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Cepeda: Saying no to alcohol

Published July 14, 2013 5:20 pm

This is an archived article that was published on sltrib.com in 2013, and information in the article may be outdated. It is provided only for personal research purposes and may not be reprinted.

CHICAGO — From my regular dining spots pushing pricey, fruity concoctions ending in "-tini" to the moment on my last grocery store trip when I found a margarita mix display sitting next to the toilet paper, it seems evident that alcohol's popularity has reached a new, femininity-infused peak.

Last winter the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention identified binge drinking among women and girls — especially high-school girls and young women, whites and Hispanics, and adult women with household incomes of $75,000 or more — as a serious but under-recognized problem.

Gabrielle Glaser's new book, "Her Best-Kept Secret: Why Women Drink — And How They Can Regain Control," contends that women are drinking more now than at any other time in history, at least in part to cope with the stresses of motherhood and career.

Recently, British experts reported a rise in liver disease among female professionals under 30 in some of London's wealthiest areas. They over-imbibe socially, but also on the job — either during work-related functions or after-work gatherings.

It's not so different in America. As The Wall Street Journal reported in late June, companies are offering open bars, kegs and on-site happy hours to employees — especially younger ones — to help lure talent, keep people comfortable during increasingly longer workdays, and connect employees across different divisions while fostering workplace community.

I've worked in such environments and they became yet another place where I had to steel myself for the inevitable weirdness of being a non-drinker in an alcohol-centric society.

Seriously, I felt less peer pressure to drink as an undergraduate at a state university with a legitimately terrible reputation as a party school — our campus was closed multiple times due to alcohol-fueled riots — than I have as a professional in corporate settings.

Which brings us to the question of how best to deal with being the anomalous adult who, by choice, steers clear of the ever-expanding world of "alcoholification." I say "by choice" because I don't have any good reason or excuse that stops people in their tracks.

Unless you are an obviously pregnant woman, have an illness that requires medications, are a recovering alcoholic (and don't mind fessing up to it) or are devoutly religious, you get puzzled, sometimes alarmed, looks when turning down a drink.

"It's important to give people who want to abstain the language and the reasons for saying 'no' because people respond very strongly to 'no.' Immediately you get this litany of questions: 'Are you sick?' 'Is something wrong?' 'Did I say something to upset you?'" said Robert Lindsey, president and CEO of the National Council on Alcoholism and Drug Dependence.

"Many people are uncomfortable when someone chooses not to drink and they project that uncomfortableness on the person. Then they put pressure on them to join them in drinking."

Lindsey even takes issue with how we use the word "drink" these days. When I told him that I don't drink, he shot back: "You do 'drink'! You just don't drink alcohol. The reality is that we have allowed the alcohol companies to co-opt the term 'drink' to equal 'alcohol.' The word 'drink' refers to water, juice, soda, coffee, tea, whatever. Allowing 'drink' to equal 'alcohol' is such an enormous disservice."

I like his line of thinking, but it seems as though this sort of explanation would open up more conversation than I'd want to unleash at the moment everyone's bellying up to the bar.

Crowd-sourcing my social media networks overwhelmingly yielded the suggestion to lie. Whether it was blaming it on "medication," the responsibility of being a "designated driver" or carrying around a drink that only looked like a cocktail, the consensus was to pretend.

A public information coordinator from Alcoholics Anonymous sent me a chapter from the group's booklet "Living Sober," which suggests not lying because then you have to deal with all the nosey follow-up questions. AA's best advice is to just decline without hesitation or apology.

Similarly, Lindsey suggested to me — and others who also dread the moment when you become a suspicious abstainer in the eyes of others — "Confidently say 'I am choosing not to drink today' and ask for something else. The more matter-of-fact you are, the easier it is for the other person to say 'OK' and move on."

Esther Cepeda's email address is estherjcepeda@washpost.com. Follow her on Twitter, @estherjcepeda.