drinking so, as withmost of these tips, keep talking about what works and what doesn’t.