How Former Problem-Drinkers Talk About Drinking

By
Image

The decision to quit drinking is a huge and complicated one, and it’s often not easily made. Also not easy: Telling other people about that decision. Recently, researchers at North Carolina State University and Texas State University decided to investigate just how people deal with this tricky stage of sobriety, by conducting long interviews with former problem-drinkers. Excerpts of the interviews were published recently in the journal Health Communication. 

It’s not surprising that people would have such trouble figuring out whether to disclose their sobriety, as it means admitting to something that many people view negatively, no matter how unfair that may be. Several researchers have explored the stigma of admitting to alcoholism, and there are some very real potential consequences, in that some employers express reluctance at hiring those who’ve disclosed problems with alcohol. 

Here’s a look at the ways some of the interviewees went about going public with their former drinking problem. Some, for example, don’t really address it, and just act really vague:

Pat, 46, sober for 10 years, reported that when people suggested she grab a beer with them someday, she would say, “Yeah, sure, we’ll do that sometime,” without ever following through or having to acknowledge that she was a nondrinker. Pat explained that by dismissing the issue, people “moved on to the next topic.”

Some avoid it entirely:

Ken said he did not “throw [his nondrinking status] out there on the table” because he did not want to be a “buzz kill,” nor did he desire for his nondrinking status to become “the only conversation.” As he put it, “I feel like, well, fuck, I’m a loser if this is all this guy wants to talk about.” He said his nondrinking status frequently became the focus of conversations when people learned he abstained from alcohol and “nondrinker” became his defining label. Ken said he wanted people to “make up their mind on me based on other things, not on the fact that I don’t drink.” He compared being a nondrinker to being a Democrat in his conservative Texas town.

On that note, one man would rather talk about his toe-fungus medicine than admit he had had a problem with alcohol:

Marshall, who had been sober less than 6 months … said after initially being unable to consume alcohol due to medication he was taking for a toe fungus, he continued to tell people he could not drink, months after the fungus cleared up. Although Marshall acknowledged the disingenuousness of perpetuating a lie with his excuse, he believed claiming the toe fungus was justifiable because it enabled him to quit drinking: “I don’t want to delay not doing what I need to do just because I’m uncomfortable talking about it … But until then I’m just not going to keep being destructive.” … He said his toe fungus excuse “worked” because it provided him with a medically necessary reason to stop drinking and he avoided coming across as judging drinkers.

And, given time and the right context, some of them were open about it:

Kristi said she disclosed she was an alcoholic to assist others and to debunk their perceptions about alcoholics. She said she was open about her alcoholism in part to “[s]how them that what they might think an alcoholic is isn’t true. Like I am not an angry man who comes home and like beats his wife and drinks and passes out on the couch watching football. You know, like that’s what I always thought an alcoholic was ’til I kind of realized I was one.”

Eventually, the researchers on this new study hope that their work will add up to some practical advice for people who are in this situation. As Sam, who is 40 and has been sober for 12 years, phrased it in his interview, he feels like former problem-drinkers are often seen as “kind of marginal characters. … [W]e’re incomplete. We’re, uh, freaks a little bit.” The hope the authors of this qualitative study express is that their research may one day help make a lonely time a little less lonely, by offering tips from those who have been there, too.