It took me months to write this because I wanted to do it right and most importantly, to be certain I was not to be misinterpreted. For several weeks, I have been noting thoughts and ideas in my phone and on my notepad.
As most of my friends know, I took the decision to stop drinking alcohol over two years ago. I came to that conclusion at the end of a 10-month trip around South-East Asia, the Indian subcontinent, Turkey, and Greece. I first contemplated reducing drinking when I found myself in some dry parts of Malaysia (alcohol is not illegal everywhere in Malaysia, only in some specific parts of the country where local rules are sticker than the national standards). I kind of forgot about it when I continued my journey and traveled in Sri Lanka and India. I gave it some thought when I was in Turkey, but quickly forgot about it once I made it to Greece. I eventually decided I wanted to stop drinking in my very last days of my 10-month adventure around the world.
Notice that I write “took the decision to stop drinking” and “decided I wanted to stop drinking” – not “I stopped drinking.” When I first took that decision, in what seems now like forever ago, I did not even think about what other people’s reactions to someone not consuming alcohol as a personal choice (I am obviously not a pregnant woman, not under any medication, etc., so people know it’s a personal decision) might be. I had never given much thought about the topic of alcohol back when I was still drinking, but on every occasion I would encounter someone refusing a drink. I knew it was grossly impolite to ask why — I figured if the person was simply not drinking out of a personal choice, chances are, getting asked to justify themselves would annoy them. Plus, if they’re not drinking because due to more serious reasons – such as being an alcoholic or having witnessed family members struggling with alcohol addiction – it’s probably not something they feel like mentioning during conversation.
Despite this conventional wisdom, (at least, to me) people do ask. The perpetual weird looks and personal questions are pervasive to the point that, when I was visiting home, I actually felt the need to thank a friend (whom I hadn’t seen in a long time) for not saying anything or asking why, when I mentioned I was not drinking at the bar we were at.
The list of potentially awkward answers to “Why don’t you drink?” is beyond endless:
- “I’m pregnant” (nothing embarrassing in itself, but not everyone feels the need to tell other people the second they find out about it)
- “I have a drinking problem”
- “I have alcoholics in my family” (which could refer to the genetic aspect of alcoholism and/or to the traumatic effect of witnessing a family member struggling with their addiction)
- “I did something awful once when I was drunk” (for instance, one of my favorite musician wrote a song about how he cheated on his girlfriend one night while drunk and how that prompted him to never drink again)
I thought those were all things any sensible person with basic cerebral capacities could and would think about. I figured even people without close friends or relatives dealing with any of the aforementioned situations have probably heard about those things and know they are sensitive topics, despite not personally dealing with any of them. But apparently not.
I Googled “how to tell people you don’t drink” when writing this to see what would turn up. The search results were a bunch of similar websites or blogs, all attempting to give non-drinkers tips on how to act in social situations where alcohol is usually present. There’s even a Wikihow page about it. What was interesting about these articles were that they all pretty much come came to the same suggestions – which pretty much all involved making stuff up instead of getting straight to the point and telling people you just don’t drink alcohol.
For instance, Succeed Socially mentions telling people you run a marathon in two days or you’re trying to get in shape and avoid the calories. The Wikihow page suggests making up stories such as, “No, thank you. I have to drive myself home,” and “Thanks, but I’m still hungover from last night,” or carrying something that could look like an alcohol drink, such as a coke. The article mentions “If you simply don’t enjoy drinking, people may have a hard time understanding this, so you may be better off making an excuse.” Thought Catalog suggests bringing a friend who will also stay sober – as if it was simply impossible not to drink alcohol by yourself.
Shortly after taking the decision of stopping drinking, I didn’t feel confident enough to just tell the truth to the people I was with – and I am usually a pretty confident person, so this says a lot about how judgmental our society can be. But after a few months of making stuff up, I realized every “lie” I came up with created lots of problems. Most importantly, I realized there was nothing inherently wrong with not drinking, nothing to be ashamed of and thus no point in lying.
