The first time it happened was in Italy, 3 short months after I had stopped drinking altogether. A hot little Italian waiter (who I'd later make out with - fuck yes, Italy) and I were flirting as I ate my way through two entire pizzas. Near the end of the meal he told me he had a special treat for me, and returned with a glass of dessert wine.
It sat there. I stared at it. He stood there. He stared at me. He smiled, and did that thing with his hands that is the international symbol for "please go ahead and drink it." I blinked. Time stood still. The first thought was crap, I don't know how to say "alcoholic" in Italian. The second thought was, I wonder if I can ask him for a cappuccino instead. The third thought was not a thought at all, but that aching I get in my tummy when I am afraid I'm going to hurt someone's feelings.
Me: "Non grazie."
Me: "No bevo alcol."
Me: "No bevo alcol!"
Him: Sad face.
I smiled politely, thanked him again, and told him I'd take a cappuccino. He persisted. "Not even a little?" No. Not even a little.
It's since happened time and again. At bars, at dinners, at events, last weekend at brunch. A well meaning someone considerately sends you or brings you a toxic treat, the thought not even crossing their mind that you may not drink, and there you are stuck with four distinct pressures: 1. The pressure of explaining your situation. 2. The pressure of politely refusing a gift. 3. The pressure of hurting someone's feelings. 4. If you are with a group, the pressure of their discomfort.
Today, this ain't no thing. But in the beginning, it was a thing. A kind of very big thing. Much more difficult to navigate than ordering a Diet Coke instead of a beer.
Here are 6 Tips on navigating this situation yourself.
1. Know your options. There are three options here, in my experience. One, you can be passive about it, accept the drink, and not touch it. I've done this once or twice, but only because there was no real connection between me and the person giving it to me (meaning it landed on my table and the giver went away before I could decline). Two, if you are with a group of friends, you can re-gift it to them, and everyone wins. But most of the time, these options aren't really available, so I go with door number three, and simply decline it, gracefully. "No thank you, I don't drink" or sometimes just "No thank you" and leave it at that. My strategy is always to just do what feels most authentic in the moment - the thing that feels like I am doing right by me - not others.
2. Practice ahead of time to find your flow. I know this sounds silly, but it works and it will get you in the right mindset and ready to have any conversation. It's pretty simple, you just do a couple quick run through scenarios in your head and play it out. Visualize yourself feeling comfortable leaving the drink on your table and not touching it, see yourself being cute and slipping it effortlessly to your homie. Imagine having the conversation and actually say aloud the words you'll use - "no thank you, I don't drink" or "no thank you" or whatever you have come up with that feels most natural. Take it a step further and find some major POWER in it by incorporating Amy Cuddy's power positions while visualizing or acting it out or saying the words. IT WORKS.
3. Keep it simple and don't justify it. If you're going with option three, all you need to say is "No, thank you" or "No thank you, I don't drink." That's IT. You do not need to divulge anything more, you do not need to justify it beyond that. It's your personal choice, end of story. If people dig into it and want to know more, simply repeat the statement: I don't drink. Or don't repeat it. Just look at them like they're an idiot and hold an uncomfortable silence. And leave it at that. For me, as much as I divulge of my personal past here, as much as I publicly own my struggle and my path, I hold this line firmly now of not justifying or explaining why I don't drink. It's just a matter of fact and one that I personally feel that our society needs to get more comfortable with. Some people drink. Some people don't. We're not sitting around asking people why they're slamming down their third Pinot, are we? No. We don't question the drinkers and don't ask them to justify their drinking. That should hold true for those of us who don't. Now, there is a loophole here. If you WANT to explain, if it's part of what you need, if your goal is to educate or own something or use this as an opportunity to speak your story or get comfortable with your truth, obviously this is a perfect opportunity to do any of those things. I just want to make clear it is not necessary to explain.
4. Own it. Own it. Own it. I can't stress this enough. Remember that YOU have made this decision to quit drinking. YOU have made the steps that have brought you to this moment and they are hard and ballsy and gritty and holy shit, they are powerful. Who does this? Who actually has it in them to analyze what is holding them back in life and then fucking do something about it? Who do you know who has been through what you have been through, come to a decision to make great change, and then done the work to support that change? I'll tell you who. Few. Very few. So OWN that. Let THAT be what drives how you'll react in an uncomfortable social situation. That first time that Italian dude sent that drink to me? Yes, for a minute I had a flash of shame and insecurity. But that was quickly replaced by remembering that it was my DECISION and it was a powerful one. And you know what? It made me that much sexier. I know that you may want to shy away from owning it. I know that it feels simpler and easier to pretend you are pregnant or on antibiotics. And my love, you can. You definitely can. But you can't be on antibiotics forever. And pregnant women can't drink four cups of coffee without an raising eyebrow, or not eventually have those babies without raising an eyebrow for that matter. Own that you don't drink. Because if you don't, I promise you this…it will own you.
5. Remember you are not responsible for other peoples' feelings. I'm a sensitive, people pleasing type. So for me, the hardest part of this whole scenario has actually been saying no thank you to the gift bearer. Over time, it's flipped from concern over their feelings to an incredibly powerful practice of respecting and defending my own boundaries and the value of my needs. This practice has allowed me to find a deep compassion for myself. I now look at it like self-love practice, rather than "how to let someone down easy" practice. When we do it from THIS angle, we end up being more authentic and loving, which ends up making it a more loving experience for all. Truth.
6. You set the tone, you create the reality. Pulling it together, by reacting in the most authentic way, by saying the most authentic thing, by practicing ahead of time and envisioning power and grace and ease, by keeping it simple and to the point, by doing it for you and with love for you, and by OWNING it, what you are doing is far more than just declining an awkward gift. What you are doing is setting the tone for your entire experience on this side of drinking culture. One of the biggest secrets to my success is that I knew that I could show up and create a terribly awkward experience by feeling shameful about it, or I could show up fucking proud and show everyone how it's done. Remember that most people just go along with drinking culture, and a lot of them are themselves uncomfortable around the whole sobriety thing. Many of them are also uncomfortable about their own drinking whether they admit to it or not. By reminding yourself that you have the power to influence not only your experience but everyone else's, by realizing that you are not the odd man out but in fact deeply ahead of the game, by OWNING it with pride and bravery and an "I -don't-give-a-fuck-about-what-you-think" attitude, you are creating THAT reality. And it will extend far beyond a café table in a piazza in Rome. It will extend throughout your life.