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Do you remember that part in Bridget Jones' Diary when Bridget is brushing up on her small talk, reading about introducing people with "thoughtful details"? It's a useful tip, but it's a little galling when "This is my friend Susie — she doesn't drink" is the most pertinent information someone can think to give about you.
While more and more people are signing up for "Dry January" and "Sober October" or becoming "dryatheletes," the concept of a teetotaler is still pretty rare. And a lifelong one is even rarer. Some even believe these to be purely fictional, like a unicorn.
I am a unicorn.
I have never drunk alcohol, ever. Not even champagne at weddings (that's a popular question). Nor have I smoked a cigarette or taken drugs. I made a conscious choice not to drink when I was about 14 years old, and the rest just followed naturally. That was 16 years ago, and that decision has never wavered. It has, however, been thoroughly, and continuously, dissected by nearly everyone I have ever met.
The idea of not drinking really is alien to so many people. Growing up near London — pubs, pints, and rugby — there were all the components of the British drinking culture. And now I'm living in Sydney, Australia, equally famed for its consumption of tinnies and "goon." So with no immediately obvious reasons for my sobriety (cultural, health, or religious), people struggle to fathom how this could have happened.
My own situation aside, I'm pretty sure that nearly all non-drinkers are used to the question "Why don't you drink?" In my experience, it's usually prefaced with something polite like "Can I ask..." or "If you don't mind me asking..."
Personally, I don't mind, although I imagine my answer to that is somewhat disappointing: "I don't really have a good reason."
It's a mostly accurate answer, in that the primary reason for me not drinking is that I simply don't want to; alcohol just doesn't appeal to me. And that's not exactly an exciting story. But it's also a way for me to say that I don't have a good reason to give that person.
This conversation usually happens in a social situation, and it's a bit of a bummer to start telling people you've just met that alcohol was the only thing that ever made your parents really fight. Or that you sometimes struggle with your mental health, and by now you're convinced that alcohol or drugs could severely compromise that. For some reason, that makes things awkward.
For many others, they may well have a much more traumatic history behind their choice not to drink. And like anything personal, that information may not be for public consumption. As a general rule, most people will respect a personal choice, but sometimes fascination can really push people into inappropriate, even offensive, territory.
In recent years, I have come to think that I have been pretty lucky. I only realized later that the friends I spent my teenage years and early 20s with were exceptionally good drunks to be around. There were no tears, no drama, and no fights; if anything, we were just a bit silly. They also put zero pressure on me to drink, possibly because from the word go, everyone knew that it wasn't up for debate. I am irritated to see how people who drink in moderation are really pushed to "go on, have one more." As a teetotaler, I seem to be left alone more than those people.
I don't want to blow my own trumpet, but I do seem to be pretty good at being sober. For a start, I am social. Contrary to some people's ideas, I do go to pubs and bars. I've actually been known to dance, and I've even been the last one to bed. A lot of people ask, "But what do you do when you go to the pub?" Shockingly, the same things that you do. Just with a lime and soda in my hand, rather than a pint.
Another phrase that comes up a lot, usually around 2 a.m. when things are starting to get really slurry, is "I don't know how you do this." The implication that drunk people are highly irritating if you're not one of them is not quite true. When your friends are happy, energetic, funny, and having a great time, how could you not want to be around them? But, yes, no one wants to have an in-depth conversation with someone who's about seven drinks ahead of them. It's like talking to a broken record.
I'll let you into a secret, though: The best thing about drunk people is that they don't care if you just walk away from them. Also, drunk people are excellent with each other; just gently bring them together, and you will be free to extricate yourself, and they won't even notice that you're gone.
I believe that the real crux of the matter, the crucial point that a lot of people who haven't spent a lot of time with non-drinkers can't quite fathom, is that it is our normality. Sobriety is not a novelty for me; it's only interesting to other people. And it only really seems to worry other people.
Some friends, and nearly all my first dates, seem to be uncomfortable with the fact that I don't drink. You would think that they would be pleased to have come across such a low-risk, cheap date; it's not like you're going to have to drag me off the bar and pour me into a taxi. I'm probably not going to embarrass anyone with inappropriate behavior, but I can keep an eye on your phone for you when you put it down on the bar.
OK, so I won't hold your hair back for you if you get sick — but I will make sure you're OK and you have a glass of water. However, I won't make it my priority to spend time with you, look after you, or make sure you get home safe (unless you are potentially in danger). Drunk people are not my responsibility simply by virtue of me being sober.
I have better ways to spend my time than worrying about your drinking. If I had that much contempt for drunk people, I would have become a hermit years ago. I don't really care if you're slurring, falling over, or talking rubbish, as long as you're not hurting anyone. As long as you're good fun to be around, I'm happy for you to drink as much as you like.
I also refuse to see my not drinking as something strange or unusual, so I'm neither apologetic nor particularly strident about it. I have met the odd person who likes a good old boring debate and will attempt to convince me that a stronger person would try something before abstaining, to which I can only answer, when did I claim to be so strong? I don't remember asking for a medal.
That is something that other people attribute to teetotalers — this idea that you must have incredible willpower. Personally, I'm not sure that it takes too much strength to resist something I have no desire to do. Plus, as I often tell people, I don't know what I'm missing. I have never been drunk, but they are viewing my experience from the perspective of someone who is used to socializing with alcohol. For them to go into a bar or club and remain sober might be similar to going out completely naked while everyone is fully clothed.
But I would still like you to respect my sobriety.
I don't believe it's ever acceptable to get blind drunk in the sole company of someone who is stone-cold sober. This goes for friendships and dates. How many people do you know who would be super excited for some sloppy, drunken sex when they themselves are sober?
Some people go in for dull jokes like "I'm gonna spike your drink one day, just to see what happens." We've heard that one before. That's also one of my worst fears, as someone who has never experienced intoxication. It is terrifying, and so hurtful, to think that anyone would think that's amusing. You have no idea what that experience might do to someone, especially if you don't really know or understand why they don't drink or take drugs.
The bottom line is it's just about common courtesy. People's choices, for which you may not be entitled to an explanation, are certainly not there for you to challenge. It's kind of crazy how people are so concerned about non-drinkers. It's probably your drunk mate, slumped in the corner, that you should be worried about.