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Thursday, September 09, 2004

I'm not as think as you drunk I am!

It's the early part of a new year and, as a consequence, we're in the midst of "Welcome" and "Welcome Back" parties here in graduate school. The welcome back parties are, of course, an avenue for we few, we lucky few, who are graduate school veterans to catch up. The welcome parties, on the other hand, are to greet and integrate the new cohort of grad students, who need to be approached carefully lest they realize too soon that this isn't college anymore. These latter parties are particularly interesting this year since our new cohort is dominated by women. Moreover, as a feminist friend of mine put it:

"This cohort is going to become known as the beautiful cohort."

That's really irrelevant to the point of this post, but I find it so damned amusing that a feminist was characterizing a female group in terms of physical attractiveness, that I couldn't resist mentioning it.

Of course, such a high concentration of parties means that drunken revelry is at its biannual high (The other mode, of course, being at the midpoint of the year). This, plus the presence of new people in the mix, means that I'm getting asked a particular question with unusual frequency. No, I don't mean, "Jesus, are you always this much of an asshole?!" The answer to that question, for those who are curious, is no. No, I am not always this much of an asshole. Normally, I am much, much more of an asshole. At parties I generally labor to play nicely.

No, in this case, I mean the OTHER question I tend to get, "Is it really true that you don't drink?" Yes. Yes it is. I do not, in fact, consume alcohol recreationally or professionally. I have never even been drunk.

To answer your next question, yes, I have had a drink previously. I've had several drinks spread out over a number of years including part of a Keystone Lite, a jell-o shot or two, vodka, and tequilla. I have not had bad experiences with any of these drinks, aside from the fact that Keystone Lite tastes like a bus station urinal smells, and vodka could very easily be mistaken for degreaser.

Most people on learning this say something non-committal like, "Wow. That's interesting." They usually don't ask the question that almost everyone thinks: "So why don't you drink?"

Ah, yes, that is the question, isn't it? Well, it isn't because I'm a member of a religious group that prohibits drinking. I am, in fact, an atheist and so, while I have a fairly clear set of morals, they tend not to include semi-arbitrary dietary restrictions. No offense to adherents of kosher or halal, but I calls 'em like I sees 'em.

In part I don't drink because... well... it just doesn't really appeal to me. Alcohol is, as it happens, poisonous and your body attempts mightily to flush it out as it would any other toxin. That doesn't strike me as an immediate sign that I should go ahead and drink. Beyond that, while many people enjoy the state of mind that alcohol brings about, I personally have no interest in it. I take great pleasure in thinking quickly and clearly, and have not enjoyed the times when, due to either drugs or sickness, I have been stripped of this ability. So, partly, I don't drink because I don't have a positive interest in doing so.

There's a more important reason, however. I have come to recognize over time that I have an addictive personality. I don't know why this is, exactly. I suspect it is, in part, because I am subject to a fair amount of anxiety and a tendency to become obsessive. Oh, stop looking at me that way! I have yet to meet a grad student, much less a faculty member, who isn't a near-miss for several of the things listed in the DSM-IV. Regardless, my tendencies in this area have expressed themselves in a number of ways, from dependencies on OTC allergy medicine (Believe it or not, you CAN take 10 times the recommended dose of Afrin without burning out your sinuses), to self-inflicted scratching wounds of a rather severe nature, to an obsessive need to stick to a routine, to a weak but persistent form of trichotillomania. (minus the ingestion part. Yech!)

I don't recount these experiences to give the impression that I am a walking psychiatric disaster area. These are all things I have experienced in the past, not things I am presently experiencing. I bring them up, however, to give weight to my point that I have an addictive personality and, therefore, think it unwise to indulge to any great extent in alcohol. See, given my predilections it would be easy for indulging a little to change into indulging a lot, and from there into indulging too much. The people in my life, and my goals for my life, are simply too important for me to want to jeopardize them for such a stupid reason. So, as a personal choice, I simply do not drink.

