Secret drinking: why people do it, how to spot it, what to do about it

Taryn Davies
Published: November 29, 2017

What is secret drinking?

It’s exactly what it says on the tin; secret drinking is drinking alcohol while concealing it from others. Sure, friends and family know the person drinks but they don’t know how much and they don’t when.

Bunmi Aboaba, founder of The Sober Advantage discusses Secret Drinking below, why people do it, how you can spot it and what to do about it.

Secret drinking might be:

  • Hiding your empties in the recycling bin or even taking a trip to a public bin over the road to hide the evidence
  • Drinking while your partner is on a night shift
  • Drinking while your partner is another part of the house
  • Hiding bottles of alcohol in obscure places such as your underwear drawer and top of cupboards out of sight.
  • Spending long periods of time ‘working in the garden’ or the garage, hidden under an upturned plant pot
  • If you live in a small town or village, you might rotate your visits to the shops where you buy your alcohol, because the shopkeeper might tell your friends or family/comment on your drinking habits
  • Replacing part of the bottle with water so it looks like you haven’t drunk as much and quickly replacing the bottle with a new one.

There are many more ways in which people hide their drinking, but the chances are they think they’re fooling you when you already have suspicions (well, you’re reading this!).

So if you’ve found an empty hidden under the bed or you just have a feeling something isn’t quite right, then read on...

How to spot a secret drinker

How to spot secret drinking?

Here are just a few of the most common ways people will hide their drinking habits and their actual alcohol from you:

Drinking before and after events

Heading to a party? Take note of whether your partner, friend or family member drinks before or after the event. If you’re only going to see them at the party then observe whether or not you think they’ve already started drinking. Also, make sure you check in with them after the party is over - they might be a little more loose-lipped and actually tell you they’re going to the all-night petrol station to buy a bottle of wine to take home. Better yet, go home with them and see if they do buy more alcohol on the way home.

Look for bruises and other injuries

If you notice an unexplained bruise, cut or another injury then your friend or family member may be drinking to the point of blackout and hurting themselves. If they can’t remember where that bruise on their leg came from, they might be struggling with a drinking problem.

Finding random bottles of alcohol is weird places

This one may seem a little sneaky but if you search the house when they’re out and you find either empty bottles of alcohol or their ‘stash’ then you could be onto something. Look in places such as their drawers, wardrobes, all bags and backpacks, behind freestanding picture frames, in bookcases and books (yes, it might seem like a cliche in a movie but it’s worth a look), under the sofa/bed/other furniture, in the back of every cupboard. Basically, anywhere obvious and anywhere obscure - just think “Where would I hide my alcohol if I had a drinking problem?”

Watering down alcohol

OK, so they may not have hidden their drink out of sight - it may be sitting on the kitchen counter. Check the alcohol for signs of dilution using water - especially clear spirits such as sambuca or vodka and alcohol in dark bottles such as red wine. Also, check water bottles lying around the house - as they may be part-filled with clear spirits.

Why do people hide their drinking?

Everyone is different! But some of the main reasons people hide their drinking include:

  • Guilt/shame: They know they have a problem so it’s a case of “What they don’t know, won’t hurt them!”
  • You’ve already called them out for it: They’re defensive and ‘cornered’ so the only other solution in their minds is to hide their drinking
  • Role of responsibility / public image: They might be a top employee in a high-flying career or a parent with multiple responsibilities. They want to hide their drinking so it looks like they ‘have it all together.’
  • Alcohol is like their medicine and best friend, it blots out all the troubles of the day.
  • They just can’t stop drinking

What to do?

First of all, it’s what not to do that makes or breaks a successful approach. Don’t confront them, belittle them or make them feel bad about themselves. If they’re secret drinking the chances are they already know they’re in the deep end with their issues. Instead, provide a calm, nurturing, constructive approach at an appropriate time of day and maybe they haven’t had a drink just yet. The best thing to do is to let them know you know and that you’ve done your homework and you realise alcohol problems are an illness and can happen to absolutely anyone.

The best time to approach your friend or family member is when they aren't hungover or not under the influence. Instead, approach them when they're lucid and calm.

Make helpful suggestions and support them as much as you can. This could include accompanying them to the GP, attending an AA support group with them or even just finding a suitable therapist. Be an ear for them - listen to their problems, thoughts, worries and reasoning behind their alcohol issue. But be mindful that there can be a lot of manipulation on the alcoholic’s part whether it be conscious or unconscious. That’s why encouraging all the above is better.

If you would like to plan an intervention then you could enlist the help of a sober coach who will help organise a personal approach that gets the best possible outcome.

There’s a reason why a problem shared is a problem halved.