You don’t drink? Oh, so you do drugs, right? No!? What do you do for stimulation?
You might be surprised by some of the things people come out with when they hear you took the decision at 18 (after a few years of illegality…sshhh) to not drink alcohol. And how much you’d have to justify that decision to others: particularly in your late teens and early twenties when the peer pressure to drink can often be quite overwhelming.
The decision itself was an easy one and not anything that ever felt life-altering. Over time, it became something I don’t even think about. So why put down on virtual paper something which to me is no longer a big deal? Because at times it was a big deal; often, as a young adult, it was hard to deal with the societal pressure and the lack of confidence in certain situations, when a bit of Dutch courage would do the trick. And because I’m always asked to give the reason why I don’t drink.
I’m interested in sharing those experiences and exploring why people don’t seem to question alcohol consumption more; to think about whether everyone actually enjoys it and really needs it, or whether it’s a habit that’s become so ingrained that there’s no getting away from it.
I question why it needs to be considered a major decision I have taken and why I need to give a reason for it. When did drinking become such a rigid norm and why does it need to be something that I ‘don’t do’ rather than something that I don’t choose to do? I choose not to do drugs, I choose not to watch football, but neither of these things seem to define me in quite the same way that my choice not to drink does.
The societal pressure I talk about isn’t so much scores of people trying to force shots down your throat as how hard it can be to enjoy certain situations when you’ve not had a drink, when everyone else around you is getting drunk. I’m not on a soapbox at this point, critiquing people’s decisions on their alcohol consumption. But I do wonder why more young people don’t take a step back and consider whether it’s just a norm they’re conforming to. And whether if more people didn’t choose to drink frequently, or even at all, that societal pressure I mentioned wouldn’t exist.
It was actually the first few years of not drinking, having given up, which were the hardest. The first few times you try to dance as a teenager with no Dutch courage; potentially embarrassing yourself by approaching a crush with no fallback; arriving at a party on your own and sparking conversation with strangers without those couple of drinks that make you lose your inhibitions. And above all, how cold you get on the walk home without your beer jacket!
Most people wouldn’t be able to tell that I’m tee-total because I can now dance like a maniac with little other than water in my system. (I also invariably wear double the layers my friends do on a Winter night out in London!) But it was a battle with my confidence to get there. New situations; times when I felt uncomfortable: it was a struggle to find my confidence and dive in. Alcohol can be a helpful crutch or a chance to excuse the behaviour and actions we wish we felt brave enough to do without it. I had to find that courage from somewhere else. But the more I did it the easier it got and having spoken so much about societal pressure to drink, it’s important to add that none of my friends have ever made me feel different because of my not drinking nor pressurised me to do so.
Drinking, after all, is just the process of swallowing liquid; of quenching a thirst. So many times I’ve been at the bar on a night out and all I really fancy to drink is a cup of tea or a glass of milk even and that just isn’t possible: because there are certain rules about what liquid you can and can’t consume in a bar. Or I want to order some tap water and I worry the bartender thinks I’m a cheapskate. Or some non-alcoholic beer and the bar you’re in doesn’t stock it. People have even been known to say: why bother drinking beer if it doesn’t have any alcohol in it? There’s got to be something wrong there.
I’ve just come back from a week in Spain; a country I have visited often and lived in once. There really is such a different culture there with regard to drinking. Yes, young people drink and often a lot, but I’ve never found there to be a need to explain why you’re not drinking. And you’re certainly never looked at in disbelief if you order a non-alcoholic beer. The fact there’s always one variety on tap speaks for itself and that most domestic fridges seem to stock as much non-alcoholic as alcoholic lager hammers the point home.
One of the biggest of all the societal pressures I’ve ever felt is to tell people why I don’t drink: often because I’ve been asked outright by people I barely know and equally because I feel I need people to know that I’ve got a ‘good excuse’; that not wanting to, or feeling that it’s just not for me isn’t a good enough reason. No matter how strong my convictions are, I still conform to that norm in a way.
I imagine now, as I draw to a close, many of you reading this want to know why I don’t drink. But the question is: why should it matter?