The Truth About Pretending to Drink When You're Sober

One thing that prevented me from addressing my complicated relationship with alcohol for so long was the fear of social stigma. I was also afraid to fail, but I was more afraid of success. If I quit drinking, then what? Then, actually, what? 

I would no longer fit into my social circles. I risked rejection and losing friendships. I would feel ostracized and excluded. I would be left out, alone, misunderstood, and judged. I would not fit into my 20-year marriage anymore. 

My husband and I met at a bar. We were party people. It’s part of what attracted us to each other. It wasn’t fair to him that I was considering changing the game for us without warning. This wasn’t what he signed up for. I was so ashamed. 

I was scared that I would not fit into my neighborhood, my friend group, my happy hour work crew, or any other group or activity I have ever done or ever wanted to do because I would no longer be drinking. I would lose the nearly four decades of family-like friendships that I thought had sustained me for my entire history of being. My family functions would change. I was terrified of all that I would lose if I quit drinking. I identified as a drinker. Who would I be without it? I didn’t want to find out the answer to that. So I kept drinking, despite knowing it was not best for me. It was bringing me down, and the speed at which I was spiraling was gaining momentum with each drink I poured. Still, I was too terrified of what others would think about my quitting. 

I was behaving like I would rather die from drinking than be labeled an alcoholic and have no friends. Labels and loneliness scared me more than death.

Eventually, I realized drinking wasn’t sustainable for the long haul. I risked losing my loved ones if I quit, and I also risked losing them if I continued. I knew if I kept drinking, there would be a point of no return. I didn’t want to hit that point. I was very dependent on and not yet addicted to alcohol. While I was exploring removing alcohol from my life, I pretended to drink alcohol on more than one occasion. It turns out I am not alone in this. Clients and friends report doing this all the time. We put that wine glass in our hands and pretend to be drinking the exact drug that is slowly killing us because we are too terrified to admit that we aren’t consuming the addictive substance that everyone else is. We are afraid of what spotlighting our not drinking will do to us. We are scared to be labeled and judged for something we aren't—terrible people, bad parents, weaklings, addicts, or perhaps even worse, alcoholics. The horror. 

I was continuing to consume a substance that was bringing me down. My depression and anxiety were increasing as a direct result of drinking too much over time. I was gaining weight, feeling ill, losing self confidence, and dragging myself through my days  with a range of slight to severe hangovers. No one chooses this if they don’t have some dependence on alcohol. Even high functioning drinkers are drinking more than we intend because our brains are begging for the quick uptick we received from our first drink of the day.

I was suffering from alcohol. I was also a human being having a human experience, trying to avoid pain, and doing exactly what I was taught. Drinking alcohol is normalized. Drinking every second of the day is considered normal. Alcohol is sold as the cure for any ailment, from stress to bad weather to taking a shower. Just add a drink! The message is seen everywhere. From the “might be wine” messages on coffee mugs to the 5 o'clock somewhere dish towels. The drinking culture is so normalized, and our society is absolutely obsessed with it. I was, too. This makes it incredibly hard to change your mind and quit drinking. 

Not drinking is so alarming to our society that the only reason to quit is if you are going to die from it. And if you are so bad that you are going to die from it, then something is very wrong with you. Why can’t you consume the same addictive substance that everyone else can? Nevermind, the fact that there are negative health consequences for everyone who consumes it. Everyone. Alcohol is an addictive substance for everyone. Everyone. Everyone who drinks has a relationship to alcohol on a spectrum. There is no clear line to cross, which changes drinking from normal to problematic. Alcohol is unhealthy for everyone who drinks it. From the first sip, there are negative health consequences.

This is the world’s best-kept secret, however. We are told alcohol is the way to relax, have fun, celebrate, bond, belong, and succeed. We all want this. 

