"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.