Ask Dru: How do I cope with housemates who drink?
I’m 30 years old and live with six others. Although not a big drinking party house, I’ve got housemates who drink and I find myself making excuses around them. I really would like to have that control over my choices. I’d love to do a month, but even a few days would be impressive at this stage. I’m sick of feeling shit all the time and beating myself up over my poor self-discipline. Removing alcohol from the house is out of the question as it’s a shared environment. Melissa
I feel for you, Melissa. When I was 19 years old, I shared a house with five other guys. You don’t want to imagine the smell. Although I have lived on my own since then, for most of my adult life, I’ve shared my home with others. And I have mixed feelings about solo or group living arrangements. I love being able to lock the door and be in my own space. But I also recognise that positive cohabitation experiences bring out the best in me. A lot about how I think, feel and act is shaped by my environment.
In Club Soda’s courses, we teach people four simple questions to ask about their drinking. The first question is “where?” As you’ve discovered, the location of your drinking has a big impact on whether you stick to your plans or not. In your longer message, you mentioned thinking it would be easier if you lived alone, but not being able to move house right now. I’d encourage you to put that thought to one side for the moment. You can change your drinking successfully exactly where you are.
Your choices may feel limited right now, but you are still in charge of your life. And you can change it for the better.
Housemates who drink: enemies or allies?
Life would be so much easier if people acted in the way we wanted them to. But you can’t make choices for other people, and – as your housemates are adults – you can’t tell them what to do. Under those circumstances, it would be easy to slip into blaming your housemates for your drinking. But making it their problem turns them, over time, into your enemies. I suspect that’s not going to be a happy experience, for you or them.
Instead, you could make your housemates your allies.
First, be clear about what you want to achieve. Be practical and realistic with your plans for change. Are you going to take time off drinking completely? Or only drink on some nights of the week? A solid plan you can stick to makes it less likely you’ll be triggered by events in your environment. And it will make it easier to say no to others and to yourself.
Second, think about your ideal drinking relationship with your housemates. You’re right that it’s not realistic to ask them not to drink at home. But maybe you could hang out at different times of the day? Maybe you want a night together when you don’t drink? Or you just need some space in the fridge for alcohol-free drinks?
Third, and this is the hardest bit, you’re going to have to talk to them. Being vulnerable about your difficulties is scary, I know. And you’ll be a better judge of which of your housemates are easiest to talk to. But you can ask for their help. Tell them about your ideal plan for your drinking, and how you’d love to spend time together that doesn’t centre on drinking. Make it about you (not them) and what you need. And ask if they’ll help you come up with solutions.
It might be that some of your housemates are up for a month-off drinking as a challenge. Getting fit together can be a great bonding experience and you can help each other keep on track. So ask about their goals and aspirations. Maybe you can work together to achieve something you all want.
Self-acceptance not self-discipline
Focusing on the practicalities of how you can live with housemates who drink is a great first step. But it strikes me that there are issues here which are just about you.
You mention feeling like you have “poor self-discipline”. I wonder what that phrase means to you though? Often, self-discipline is code for self-denial, and so failure to be self-disciplined can feel like some kind of moral weakness. Trying to change and not living up to your own expectations of yourself can lead you to feel like you’re a terrible person. On top of struggling to do the right thing in the present moment, you end up carrying around shame.
Everyone fucks up some times. And the emotional reaction that follows can be more difficult to deal with than the fuck up itself. That’s why it’s important not to beat yourself up. It helps to treat yourself kindly.
Every time drinking causes a problem, it’s because you’re using alcohol to address an unspoken need in yourself. Whether it’s unwinding in the evening, rewarding yourself for a hard day’s work, enjoying a sunny afternoon or hanging out with your housemates, there are real emotional needs in you that deserve to be taken seriously.
Relaxation, connection, happiness. You deserve these things.
So remember, it’s your drinking that’s been the problem, not you. You are OK. Whatever else happens with your housemates who drink, hold on to that.
Dru Jaeger is one of Club Soda’s co-founders and leads courses for people who want to cut down, stop for a bit or quit, including How to Change Your Drinking. If you’ve got a question about any aspect of changing your drinking, Ask Dru.