Tuesday, 15 May 2018

The closet full of non-drinkers

Recently I was out with a group of people, some who I knew and some who I didn't, when one of my friends mentioned my blog.  Naturally I was asked what I blog about so I explained that I currently blog about being alcohol-free.  This sparked a lively discussion about our different relationships with booze.  The next day I received a message from one of the women in the group to say that she too is a non-drinker and has been for two years but is very secretive about it.  Whereas I have made the choice to go completely public about quitting drinking, I completely understand why a large proportion of non-drinkers choose to fly under the radar or remain hidden.
A mockcock


Drinking is the cultural norm

In 'Kick the Drink.... Easily' by Jason Vale, he states that alcohol 'is the only drug in the world where, when you stop taking it, you are seen as having a problem'.  In addition he highlights how alcohol  'remains the only drug on earth you have to justify not taking'.  In this NewStatesman article by Hannah Smith about her experience of quitting drinking, she highlights how 'our society venerates an addictive substance, and then pillories you if there’s even a hint you may have become addicted to it.'  She summarises that when she gave up drinking she was made to feel ashamed of her sobriety.

In this paper printed in The Lancet, twenty drugs were scored on criteria related to overall harm and alcohol scored as the most harmful drug, with an overall harm score of 72. Heroin came in second with a harm score of 55, and crack cocaine scored third with a score of 54. Despite the fact that there is endless research into the dangers of alcohol, there is still the risk that you will be judged and treated as the one with the issue when you decide not to partake.  For many of us that can feel desperately awkward and unjust, so it is often simpler to invent a plethora of excuses as to why we're not drinking (e.g. I'm driving / I'm on antibiotics / I've got a big day at work tomorrow etc.) rather than revealing the truth.

But why don't you drink?

Since I have quit drinking, I have been quite surprised to be on the receiving end of countless interrogations to understand exactly why I have chosen to stop drinking.  I often feel as though the prober is licking their lips in anticipation of tales of waking up in a pile of my own vomit in a police cell with no recollection of how I got there or necking a bottle of vodka for breakfast to be able to face the day ahead.  I'm sorry to disappoint!

In 'This Naked Mind' by Annie Grace she discusses how she's been shocked by the invasive questions she's received, stating 'You wouldn’t ask someone who turned down a glass of milk, “Are you pregnant?” “Are you lactose intolerant?” or “Did you struggle with milk?”'.  In Hannah Smith's NewStatesman article she elaborates that 'drinking alcohol is basically expected in certain situations and if you aren't partaking, people are going to ask you why. saying, "I'm good tonight" isn't enough. People will demand reasons in a surprisingly pushy way.'

In short, having to explain why you are a non-drinker can feel really intrusive and alienating.  Maybe the non-drinker has a medical condition they don't want to discuss with you, maybe they have lost control of their drinking and are doing their best to take back their life, maybe they're pregnant but don't want the world to know yet, maybe they just don't like drinking.  Whatever the reason, it can be really embarrassing (and somewhat ironic) to be put on the spot and forced to elaborate on why we aren't partaking in one of the most addictive and harmful drugs.

Move away from the sober one

Alcohol is a social lubricant.  Annie Grace discusses how 'we’ve been conditioned to drink our entire lives. We’re told alcohol calms and relaxes us, gives us courage, gets us through parties and work events, and makes us happy'.  It is true that alcohol can bring down people's barriers. loosening them up and giving them some common ground to stand on, so when you are the only one abstaining, people can make you feel excluded.  I've noticed that a couple of my friends are absolutely fine with me being alcohol-free up until a certain point in the night where they clearly find my sobriety uncomfortable and they actively avoid me, leaving me feeling like the unpopular kid at school observing them from the periphery.  I do find that hurtful as I'm still the same person, I'm just not f**ked up on booze.

Annie Grace states how 'It is much harder to go against the grain, skipping the drink...than it is to be swept along in our drinking culture. That is courage. Drinking because everyone else is doing it or because you are worried about being left out is not.'   However, it feels awkward and at times lonely standing out from the herd and being the social outcast.

It would help both drinkers and non-drinkers alike if there was more empathy, tact and acceptance around those who choose not to drink. By avoiding making assumptions and asking difficult and intrusive questions you will make it a lot easier for the non-drinker who is probably very awkward about standing out from the crowd with their choice.  Welcome them into the group and don't feel afraid of their sobriety.  The likelihood is that they have done some pretty embarrassing things themselves fuelled by alcohol so they are in no position to judge you and how you behave under the influence.  Finally, if more non-drinkers felt comfortable enough to come out of the closet, it would make it easier for others to go against the grain and embark on an alcohol free life.

If you're interested in finding out more about this then watch Clare Pooley's fabulous Ted Talk on 'Making Sober Less Shameful'.  

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