Why Don’t You Drink?
People shouldn’t ask, but they do. Here are some ways to respond when someone asks why you’re not drinking.
In the 192 days Cristy Mack* has been sober, she has gotten really good at responding to questions about why she’s not drinking because until 192 days ago, it was a big part of her social life. On occasions when sparkling wine needed opening, everyone knew she could pop bottles of bubbly without fear of hitting someone in the eye.
Then one of her childhood friends overdosed on heroin. Mack took a hard look in the mirror.
“I had to get right with myself,” she says.
But it wasn’t easy. Mack works in California’s alcohol-soaked tech culture, where employees are rewarded with booze, milestones are celebrated with drinks and every holiday is observed with a party. And just a little more than a month after she quit drinking, she went home for Thanksgiving only to find that her own family was frustrated that she wasn’t drinking wine with them anymore.
“It can be hard for people to drink around me, even though I don’t judge them for it,” Mack says. “It makes them self-conscious. They need a partner in it. But I don’t feel the need to participate. I know that I can have a good time sober.”
Over the holidays, Mack spent a lot of time explaining that to friends and family. When she was feeling fun, she’d say something like, “I found I was using it as a social lubricant, so now it’s a game for me to see what I can have fun doing without it.” When she was feeling brutal, she’d go with, “I just had a friend OD, and I wasn’t drinking for the right reasons, so I’m taking a break.”
The more she said it out loud, the easier it was.
“Anything you practice, you get better at,” Mack says. “Sobriety is my sport right now. I practice doing it and talking about it. Being honest is really important. If I wasn’t telling anyone, then it becomes a secret, and it shouldn’t be. It’s something I’m proud of.”
Which is why now when people ask why she doesn’t have a drink in her hand, she pulls out her phone and opens Quit That!, an app that tracks how long it’s been since she quit drinking. She can see how many minutes, hours, days, weeks and, eventually, years it’s been since she quit drinking and how much money she’s saved — and she can brag about it.
“When you tell people it’s an accomplishment instead of a punishment, it turns the conversation around from questioning to curiosity and even support,” she says.
People shouldn’t ask why someone’s not drinking — but they do. For people who are not only in early recovery but also embedded in the college drinking culture, it might feel easier to lie or simply too difficult to go into detail.
Kimberly Hershenson, a New York-based therapist specializing in addiction, suggests coming up with a few ways to respond when someone asks that are short and sweet but, most important, honest, such as “I don’t like the way alcohol makes my body feel” or “I don’t like the person I am when I drink.”
“These are all honest answers without having to discuss your recovery,” Hershenson says. “But for those who feel comfortable saying, ‘I’m in recovery,’ there are positives to saying this statement. Letting others know you are sober keeps you accountable and helps take away the shame you may feel about your history with alcohol. The bottom line is to say whatever makes you feel comfortable because your recovery is about what makes you feel good.”
Whether dealing with suspicious strangers or curious cousins, people are bound to ask. Here are some go-to responses from people who have had to provide an explanation to more than a few inquiring individuals.
Digital marketing coordinator at Ambrosia Treatment Center
Palm Beach Gardens, Florida
“I’m trying to live a healthier lifestyle.”
As a 25-year-old recovering alcoholic, Parker Horveath has dealt with many friends and family members wondering why he is no longer drinking. Although he feels like he shouldn’t have to give a reason, he understands their inquisitiveness. It’s almost expected of people in his age group to have a drink in their hand on a Friday night.
But there are many reasons why people quit drinking, even if they’re not alcoholics. The most important thing to Horveath is that he’s honest without disclosing too many details. For instance, when his grandparents were eager to know why their once heavy-drinking grandson was now abstaining, he was wary to identify as an alcoholic in recovery.
“They have this idea of an alcoholic in their head that’s not the real definition,” Horveath says. “So I tend to say I’m just trying to live a healthier lifestyle. I might go as far to say I decided to stop drinking because I don’t like how my body responds to it.”
Many people these days are concerned about making more healthful food choices and attempting to take charge of their health. According to a Nielsen’s Global Health & Wellness Survey, 80 percent of those polled stated that they were committed to using foods as medicine and maintaining a healthy lifestyle in an effort to fend off or reduce health issues and medical concerns. With health going mainstream, the conversation quickly transitions to other wellness topics, such as going to the gym or eating healthy.
“Although it’s true that you don’t owe anyone an explanation for your sobriety,” he says, “I’ve found that if you have a well-thought-out answer that you can use on the fly, the conversation almost always goes smoother than expected.”
CEO of in Visionaria and author of Gutsy Women Win
“Why do you ask?”
Pat Obuchowski has been in recovery for more than 30 years, so her answer to people who ask why she isn’t drinking has evolved quite a bit. Plus, she always carries a nonalcoholic drink with her at events, and no one has ever asked what’s in the glass.
But when she does get the question, her favorite way to respond to their concerns is with an equal spirit of inquiry rather than arrogance: “I’m curious, why do you ask?” or “No one has asked me that question here. Why are you so curious?”
