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Want to drink less or stay sober? Here’s how to deal with the social pressure

By Katie Hunt, CNN

Parties, weddings, back-on-again concerts and overdue catch-ups: The social calendar is back in full swing after nearly three years of pandemic-related lockdowns and restrictions.

For some, this renewed activity comes with pressure from friends to knock back alcoholic drinks — a challenge if you’re trying to go sober, stay alcohol-free or simply drink less.

“The hardest part about not drinking is other people’s perceptions about it,” said Millie Gooch, founder of the Sober Girl Society and author of “The Sober Girl Society Handbook.” She gave up drinking over four years ago. “I got so much: ‘Oh you’re going to be boring now.’ I still get it now and then.”

Gooch is part of a growing moderation movement. Her group, based in the United Kingdom, aims to support young women who want to stay sober or drink less with practical advice about how to socialize, date and have fun without a cocktail in hand. It holds booze-free brunches and other meetups.

“I myself was a sober shamer, and that was a reflection of my own drinking,” Gooch said. “I wanted everyone else to be drinking.”

No amount of alcohol is healthy if you’re under 40, mostly due to alcohol-related deaths by auto accidents, injury and homicide, according to a study released in July. CNN talked to Gooch, who shared her tips for how to rethink your relationship with alcohol.

The following conversation has been lightly edited for length and clarity.

CNN: Why did you write “The Sober Girl Society Handbook”?

Millie Gooch: I was six months sober and 27 years old. I couldn’t find any support around the issue that resonated with me. I had a preconception that AA (Alcoholics Anonymous) was going to be full of 50-year-old men. I felt like a lot of the books on the topic were aimed obviously at people in their 40s or they were about real, rock-bottom alcoholism but not about the in-between stages. They talked about how they got sober but didn’t concentrate on what you do after that. I really couldn’t find anything that was practical. How do you go on a date while sober? How do you go to a wedding?

They were the main things that I write about in the book. It’s got a little bit of my story but also some self-help and resources. It’s about how you actually go out and live as a person in a world where alcohol is so normalized and you don’t drink it.

CNN: Why did you decide to give up alcohol?

Gooch: I really started drinking when I went to university, and my drinking was very party girl, binge, blackout drinking, which is something I took with me when I went into (public relations) and journalism.

When I drank, I was always getting myself into really dangerous and vulnerable situations. I was waking up in places I didn’t want to be — having that crippling fear the next day of wondering what did I say and what did I do.

I wasn’t really a daily drinker. I was going out every couple of weeks, perhaps the odd weeknight. The reason that I stopped drinking was primarily for my mental health. I would feel really anxious.

CNN: What was it like to go sober?

Gooch: I found one of the things when I stopped drinking was that I actually didn’t really have any idea how to deal with my emotions. I think every time I was stressed or heartbroken I was like I’m going to go out and get really drunk. So then I had all these feelings. It was really overwhelming. To get to the root cause of why I was feeling the need to drink, I did see a therapist.

When you use alcohol, it gives you a synthetic confidence that dissipates the next day — you don’t really have it. I’ve had to push myself out of my comfort zone, to let go and meet people. That helped me build up a real innate confidence that’s kind of stayed with me.

CNN: What advice do you have for someone who wants to drink less?

Gooch: So many of us drink mindlessly. Understand why you drink. Is it because you’re happy and want to celebrate? Or are you drinking because you’re stressed and don’t want to deal with the emotion in question? Is there something else you could do like go for a walk or have a bath?

There are lot of resources out there. You can follow sober accounts, breaking up your Instagram feed so it’s not just one constant stream of boozy brunches and nights out.

Be honest about the number of units (drinks) you are drinking. There are lots of good apps. (She recommended one called Try Dry.)

CNN: How do you deal with the peer pressure around drinking?

Gooch: Have an honest conversation. Don’t lie about having to take antibiotics or (having to) drive home. People will say, “Oh, you can drink on them,” or “We’ll pick your car up in the morning.” I’d say something like, “Look, drinking is making me really unhappy. I’m not sure it’s going to be a forever thing, but I’m trying to cut down and I’d really like your support.”

When it comes to not wanting to get a massive round of drinks in, just say, “Actually, do you mind if I skip out the round tonight? I just want to have a couple of drinks. I’m really looking at my relationship with alcohol.”

Stand in the mirror and practice and get comfortable saying these things before you go out if you need to, even texting people beforehand. I used to get in the WhatsApp group and say, “Just so you know girls, I’m not drinking tonight.” Because then they kind of have time to get over it.

CNN: What’s your advice about going on a date sober?

Gooch: Pump yourself up before you go out. A playlist is always good. And make sure that you get rid of any nervous energy by, say, running before you go out.

Always meet in a place that you think is comfortable for you — maybe check if they have any good nonalcoholic drinks. I like to be able to order a mocktail that feels sophisticated rather than be like, “I’ll have a … Diet Coke, please.”

There shouldn’t be a judgment on it, but sometimes there is. I found that if I just told people beforehand, it gave them the opportunity to decide if they wanted to be on a date with me. I think it’s just best to get it out there. If people are funny about it, then that’s not the type of person you want to be with anyway.

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