Stop Asking Me Why I’m Not Drinking
It didn’t bother me at first. I had just quit drinking, seemingly out of the blue, and I knew that my sober presence might spark some curiosity.
I’m not drinking anymore.
The record grinds to a halt, the room goes quiet and suddenly all the attention is on me.
You’re not drinking?! Why not?! What’s wrong?!
For anyone who’s ever quit drinking, the Why aren’t you drinking? question can be an annoying, tricky-to-navigate side effect of an already difficult process. It’s a question that, despite a culture of aggressive political correctness and a society obsessed with what one can and cannot say, continues to be asked. It’s a question that, six months into sobriety, I can’t seem to steer clear of.
Later at the bar, a good friend drags me to a quiet corner and asks, So what’s really going on? Do you have a problem?
Let’s be honest – people generally don’t quit drinking because they don’t have a problem with alcohol. When was the last time you’ve heard someone say, I like alcohol, drink moderately and have absolutely no sign of emotional or physical dependence. That’s why I’m quitting drinking forever!? The answer is obvious, and yet we continue to ask the question.
No one quits drinking without reason — there’s always a catalyst for sobriety, whether it’s hitting rock bottom or simply wanting to free oneself from the harmful effects of alcohol. And as a relatively new abstainer, I am no exception; there are reasons I gave up drinking, and probably a sordid story or two to tell. But unless you’re a close friend or family member (who, I concede, have the right to know), I am in no way obliged to offer an explanation of any kind. Period.
In her book, This Naked Mind, Annie Grace analogizes quitting drinking to quitting eggs: No one, Grace argues, bats an eyelash when you tell them you’re never eating eggs again, but tell them you’re drying out forever, and suddenly you find yourself in the middle of a larger discussion about alcohol and its place in our lives and society.
I get it. Alcohol is an ubiquitous part of adult life, its presence accompanying every event from work parties to baby showers. When someone declines an alcoholic beverage, it’s like bleeding in the ocean — it might just be a couple drops of blood, but sharks for miles around can smell it. It summons the pack mentality, and provokes in others a range of emotion from pride to envy, curiosity to disdain. While there are, of course, exceptions to the rule, people are generally put off by the sober person in the room, threatened by someone who dares to go against the grain.
And the fact that I don’t label myself an alcoholic and don’t avoid places where alcohol is served seems only to make matters worse. Somehow, it’s easier for people to accept that you’re not drinking because there’s something really wrong with you; because you have a serious problem. But having a problem with alcohol doesn’t necessarily mean weeks-long binges or routine blackouts. For some, the “problem” might be as benign as feeling unhealthy, or even just being tired of the hangovers. It’s this similarity of experience, I’m convinced, that makes it so hard for others to accept; had I regaled you with tales of waking up in scary unknown places, of jobs lost and relationships destroyed, it would be easier for you to distance your reality from mine. But tell you I simply wasn’t headed in the right direction, and now I’ve bridged the gap, unintentionally putting us on equal footing; suddenly, me and my problem isn’t so foreign.
After “the question” is answered, the conversation usually devolves into each person in the group explaining why, for them, alcohol just isn’t a problem (as if I care). For me, it’s really just a matter of moderation and self-control, they say (word to the wise, never tell a newly-sober person that they just need to be more self-disciplined). And then, I always drink a glass of water between every drink, that way I don’t get drunk so quickly, or, I only drink gin and tonics now because it keeps me energized the whole night, and I’m never hungover.
Six months in, I’m still amazed at how we create these elaborate rules for ourselves around alcohol, these formulas for drinking that maximize the good vibes while reducing the unwanted side effects. And it makes sense: like anything else, our minds are just trying to mitigate the harmful effects of what is, in essence, a poison. We share our formulas with each other like badges, our “mastery” of drinking a source of pride and something to be celebrated. We do this, perhaps, because we all know the risks involved, and because despite our equivocation, we know that alcohol is an addictive substance, the harms of which no one is truly immune.
But let me be clear about something – I have no intention nor desire to promote sobriety to others, and I try really hard to be cognizant of not sounding preachy or proselytizing for converts (I do this by never broaching the subject unless I’m asked). Abstinence is simply what works for me; alcohol is not something I need others to proscribe, and being around drinkers doesn’t bother me in the least. I won’t offer unsolicited advice or tell you how much my life has improved without alcohol (though I’m happy to share if you ask), and no – I’m not trying to ruin your fun. Ultimately, there’s just no good reason you should feel threatened by my sober presence. And I’m certainly not responsible if you do.
So the next time someone in the group declines a drink, don’t give advice about how to moderate, and don’t — unless you’re close — ask them why they’re not drinking. Because, sure they’ve got their reasons, but that’s really none of your concern. And in the end, what does it matter anyway? They don’t care if you drink. So why do you care if they don’t?
Written by: Andrew Stoyanoff