On the other hand, when we start to notice alcohol might be bringing us down and we take a break and start to feel better, we are terrified of what this means for us. Maybe we feel so good without it that we never want to drink again. Maybe we realize how much we relied on it and how hard it is to give up. What does that make us? Alcoholics? Signing up for a lifetime of not fitting in. Giving up all our rewards, celebrations, fun, relaxation, bonding, and belonging opportunities. No thanks. 

Maybe if nobody knows we aren’t drinking, we can keep our social life the way it is. Maybe we don’t have to tell anyone we quit drinking or turn the spotlight on us. Maybe we can just pretend to drink. It seems like a good solution. When we take a break from alcohol, we don’t have the language to talk about it yet. We don’t know if this is forever. We don’t know if we identify as alcoholics. We don’t know what our current not drinking means for our future vacation, girls trip, wedding toast, book club, or pub crawl. We just know that we need to pump the brakes on our drinking right now. We are not prepared for the questions. It is a private journey. It is easier to just carry around our travel wine cup filled with sparkling water than try to answer questions we don’t have the answers to yet.

Except, how can we feel proud of ourselves for making the healthy choice to stop consuming this drug when we are still pretending to consume it? It’s pretty hard to be loud and proud when you are in secret hiding, pretending to be doing something you aren’t. I felt terrified that someone would find out I was not drinking. We need to feel good about ourselves and our choices. Feeling good about ourselves becomes the momentum to keep our flywheel of sobriety going easily. In early sobriety, we are ready for some ease. 

I quit drinking, and all my fears came true. My marriage changed. My longest friendships with a lifetime of shared history are not the same. Family functions were awkward. I don’t fit in the same circles. I often feel very alone on this alcohol-free journey, despite my grand attempts to make sober friends. 

I have also received many blessings that I never saw coming. I became my own best friend. Who knew I could love myself so much and have my own back after 42 years of beating myself up. My husband stepped up to support me more than ever before. I made hundreds, yes, hundreds, of new friends. I found new circles that welcomed me with open arms. I was able to feel comfortable sharing my real self. I learned to receive love and acceptance for the authentic me and the authenticity of others too. I now walk away more easily from people and things that don’t feel right to me. I became a lighthouse for others on their alcohol free journey. I am now able to speak out loud and am proud of not drinking alcohol. It was gradual, but step by step, I came out to my friends, my neighbors, on Facebook, and finally even LinkedIn.

Social stigma can have a significant impact on an individual's decision to quit alcohol for several reasons:

  • Judgment and Shame: People who struggle with alcohol often face judgment and shame from society, including friends, family, coworkers, and even healthcare providers. This stigma can make us hesitant to seek help or admit we have a problem. Imagine reaching out for help and working with a sober coach.  You are making progress privately on Day 10 alcohol free and then hearing someone at work say, "Oh, I don’t trust people who don’t drink,” and then hearing a room full of your peers laughter during your weekly meeting. It’s so upsetting. 
  • Fear of Rejection: The fear of being rejected or ostracized by valued social circles is real. If we admit we have a problem, we fear we will lose relationships or social status. This prevents us from seeking help. No one desires to be alone with no friends. No one wants to be left out because of what is or is not in their glass.  
  • Lack of Understanding: Stigma often arises from a lack of understanding or misinformation about alcohol addiction and mental health disorders. People may view addiction as a moral failing or a lack of willpower rather than a complex medical condition often caused by a combination of genetic and environmental influences that requires treatment and support. We don’t want to raise our hands and admit something is wrong with us, we want to be the kind of people who don’t struggle and have it all together. Most of us blame ourselves and just try to mask our shame.  
  • Internalized Stigma: Individuals struggling with alcohol addiction may internalize the stigma surrounding their condition, leading to feelings of self-blame, guilt, and low self-esteem. For me, this further exacerbated my need for alcohol and made it harder for me to quit. I hated myself, and the best way to silence that was to drink.
  • Barriers to Treatment: Stigma can also create barriers to accessing treatment and support services. People may avoid seeking help due to concerns about being labeled as "weak" or "flawed," or they may encounter discrimination when trying to access healthcare services. I told both my doctor and my therapist I was concerned I had a problem with alcohol, and both told me I did not. I was just a mom, and all moms were anxious and drank a bit to take the edge off. 
  • Stigmatizing Language: The use of stigmatizing language and stereotypes to describe people with alcohol addiction can perpetuate negative attitudes and beliefs, making it harder for individuals to recover and reintegrate into society. I did not want to walk around with a label identifying my biggest struggle that was passed down to me for the rest of my life. I had no label as a drinker. Drinking is normal. The only drug to slap a label on the user that quits. 