It may seem like I am admitting to being a weak person here, in that I am expressing fear that I might be prone to alcoholism, but I don't see it that way. To my way of thining, it takes a certain amount of strength to recognize a potentially serious flaw in yourself and take steps to deal with it. This is doubly so when those steps may be socially unpopular or awkward.

In my case, they unfortunately are both unpopular and socially awkward. At parties it's difficult to socialize properly without alcohol. This is partly because others, who are drinking, tend to become uncomfortable when they realize you're not. I think this is because many people assume that teetotalers make a moral judgement about those who do drink. Probably this is a result of the moral rhetoric used during the prohibition movement in the United States. This is a shame since my choice not to drink has no effect on my approval of your drinking. I don't drink because I have reasons why I don't want to- if you want to get shit-faced, hell, god speed little buddy. The other cause of the awkwarness is that it's difficult to socialize as a non-drinker because, let's face it, after a while you'd have to be drunk yourself to find the conversation interesting.

The problem is more widespread than this, however. What do people do to celebrate some momentous event? They have champagne. When you want to get to know someone better, or smooth over a faux pas, what do you do? Invite them out for a drink. What do people do to unwind from a hard day? They have a beer. Drinking is a pervasive aspect of our culture, which both explains why prohibition was such a dismal failure, and why alcoholism is so common. It also explains why recovering alcoholics are in for such a rough time- it's almost impossible to separate oneself from all contexts where drinking is a part.

I'm not an alcoholic, and intend to make sure I don't become one, but I can perhaps understand why their recovery is so hard. The lure of the drug must be hard enough, without the subtle social pressure that comes along with it. In college a friend of mine told me that for her birthday she wanted me to do a double-shot of vodka with her. Now, given my particular reasons for not drinking, this wasn't an obviously bad idea for me, as it would be for a recovering alcoholic. Yet, consider for a moment that in making the request, my friend was implying that my presence at her party, and my friendship, just weren't special enough unless I drank. Now I know that wasn't her intent, but it does illustrate the casual way that non-drinkers can be put in awkward social positions by others who mean to do no such thing.

So, am I telling you this because I just felt like devolving into some lengthy navel-gazing? Well, maybe a little. Mostly, though, I just wanted to speak up for other non-drinkers. We're not weird, we're not all religious nuts, we don't all want to convert you, and for the most part we aren't judging you. Some of us are alcoholics, some of us suspect we would be, some of us don't like the taste, some of us just aren't into it, and some of us are members of a faith that prohibits it. There are as many reasons people don't drink as there are reasons people do. Just, please, take it seriously that we don't drink. We aren't trying to be insulting, we aren't trying to be difficult, but we all have our reasons. If you're nice to us, we may even explain them. We can play a role in your lives as friends, as lovers, and of course (Annoying as it can be) as designated drivers.

All we ask in return is that you not create a social context where our not-drinking makes our participation impossible. Leave us some space in your world. We can have fun, and we are often fun to be around, we're just totally sober while we're doing it.

Besides, you've seen what I'm like sober. Can you imagine what I'd be like drunk?

I mean, wow.


Blogger tina said...

I know what you mean, though I'm not usually one to turn down a beer. But, you know, I was pregnant for what seems like the longest time, at least when measured in alcohol-free days. It's amazing how boring a social event can be when others are drinking and you are not. I'm now pretty sure I'm not 1/10th as interesting as I think I am.

Thursday, September 09, 2004 5:03:00 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

At parties it's difficult to socialize properly without alcohol.Not if you take drugs!

Thursday, September 09, 2004 8:17:00 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Hi. I'm really interested in what motivates people to decide to not drink. I know you could say that it is the other way around - what motivates people to drink. But because drinking is so pervasive, it is actually the deciding not to do it that requires effort. Especially when faced with having to defend your stance all the time. A lot of people who "don't drink" will actually just have one, just so they can have a drink in their hand, avoid all the questions. I live in Ireland which obviously is even a more extreme alcohol culture. I'd love if you could share some insight into why you made this decision, especially to completely not drink and all the akwardness that entails as opposed to caving to the social pressure and having one or two?

Wednesday, October 04, 2006 9:39:00 AM  

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