My life as a non-drinker

"Sugar and caffeine might be comforting, but they do nothing to lessen the ache of a broken heart."

"Sugar and caffeine might be comforting, but they do nothing to lessen the ache of a broken heart." Photo: Getty Images

Here’s my disclaimer for what many might deem a sensitive topic: this isn't a Public Service Announcement about the evils of intoxication, or a treatise on the benefits of living alcohol-free. It’s just my side of the drinking story, and in our richly diverse society, it's worth hearing from the mocktailer.

I tend not to go into bars, but I’m the one who rocks up to farewell drinks with an exit strategy then orders a virgin mojito. And I try to sound cool when I do it – though my friend’s cruel snigger and the barman’s mystified look is a fresh reminder that I’m clearly not. Sometimes, said barman will give me extra mint or devise an entirely new concoction. This makes me feel special, though I suspect he soon after retires to the kitchen and regales the team with tales of the Muslim girl who wants an alcoholic drink without the alcohol.

But there you have it. For religious reasons, alcohol has never factored into my family life. On the work and social fronts, however, it’s something I’m surrounded by, whether it's at a corporate function or a friend's dinner.

The truth is, religious motivations notwithstanding, it really just comes down to choice. If I wanted to, I could, but it doesn’t appeal to me. I'm sensitive to the smell. I'm glad it's not an expense I have to budget for. When I went on a health mission last year and dropped a significant amount of weight, I didn't have to factor in a “cheeky glass of wine” (switching to dark chocolate was difficult enough). I’ve seen behaviours alter dramatically when alcohol is involved to the point of frightening.

But even though I personally don’t like it, I appreciate that many people do. Australia has a strong drinking culture, after all. And the need for reliable designated drivers. (Cue the teetotaller.) But I’ve occasionally found myself at the pointy end of the judgment stick, in the same way Michelle Bridges probably gets flack for refusing to eat a cheeseburger on occasion.

It can isolate you socially. You might attend parties at a bar or Friday drinks but you become redundant fairly quickly because you're not drinking and everyone else is. And I'm totally cool with that, but so should the frustrated person who looks at me like I've just threatened to drown a sack of kittens when I say, “I won’t be drinking tonight.”

There may be curious peers over wine glasses, and frustrated affirmations that I'm “missing out”, and need to “loosen up” (coming from someone who’s spent the last hour requesting ‘Livin’ on a Prayer’ from a non-existent DJ). I might get looks of pity and a confused shrug. I’ve been told in no uncertain terms that my life would be so much easier if it included the buffer of alcohol. And as a writer, shouldn’t I be a quasi-drunk tragic in order to tap into my true inner genius or whatever?

I get told what I’m supposed to feel, and it's amusing, but at times frustrating. Because people often take it personally when you say you don't drink.

And I think it's worse for non-drinkers who claim reasons apart from religion. When I say I'm Muslim, many will either completely or grudgingly respect it. Yet a former co-worker once told me he got bullied during a period of abstention, and a night out at the pub became a nightmare when his mates surrounded him in a booth and wouldn't let him go until he'd had a few rounds.

One former colleague participated in Dry July because he wanted to test his reliance on alcohol. At his first social function, he felt embarrassed by the mineral water he was holding. There’s an element of social pressure at play, and for this big, brash guy, drinking was an important part of any event.  

Thankfully, I've never had to deal with that level of social torment. Have enough resolve and people will respect it, even if they don't approve. Many will even, very kindly, go out of their way to accommodate you, despite your insistence that you're fine with non-alcoholic options. And, of course, some really couldn’t give a toss.

Friends who have cut alcohol for a particular reason (detox, sickness, fitness), have all told me it's an enlightening experience. I get it. Though I have no true means of comparison beyond my own observations, being a non-drinker is perhaps like watching the unedited version of a film – raw, real and not always as aesthetically pleasing as the final cut. 

I could understand how alcohol might have its “benefits” when it hit me one day just how undiluted my life has always been. Sugar and caffeine might be comforting, but they do nothing to lessen the ache of a broken heart, or numb the pain of your endless stream of thoughts when life is bringing you down.

Still, escape is a temporary fix and I don't like the idea of losing control of my senses. Who knows what I will say or do and regret the next day as my insides implode? 

But alcohol abstinence isn't solely the domain of the observant Muslim. There are many people for whom alcohol intake is but an occasional glass of wine with dinner, a special-occasion treat, or not in the diet, period.

So if someone like me shows up to your party and tries to order a virgin sarsaparilla (and it’s something I would do, if not for any reason than sarsaparilla is a really cool word and I like to say it like a cowboy), don't get offended.

And if you happen to meet me at farewell drinks, the virgin mojitos are on me, guys.

 

48 comments

  • Good article but your forgetting one thing. You live in Australia. Most other countries are fine if you don't drink. In the USA people are supportive of non drinkers. They say "oh that's great, good for you". Australia is derived from english culture. A drinking culture. Drinking is huge in Australia and people become judgemental of you if you don't drink. Pretty sad.

    Commenter
    Mark S
    Location
    Sydney
    Date and time
    June 27, 2012, 8:36AM
    • Born and bred in Australia. Non-drinker and non-smoker. Very accepted wherever I go.

      Drinking is too huge a thing in Australia. Deaths on the roads, broken families, etc. More damaging than smoking ever was. Now, that IS sad..