Addressing the social stigma surrounding alcohol addiction requires education, empathy, and a shift in societal attitudes towards alcohol use disorder  as a treatable medical condition or even a positive personal choice rather than a personal failing. By reducing stigma and promoting understanding and support, we can create a more compassionate and inclusive environment that encourages individuals to seek help and overcome their problematic relationship with alcohol.


Changing social stigma around quitting alcohol requires a multifaceted approach that involves education, awareness, advocacy, and de-stigmatization efforts. Here are some strategies that can help:

    • Education and Awareness: Promote accurate information about alcohol use disorder and recovery through public health campaigns, educational programs in schools and workplaces, and media outreach. Increase awareness about the biological, psychological, and social factors that contribute to addiction, emphasizing that it is a treatable medical condition rather than a moral failing.
    • Challenging Stereotypes: Address stigmatizing language and stereotypes associated with alcohol use disorder by promoting more compassionate and empathetic portrayals of individuals who are struggling. Encourage media outlets to avoid sensationalizing stories about addiction and instead focus on stories of recovery and resilience. It affects people of every socioeconomic status, every race, age after 12, and gender. Share the truth about recovery. It’s a healing journey that leads to a healthier life with more resilience, clarity, and joy. It’s not a sad story at all. 
    • Personal Stories: Share personal stories of individuals who have successfully quit alcohol and overcome addiction to challenge stereotypes and inspire others. Highlighting diverse voices and experiences can help reduce shame and stigma and show that recovery is possible. When others can see themselves in our stories, we light the path for their recovery too. 
    • Community Support: Foster supportive communities and peer networks where individuals can openly discuss their struggles with alcohol use disorder without fear of judgment or stigma. Encourage community organizations, support groups, and online forums to provide safe spaces for people to share their experiences and seek support.
    • Empathy and Compassion: Promote empathy and compassion towards individuals who are struggling with alcohol use by emphasizing the importance of understanding and support rather than blame or judgment. Encourage open dialogue and listening without prejudice. We can catch people farther up the stream of alcohol use disorder and prevent further damage. No rock bottom is needed to change your relationship with alcohol.
    • Policy Changes: Advocate for policy changes that support individuals in recovery from alcohol addiction, such as improved access to affordable and evidence-based treatment options, employment protections, and anti-discrimination laws. There is a Recovery Ready Workplace Toolkit created by the federal government. Share this at your workplace.
    • Training and Education for Professionals: Provide training and education for healthcare providers, social workers, law enforcement officers, and other professionals to reduce stigma and increase sensitivity towards individuals with alcohol use disorders. Encourage the use of person-first language and trauma-informed care approaches. Certified training for workplace professionals can be found here. 
    • Celebrate Milestones: Celebrate milestones and achievements in recovery to recognize the hard work and perseverance of individuals who quit alcohol. This can help build a supportive and encouraging environment that fosters motivation and resilience.
    • Offer alcohol free options: Make sure there are drink options for people who don’t consume alcohol at every event and gathering.   


By implementing these strategies and working together to challenge stigma and promote understanding, we can create a more supportive and inclusive society for individuals who are quitting alcohol and recovering from alcohol.

If you are struggling with alcohol, or wish to get support for yourself or your organization,  schedule a complimentary call with me here.


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