Many years ago, I used to tell people I was allergic to alcohol.
I thought I was so clever, and then, through conversations with my friends, I discovered it wasn’t so uncommon at all. We were all girls, united in our mutual lack of understanding about drink and drinking culture, trying to gracefully navigate Fresher’s Week (and the Reading Week. And post-exams. And midterm. And spring break. And the weekends. You get the gist.)
For clarification: I wasn’t a complete teetotal. I had a drink every now and again, out of curiosity or because I had nothing better to do, sometimes to embarrassing degrees. But for the most part I kept off the booze, and as it turned out, being (mostly) sober in my college years taught me a few interesting things.
1. Your body, your rules.
Seems simple, right? Except all the discourse I’d heard around that, up to that point, had been about sex. Alcohol, which was as much of a right of passage, had somehow become normalized by the time I was 18, and everyone wanted to enjoy their right to drink legally. I never really considered that, just because I was allowed to do something, I had to do it. My peers had every right to experiment and enjoy alcohol; I had the right to refuse it.
2. Most people didn’t really care if I was teetotal or not.
I mean, okay, some do. Even now, I get the odd “aren’t you drinking” question, although it’s more of a friendly host thing than a catty comment. But for the most part, people I met in college didn’t make a big deal out of my non-drinking. As it turned out, the contents of my drinking glass were less important to them than what I could bring to the conversation. And if I had turned out to be a nasty person, my ability to slam Jagerbombs would have been irrelevant – they would have dropped me so fast I would have left cracks in the pavement.
3. You don’t have to have a REASON to be sober.
I was prepared to dish out the allergy excuse because it seemed like the one people would least contest. I was also ready to explain to people that I wasn’t sober because I was Christian (although I am a Christian) or because I’m afraid of what happens when I drink (although, if I have to be honest, I am not my best self when I’m drunk). But nobody asked. Saying ‘no thanks’ was reason enough. What a revelation!
4. The people who make you feel bad about something usually have an agenda.
It’s true about scam diets and fast money-making schemes, and it’s also true about alcohol. People who want to make you feel bad about not drinking – something that, really, is not their business – typically want something else from you. Whether it’s your money or validating their own life choices, it doesn’t matter. What matters is that it’s not about you.
5. It does get lonely sometimes.
I’ve wondered many times (and written a few poems, often in the little hours of the morning) whether I would have had a deeper, more meaningful relationship with people if I got drunk as they did. Certainly, it’s not fun being the sober one at the party because I always felt like I was missing something. But that wasn’t true.
6. You don’t change massively when you drink.
My personality did not have a massive shift after a pint, (and I didn’t write better poetry either). If anything, I got even quieter and more withdrawn. If alcohol does anything, it’s making you more of what you already are. I wasn’t a dormant social butterfly – I was a bookworm that found the couch/wall/chair infinitely more comfortable than the center of attention.
7. There’s a cultural narrative around drink, sobriety, class, and religion.
And it was one that I didn’t have to take a part of if I didn’t want to. And that I could make a bigger difference by judging people by their actions and how they treated others, rather than by what they did or did not imbibe.
8. Inebriation is never an excuse for bad behavior.
I’ve done shitty things soberly and I’ve done shitty things while drunk. I’m not proud of any of them and I have made amends regardless of the state I was at when I did them. Conversely, I have been in situations where I needed my friends to look out for me, and they have done so, regardless of whether they were inebriated or not. I am forever grateful for each and every one of them for that.
Alcohol is never an excuse to hurt somebody, and it should never be used as justification for mistreating somebody else (“Well, she was asking for it!”)
Respect and basic human decency don’t go out the window as soon as someone opens a bottle of red. Anybody who claims otherwise wants something from you.
And I can guarantee, they don’t have your best interests at heart.