      Consider giving up the alcohol for the sake of yoursefl and those around you; if you can.

      Commenter
      Little John
      Location
      Perth
      Date and time
      June 27, 2012, 11:48AM
  • I've been a non-drinker for many years simply because I don't enjoy alcohol.

    Yes, it does change your life. An AA friend and I commiserated about leaving parties early -- because after that people are getting drunk and the conversation rapidly goes downhill.

    Another friend tells me that he goes to work parties, stays long enough to have some of the food and say hello to everyone, then leaves when the drinking gets heavy. He considers it a career-saving move because he never gets involved in any nasty, drunken scenes -- or witnesses anybody embarrassing themselves.

    My close friends are either non-drinkers or moderate social drinkers. They really don't care if I have a drink or not.

    The big advantage of not drinking in a drinking society? You learn to be yourself and not give in to peer pressure. It may not sound like much when you're young, but it really pays off as you get older.

    Commenter
    Pensioner
    Location
    Melbourne
    Date and time
    June 27, 2012, 8:55AM
    • I do like a drink but cannot really handle it (it's the next day, it just upsets my stomach) and refusing a drink seems akin to tell someone you killed their cat!

      Men in particular have real issues with it. I have gotten into a few arguments where basically they felt my refusal of a drink was suggesting they'd spiked it, because "I don't really drink" and "I have an early meeting tomorrow" are apparently not legitimate reasons. It's quite sad really.

      Commenter
      Fiona
      Date and time
      June 27, 2012, 8:57AM
      • There are loads of us who are recovering alcoholics, who just can't have another drink, ever. I've been lucky that friends and colleagues don't care what the colour and glass-shape my drink is. I feel for folk who get a hard time. (Alcoholism is a disease, not a moral failing.)

        Commenter
        Amy
        Location
        Melbourne
        Date and time
        June 27, 2012, 10:04AM
        • I find that people are accommodating if there is a real reason (a good "Australian" reason) not to drink - and I don't mind a drink at all. I ride either a scooter (innner city) or a litre sports bike (elsewhere). If I stop at one because I have to ride home, even if I am still well under the "limit", there is never a hint of pressure on me to have another. Nor any suggestion I am not being "manly" enough. It should be (and in my experience largely is) the same for any other reason - whether religion, intolerance (my Chinese brother in law can't touch alchohol without a reaction), or just plain personal preference. It is only if a refusal is preceived as a personal slight - i.e. I'd love a drink, just not with you - that people react negatively.

          Commenter
          macbeth
          Location
          Petrh
          Date and time
          June 27, 2012, 10:09AM
          • I think it sad that people perceive there needs to be a 'real reason' not to drink. What's wrong with a simple 'No thanks'? Having always been a non-drinker because I don't like the taste or cost of the stuff, I find it much more socially acceptable to refuse a drink now than it was when I started working in the media 20+ years ago. I'm not sure whether that's because society has changed a bit or that as I'm no longer a young 20-something people aren't going to make an issue of it with me. Possibly it's both.

            The other thing that I find a bit annoying is the expectation that I must be a 'wowser' because I don't drink.

            I want my kids to grow up in a world where they can choose to drink or not drink alcohol without feeling they have to do it to be part of their social set.

            Commenter
            JenT
            Date and time
            June 27, 2012, 11:54AM
          • Having been a non-drinker by choice until the age of 25, I too find it pitiable the way Australians aggressively push the drinking agenda. It is not as though one needs to endlessly justify one's own choice to not smoke, not use marijuana, or not use heroin. Of course, the difference is that drinking is considered the default state, and something strange must have happened to render you a non-drinker.

            The moment you dare utter the words "I don't drink", you should be prepared to offer a lengthy explanation, and be prepared to handle a highly defensive (guilty?) response. More often than not, a personal choice to not drink is interpreted by drinkers as a global condemnation of drinking.

            Commenter
            yossarian
            Date and time
            June 28, 2012, 2:30AM
        • I stopped drinking for health reasons 8 years ago. Alcohol would shorten both the span and quality of my life. Also, the tiniest bit of alcohol leaves me paralytic and ill.
          The only thing I miss is a small glass of cold cold beer on a hot summer's day, but mineral water with a splash of fresh lime is just as refreshing.
          I rarely get comments on this but everyone who know me knows I was never a big drinker.
          Anyone I know is welcome to comment on my non drinking but they also know I don't give a rat's patoota.

          Commenter
          SPoD
          Location
          not the pub
          Date and time
          June 27, 2012, 10:14AM
          • Having not drunk for 18 years I have experienced all of the above. The look of disappointment from people when they discover, an alcoholic grandfather who tried desperately to get me to have a drink with him and felt affronted when I said no. Parties where I have been caught out by lack of transport and had to endure hours of drunken stupidity. Not having any reason not to drink other than I think it tastes like crap (scotch wrecks a good coca cola etc) and I hated feeling drunk and then hungover I have felt the wrath of numerous people felt personally attacked by my abstinence. I don't care- through uni I had a car and money, I became the DD and could then leave when I wanted to. All of my friends accept me as I am and understand big piss ups are not my thing. In addition I have numerous memories/evidence of peoples misbehavior with which I can remind them at in/appropriate times.

            Commenter
            Josh
            Location
            Perth
            Date and time
            June 27, 2012, 10:19AM

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