I first tried telling people I was trying to lost weight so I was avoiding alcohol because of the calories. This led to a bunch of unpleasant conversations – namely friends arguing with me that I was already thin and good-looking and didn’t need to do this, to friends thinking I had some sort of eating disorder, freaking out and staging weird interventions, and uncomfortable (read here: slightly judgmental) looks from people who were not thin as me.
After I realized the weight loss excuse was not working for me, I decided to lie about fitness regimes, thinking no one would argue with that. I started by telling people I was training for an upcoming marathon. Then when I realized that it was not enough and people still bugged me to drink, I told them I was training to be a bodybuilder – it did work (nobody can argue with that one – bodybuilders really aren’t allowed any alcohol during their training), but, unless I was telling this lie to a total stranger, it was only a short-term fix because people would eventually come back and ask me how my training was going, when I would be competing, etc. I basically realized those fitness excuses weren’t really going anywhere in the long run with the people I knew, even it if was just acquaintances I do not know well.
I do think making up those kind of stories can be useful for certain people, i.e. alcoholics who are currently struggling to stay sober and do not want people in their entourage knowing they have a drinking problem. One can reasonably understand how someone in this kind of situation would want to avoid his entire social circles, including colleagues and other professional contacts, learning about a drinking problem. But for a person simply not drinking because they don’t enjoy it, these excuses are not necessary and I realized after a while that it was simply ridiculous to keep them up.
As I was debating which excuses to use, I finally realized there was no point in lying. So I stop doing it. It took me over a year to get there. It would have taken a lot less time if people in our society knew our to respect personal boundaries and stay out of sensible topics.
By the way, you might have noticed that nowhere in this text have I mentioned why I stopped drinking. That’s just the way it should be – and you should not feel the need to ask.
Lastly, just to end this post on a lighter touch, here the Top 5 of the funniest, weirdest and/or most annoying (depending how you look at them) reactions I’ve experienced ever since I stopped drinking:
1. On a first date.
Bartender: Can I get you anything to drink?
Guy I was on a date with: Yes, I’ll have a [insert here the name of the cocktail he chose]
Me: I’ll just have a sparkling water.
Guy I was on a date with: *puzzling look*
Me: I don’t personally drink alcohol so I’ll just have that.
Guy I was on a date with: OMG! I feel so bad! Alcohol is bad – you’re right! I’ll go cancel my drink order! *runs off to go get the bartender before I could answer anything*
2. On a different first date.
Waiter: Can I take your order?
Guy I was on a date with: Yes, I’ll have a [insert here a cocktail name]
Me: I’ll have a sparkling water.
Guy I was on a date with: You don’t want a cocktail or a glass of wine?
Me: I don’t drink, but thanks for offering
Guy I was on a date with: Ah come one! Have one with me!
Me: But. I. don’t. drink. alcohol. *exchanges an exasperated look with the waiter*
Guy I was on a date with: Is that why your body is so chiseled?
Me: Erm… I don’t know about that! Maybe!
Guy I was on a date with: *starts asking me 8549 questions about my body fat percentage, my eating habits and my workout routine*
3. Also on a different date – those were stretched over more than a year, I swear!
Waiter: Can I take your drink order?
Guy I was on a date with: Yes, I’ll have [insert here the name of the wine he chose]
Me: I’ll have a sparkling water.
Guy I was on a date with: You’re not even having one drink?
Me: Erm no. I’m a bodybuilder! [This was in my I’m-making-up-a-ton-of-fitness-excuses phase]
Guy I was on a date with: AH! I thought you looked like one! *reveals he is thinking about starting bodybuilding too and starts asking me a ton of insanely precise questions I had no idea how to answer*
4. NOT on a date – with a friend!
Me: I don’t drink alcohol
Friend: Ah but you do know wine is healthy right? There’s antioxidants in wine.
Me: Oh yes, I *think* they come from the grapes and you can get the same benefits by eating grapes. I’m not 100% sure though.
Friend (apparently allergic to sarcasm): Oh ok. Look it up and let me know!
5. I can’t remember who that person was – I think someone attending an event I was at.
Person: Why don’t you have a drink?
Me: Because I don’t drink alcohol.
Person: Ah. Why? You’re Canadian right? Is that why?
Me: *mind-blown for a few seconds* Yes. We’re in the process of building a nation 100% sober.