When Friends and Family Downplay Your Addiction
Navigating the well-meaning and not-so-well-meaning responses to sobriety.
Strange Reactions to Sobriety
At first, I was reluctant to tell anyone that I had gotten sober.
To tell someone that I was sober required telling them that I was an alcoholic—something of which, in the beginning, I was deeply ashamed.
I was worried about how people would react, and I was afraid that by going public with my sobriety, I would “trap” myself into it. If I told all of my friends and family that I had a drinking problem, then I wouldn’t be able to go back to drinking without facing their judgment.
However, I also thought that social pressure might be a good thing, for exactly that reason. If I was afraid to let people down, maybe I would be more likely to stick with sobriety.
I decided to start by telling just a handful of the people closest to me, including my parents. I was especially concerned about how my mom and dad would react to the fact that I had quit drinking. I ran through endless scenarios in my head. Would they be proud? Angry? Worried about me? Would they insist on me going to rehab? Would we have to have a long, drawn-out discussion about it all?
The actual conversation went nothing like I expected. It was short and to the point, and my parents reacted in a way that felt downright bizarre: Confusion and near-indifference.
They hadn’t seemed to realize that I had any drinking problem, and even when I explained things to them, it didn’t seem to sink in. They were supportive of my decision to quit, but I didn’t get the impression that they cared one way or the other. It felt like if I went back to drinking the next day, they wouldn’t have given it a second thought.
What surprised me most about the conversation was that they didn’t seem to have had any inkling whatsoever that I was drinking too much. I wondered how two people who knew me so well could have been completely oblivious. Didn’t they notice that whenever I stayed at their house, I drank every single night?
It turned out that my parents’ reactions were a preview of what was to come.
As I gradually told more people about my decision to get sober, that surprising conversation ended up playing out again and again. A ton of friends and family told me they didn’t realize I had been drinking so much, and some even questioned my decision to quit.
I had people ask me whether I had tried to just cut back instead. I had others say that they drank regularly too, and didn’t see it as a problem.
Each time I was surprised. I wondered why my interactions were so different from what I had seen in movies and on television.
I knew the trope of an alcoholic in denial, forced to confront their addiction during an intervention from close friends and family. In my case, however, it felt like I was the only one who noticed my alcoholism.
The experience made me question whether I was just blowing the entire situation out of proportion. Sometimes I would even tell myself that I must not have had a real problem with drinking, or someone else would have confronted me about it.
What Was Really Going On?
The truth is that there’s no doubt I had a drinking problem. Deep down, I knew that, which is exactly why I quit.
I drank every day and always to the point of drunkenness. I couldn’t drink less no matter how much I tried. My drinking was interfering with other parts of my life.
I wasn’t a borderline case, I was a clear-cut alcoholic.
So, why did nobody else notice it? There are a few really good explanations for that.
The first is that I hid my addiction very well. I took great care to drink less when other people were around, to hide my empty cans, and not to talk about alcohol too much. When I was at my parents’ house, for example, I’d do most of my drinking after they were asleep, then hide the cans under other recycling.
The second reason is that I downplayed my addiction. Even as I told people that I was sober, I still used to hide the fact that I was an alcoholic. I’d say things like “I just felt like I’m drinking a little too much right now,” or “I just want to lose a bit of weight.” When I downplayed how much I drank, I elicited reactions that downplayed it too.
The third reason that people didn’t know about my drinking habit is because they weren’t around me enough to notice it. I became very isolated during my years of drinking. Even close friends and family sometimes only saw me a couple of times a year. They might have seen me drinking but would have had no reason to assume I drank that much every day.
The fourth and final reason that I got these reactions was that some of these people didn’t want to cause a fight. Since that first year of sobriety, I’ve since learned that several people knew I was drinking too much but were afraid to say anything. It’s hard to confront an alcoholic, and even if you hear that they’ve gotten sober, it’s sometimes safer to pretend you didn’t know they had a problem.
Those are the explanations that come to mind, but there are likely even more that I’ve missed. The point is that there are a lot of very compelling reasons for people to react as if they didn’t know you were an alcoholic. Those lukewarm reactions to sobriety shouldn’t become an excuse to question it.
I let my parents’ reactions make me doubt my decision. That was absurd. I knew that I was an alcoholic, regardless of whether anyone else did.
Imagine if I had done the same with smoking. If, while trying to quit my pack-a-day smoking habit, someone had said that they never realized I was a smoker, would I let that change my mind? Of course not! I knew how much I was smoking, even if they didn’t.
The same is true when it comes to drinking. I knew I was drinking far too much. It didn’t matter what anyone else realized.
Whether or not anyone else noticed my alcoholism, it was still a dead-serious problem that need to be addressed.
I’m fortunate in that I’ve never had any friend or family member react in a truly negative way to my alcoholism. I’ve faced indifference, but not any downright hostility.
Unfortunately, that’s not the case for everyone. I was recently talking to a sober friend (who gave me permission to write about this conversation), and he said that he had faced a not-so-well-meaning acquaintance who had tried to actively sabotage his sobriety.
The friend made it clear he didn’t drink, but on multiple occasions, this person tried to goad him into breaking his sobriety. My friend gave this guy the benefit of the doubt, assuming he was just giving him a hard time, until he saw him do it to another sober person too. The sad reality is that for some reason, this person was trying to get others to break their sobriety.
Why would he do something so awful? We can only speculate. Maybe he has a drinking problem and feels threatened by their success in getting sober. Maybe he doesn’t understand how serious a problem addiction is. Maybe he’s just a sociopath.
Regardless, it’s important to understand that some people can have extremely negative reactions to sobriety. To stay sober, we have to be prepared to ignore them and stay focused on our progress.
What’s the ultimate lesson here?
I’m not one of those people who say you can only depend on yourself. That’s nonsense. Depending solely on myself was exactly how I enabled my addiction for so many years. I needed support and human connection to overcome my alcoholism.
Instead, I think the lesson is not to define yourself based on how people react to your sobriety. Trust in your decision.
When someone downplays your drinking problem, you can do your best to explain it to them. If they’re well-meaning, they’ll try to understand.
If they’re not-so-well-meaning—the type who is just trying to sabotage you—then it might be time to cut them out.
Lastly, these interactions highlight the importance of connecting with other recovering alcoholics. Even when I’ve had trouble explaining my problems to friends and family, I know that I can find other alcoholics who have been through the same issues and can provide the right support.
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