I met my boyfriend at college when I was 17. Here in the UK, it’s legal to drink at 18, but I was already a pro at drinking half a bottle of vodka at weeknight house parties.
Like many young people, I saw alcohol as a new, exciting pastime. I spent lunch breaks at the pub while someone with an ID went to the bar; my friends and I watched The Apprentice on Wednesdays with a bottle of wine apiece and a straw.
Alcohol gave me the ladyballs to become the person I thought I should be, and allowed me to dance outside the confines of my bedroom, talk to people I couldn’t even make eye contact with sober, and walk in my highest, most toe-crushing shoes without complaint.
The only thing my future boyfriend and I had in common was our bi-weekly film class — he’d buy DVDs of movies I said I wanted to watch just so he could lend me them, and I’d wear an extra layer of horribly matched Maybelline foundation on days I knew he’d be around.
Eventually, he asked me for my number, and I gave it to him.
At first, we dated like we were ticking off a list of conventional teenage hangouts. Trip to the movies? Check. Walk in the park? But on our fourth or fifth meeting outside of college walls, he took me for a drink, or rather, I tried to take him — and this is when I found out something pretty major.
‘My round!’ I insisted, feeling ashamed that he’d already paid for more buckets of popcorn and ticket stubs than seemed fair. "What do you want, a pint?"
"Oh actually, I don’t drink," he replied. "Coke is fine."
Involuntarily, my muscles tensed, and my smile thinned with loss of sincerity. Everyone else I knew lived for getting shitfaced. WHY didn’t he drink? Had he NEVER drunk? Did he care that I drink?
My head flooded with questions that I felt like it was too early to ask, so I proceeded to have four glasses of wine and babble at him about my childhood to him in great detail instead.
He found it endearing, walked me to my bus stop, and we kept dating.
In time, I learned that he had chosen complete sobriety years ago — there was a history of alcoholism in his family and he didn’t feel like taking a chance. But yes, he did still go to parties, yes, he was still friends with people who drank, and no, he didn’t care if I did.
I told him my most humiliating drunk stories just to be sure — sobbing my make-up off in a random bathtub, accidentally lying down in a duvet full of someone else’s sick (IT WAS ONE TIME, GUYS). He stuck around anyway.
I drank and he didn't, and neither of us tried to change the other's mind. That was it.
But even though we didn’t care, it turned out other people still did.
Friends were continually thrown by the concept.
"So what, he like, NEVER drinks?" they’d exclaim, before immediately asking how he’d ever managed to have fun at any point during his adolescent life.
Most of my friends in relationships had experienced everything from their first kiss upward under the influence, and immediately decided our relationship must be 10 times more awkward without booze. (It wasn’t.)
But what surprised me most was how many people tried to force a drink upon him, as if they saw his sobriety as some kind of challenge.
"Are you sure you don’t want just a sip?" they'd ask him, waving their cocktail directly under his nose and then laughing when it wrinkled.
For all they knew, he was in recovery from alcoholism, and it made me wonder how people who are ever get through it.
In my friends' defense, buying someone a drink was usually how they welcomed someone to the fold. They didn’t intend to be dicks about it, they just didn’t know how to act with someone who didn't want something that was part of their default setting for maximum enjoyment.
Now, 7 years later, everyone I know knows him too, and they order him soft drinks as standard. But from time to time, they still ask if I feel like I'm missing out.
"You've never had one of those drunk texts telling you how much he loves you," one of my friends lamented recently as we read one of hers. "You don't have any of those drunken memories together. They're some of my favourites."
I have to admit, when 17-year-old me imagined her future, she imagined sharing a bottle of wine over dinner; buying bottles of expensive whiskey for Christmas presents and toasting special occasions with champagne. But she pictured doing all of that with a nameless, faceless being — and now that he’s got a face that I love, I couldn’t give a toss.
I can still drink whatever I like, whenever I like, and just as I'm not bothered that he doesn’t drink, he’s not bothered when I come home catastrophically pissed and make hashbrowns at 2 a.m.
He’s the kind of guy who can hold a crowd without a glass in his hand. When we go to weddings and I'm making a fool of myself on the dance floor, I know I can count on him to make a fool of himself with me. When we go to parties, he doesn't need a drink to make conversation.
Sure, sometimes a selfish part of me wants him to lose his inhibitions with me, spend the evening sipping (OK, guzzling) tequila and doing stupid stuff together, but it’s the same part of him that wishes he could take my vegetarian ass to a steakhouse and bond over our mutual love of cow.
You want to share things you enjoy with people you love — but you have to respect their choices when they don’t enjoy the same things you do.
Here's what I've learned from our relationship. When you meet someone who doesn't drink, don't decide you're going to help them learn how to. If you're going to ask them why they don't drink, remember that it might not be a story they want to share. Don't think they're not going to be fun just because they're sober. And for my sake, please don't assume that just because they don't drink, their partner doesn't either.
Mine's a gin and tonic, and I'll get the next round.