“This turns the conversation to why they are asking,” Obuchowski says, “and then I am in a better place to answer more directly.”
“It destroys lives.”
Booze and comedy go together like bacon and eggs. Most comedy clubs even have a two-drink minimum policy that dictates that, on top of the tickets you already purchased to see the show, you must also purchase two drinks while watching.
For the 100-percent clean comedian Dan Nainan, there’s alcohol at nearly every event he performs, whether it’s at a comedy club, charity gala, casino, private party or corporate event. Frequently asked why he doesn’t drink, Nainan says he drank once or twice in college and found it wasn’t for him.
“Usually that’s enough of an explanation, but if they press me on that, I tell them that alcohol destroys lives,” Nainan says.
According to the National Institute of Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism, an estimated 88,000 people die from alcohol-related causes annually, making alcohol the fourth-leading preventable cause of death in the United States. Researchers estimate that each year 1,825 college students between the ages of 18 and 24 die from alcohol-related unintentional injuries, including car crashes.
It’s no joking matter, but that’s Nainan’s job, so the comic also has a few jokes in his back pocket.
“In addition to saving a ton of money,” he says, “one of the benefits of not drinking is that I have never woken up next to anybody unattractive. Although I must admit, a few women have.”
Self-employed substance abuse counselor
North Little Rock, Arkansas
One of the first things Chris Gerhart had to learn early on his road to recovery was that when people went to a party where alcohol was served, most didn’t consume it as voraciously as he did.
Now, with more than 23 years of sobriety under his belt — and more encounters with nosy strangers than he can recall — he knows that the people who don’t have a problem with their own alcohol use usually don’t have a problem with his lack thereof.
But if he doesn’t have a fancy coffee or a designer soda in his hand, someone will inevitably ask why he’s not drinking, and his primary defense is to say he’s allergic to alcohol.
“Many people develop sensitivities to different things over the course of a lifetime, and learning that one has an allergy to something that they once enjoyed is not uncommon these days,” says Gerhart, offering celiac disease, an immune reaction to eating gluten, as an example.
If pushed for more, he says he breaks out and changes the subject.
“For most people, this is more than enough information,” Gerhart says. “Most people don’t want to hear about my medical condition at a party. They would much rather talk about their last vacation, a car they want to buy or their kid’s sports team.”
Gari Anne Kosanke
Owner of Bead Lovers Korner
“I don’t drink.”
When Gari Anne Kosanke was newly sober and would attend a function where there was alcohol, people would not only ask why she wasn’t drinking, but they would also try to get her to party, too.
“People would say, ‘Oh, come on, you can have a drink. What’s a little drink going to hurt?’” Kosanke recalls.
But Kosanke knew just how much one drink could hurt. So for a long time, she tried to avoid situations where drinks were served and people might ask questions.
Now that she’s been sober for 19 years, it doesn’t bother her one bit.
“I wouldn’t lose my sobriety for anything,” Kosanke says. “I just say, ‘I don’t drink,’ and that’s that. No explanation needed.”
Career coach and author of The Wall Street Professional’s Survival Guide
“No, thank you.”
When Roy Cohen refuses a drink, he can tell it makes people uncomfortable. That’s certainly not his intention.
“But people with bad habits often like company when they indulge,” he says.
Depending on the situation, Cohen offers up a variety of explanations — alone or in combination — from “I no longer enjoy the taste of alcohol” to “I’ve lost enough brain cells over the years.” But
he always starts with, “No, thank you.” It’s simple, polite and honest.
“The goal is to make it clear that this is my decision and that my intention is not to spoil anyone else’s fun,” he says. “Sobriety is a choice that need not be explained or defended. That’s why all of my responses are based in truth.”
Founder and CEO of the Sober Network
Delray Beach, Florida
“I’m committed to a different way of life.”
For a long time, Harold Jonas was committed to a different way of life. Indulgent and narcissistic, Jonas was an active heroin addict in his mid-20s, and it wasn’t until his mid-30s that he got out.
“I haven’t looked back since,” says Jonas, who went on to earn a doctorate in addiction studies and become a recovery coach and addiction treatment specialist.
At events, he would be faced with well-meaning but awkward questions from friends and family about why he wasn’t drinking. He stood firm: “I choose not to drink. I’m committed to a different way of life.”
“In my experience, when I’m not drinking and other people are, they’re more uncomfortable about their behavior than I am,” he says. “But it’s really nobody else’s business how you conduct your life.”
Sometimes to prevent the probing questions, Jonas carries a glass of water with a lemon wedge. That way he’s part of the party without being an active part of it. But most of the time, he enjoys his place on the soapbox.
He’s noticing the same dedication among the emerging adults in early recovery he works with, too.
“There are so many young people who are proud of being in recovery,” Jonas says. “They learn quickly how to say, ‘I’m living clean right now.’ It’s empowering.”
*Some names have been changed to protect the privacy of individuals.