A lone man at a bar looking glum with no drink, while others at the bar drink a lot of alcohol.

Navigating Drinking Culture If You Can't Drink the Way You Did Before

Over the years I have gone back and forth with alcohol. There have been in times in my life when I drank heavily during remission and did okay with it. But I realized most of the time I was drinking due to social pressure – mostly, the feeling that if I didn’t drink alongside other people, it would be harder to go out, make friends, and have a partner.

After a few scary hospital experiences, I decided to give up on alcohol altogether. Because my health can be so tenuous, I wanted to make sure I wasn’t adding anything into the mix that could be doing more harm than good. To navigate not drinking or limiting drinking in a world where alcohol is the natural social lubricant, consider the following:

Tips for not drinking with IBD

1. Figure out your limits and stick to them

While I have decided not to have any alcohol, some people can drink some and be okay. In some cases, it might be the type of alcohol or the amount that someone needs to pay attention to. Sometimes we feel like we should cross our limits to have fun, but always remember what the consequences could be. You might be kicking yourself if you have that extra drink and then flare for a couple of weeks.

In my case, since I can’t drink any alcohol, I often will ask for an alternative at the bar if I’m not flaring. (Most of the alternatives have sugar or carbonation, neither of which is great for me in a flare.) Sometimes this will be a sparkling water or a soda, but some bartenders are happy to make a fun mixed drink without the alcohol. I find that it never hurts to ask.

2. Make your plan for when someone asks why you aren’t drinking

Because I’m personally comfortable with talking about my IBD with others, I often say I’m not drinking because of a digestive issue I have. If someone asks further, I do go into the details. But not everyone feels the same way about talking about IBD. It is useful to have an idea of what you plan to say if someone asks why you aren’t drinking.

You can say you’re not drinking for personal reasons, or you can even say you just aren’t drinking and don’t want to explain further. It’s absolutely up to you. But it’s good to have an idea of what you’d like to communicate to others so that you aren’t caught off guard in a social setting.

3. Talk to your friends and loved ones about their alcohol consumption

For me, it can be frustrating to be the only sober one among a bunch of very drunk people. I like to ask my friends what the plans are. If people are planning to drink heavily, I might sit that event out and join them on a night where everyone is planning to have just one or two glasses of wine.

On occasion, I have even asked my partner if he would be willing to limit his alcohol consumption if we are at an event like a wedding so that I don’t feel alone when everyone else is drinking. We’re able to come to a great compromise: he drinks enough to enjoy it, but without teetering into tipsy territory.

4. Suggest alternatives every so often

Since I can’t drink at all, I like to think up activities that I can do with my friends, co-workers, and partner that don’t revolve around drinking. I like the idea of an after-work ice cream once a month. Or, I suggest events like going bowling or going for a hike instead of grabbing drinks. Even a movie night can work — someone might have a beer, but the main event is the movie itself, not the drinking.

Having IBD in a drinking culture

Sometimes it feels strange not to drink when our culture is so fixated on it, but I know I’m being careful for my health. Over the years I’ve figured out how best to navigate the situation so I can still have fun with the people I love, while also respecting my own feelings and mental health.

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