I don’t drink alcohol the way other people don’t eat oysters, or don’t start the day with a cup of coffee. I don’t drink because I don’t like it, I never have. But the difference between me and people who don’t eat oysters is that I have to explain my choice—and I’ve had to for 20 years.
Alcohol isn’t just a drink, it’s a rite of passage. Forget getting your period, or your voice finally breaking—being an adult in North America means being legal. The irony being that alcohol is essentially childhood in a bottle. For a few bucks, you get a trip back to the carefree days of slurred speech, impaired balance and nonexistent inhibitions. Who’d turn down a bargain like that?
“You just don’t like it or …” is generally the response I get when I abstain. The ellipsis, along with the furrowed brow, covers everything from a bad case of alcoholism to a bad case of religious zealotry. A female friend of mine whose uncle owns a bar and who recently stopped drinking, added, “people always ask me if I’m pregnant, which makes me want to have a drink.”
It’s not that I haven’t tried alcohol. I have. I’ve tried it more times than I would ever try anything else I know I don’t like. And I still don’t like it. My mom recently told me that when I was a toddler she was once in the bath with her eyes closed, and when she opened them she found her glass of Bailey’s gone. Apparently, when she asked where it went, I yelled from the hallway, “Chocolate milk!” (Despite that bathtub cocktail, my parents barely drank. “Neither mom nor dad were particularly big drinkers,” my brother recently reminded me as we both considered why neither of us drink. “They tended not to keep alcohol in the house, so it’s not something we associated with adulthood or anything else.”) In addition to that premature shot of Bailey’s, I’ve given beer, wine, and hard liquor a chance. And I still don’t like to drink.
In high school, I lied about why I never drank. “I don’t want to lose control,” I said. The truth—I don’t want to be like you—would no doubt have been less palatable. I remember one kid, eyes filled to the brim with Molson Canadian, asking me, “Don’t you want to know what’s going on in my head right now?” And, well, the joke kind of wrote itself. According to my best friend at the time, who I consulted for this piece, I spent my teen years looking “uncomfortable and a little bit disgusted” with everyone. “I guess I felt like I was disappointing you,” she said. “But I was like, ‘Hrm, I’m gonna go get drunk anyway.’ “
I grew out of the disappointment but not the disgust. When I finally elbowed my way past the high school meat heads and into university (more meat heads!), I still couldn’t stomach the flavor of fermented what-have-you enough to benefit from the euphoria it afforded. These days, I use that excuse more than any other because it seems to be the one that everyone can understand. In an episode of the U.K. sitcom Peep Show, for instance, socially awkward anti-hero Mark Corrigan, struck with a case of insomnia, bemoans having to suck down fermented grain mash instead of something a little sweeter. “Ahh! Horrible whiskey,” he says. “Still, midnight down the bar, can’t exactly have a chocolate milkshake, can I?”
I am the midnight milkshake drinker. According to my boyfriend, I regularly replace alcohol with food. Apparently I ask to see the dessert menu every time I accompany him to the bar. Presumably, the drunker he gets, the fatter I get. When I asked if he ever wished I drank, he emphatically denied it. “I see it as a bonus that I don’t have to worry that you are choking on your own vomit down an alleyway when you’re not back ‘til late,” he said. “I just know you’ve collapsed in a cake shop.” (I never said I had self-control—sugar is my drug of choice.)
Minus the social lubricant, cake shops can start looking a lot sweeter than watering holes. A high school friend of mine who now lives in Edinburgh said that after she stopped drinking she had a “general feeling of ‘left-outness.’ ” “I’m pretty sure I don’t get invited to gatherings because I don’t drink,” she explained. My friends neither leave me out nor seem to mind drinking when I’m around, but I do sometimes feel like being a half-Pakistani in Toronto is less exotic than being sober. I am more often than not the virgin at the orgy, a quaint and prized object of interest. Seen as untainted, pure, I become the ideal to which those around me pretend to strive, defending their pint count and regaling me with tales of their own brief spells of sobriety. Some men will go so far as to use my sobriety as leverage, throwing their more intoxicated friends under the bus as they throw their free arm around my shoulders.
Of course, not everyone thinks sober is sexy. While none of my boyfriends have been dry (and I am currently clocking year eight in a relationship with a Brit), a friend of mine from the U.K. admits that, although it’s not a “deal breaker,” he would prefer to date someone who “appreciates a drink.” “As much as I would never judge somebody for not drinking, I would prefer to have a partner I can drink with,” he said. “I see food and wine and liquor as part of flirting, sexual chemistry, and general good living.”
Though I don’t envy him his bottled chemistry, I will admit that flirting with 100 percent inhibition is crippling. I once spent hours at a party finessing a Robert Downey Jr. lookalike with Wildean bon mots, only to slip off to the bathroom and return to find that a drunken man-eater had swooped in and landed on his face. I’m never relaxed enough to kiss a stranger in a club (and I do regret in 2001 not being brave enough to follow that handsome Scottish bartender into that cobblestoned alley), though that doesn’t mean I haven’t behaved impetuously—it just means I don’t do it often. And when I do, I can’t use alcohol as an excuse. I don’t drunk dial, I dumb dial and then blame my ill-advised one-night stands (which I remember in full) on hormone intoxication.
Other things I can’t do: smile knowingly when someone brags, “I was so wasted last night …” and looks at me in search of mutual recognition. Nor would I want to. Getting drunk isn’t like jumping out of a plane or composing a sonata—on its own it isn’t a feat—so why would I want to relate? Getting drunk and writing The Sun Also Rises is a different story, but writing The Sun Also Rises would be memorable even without the rum. That is not to say I don’t envy those who drink to enjoy it rather than to get wasted. I would like to be a sleek sophisticate who can savor a good sauvignon blanc, the same way I would, in theory, like to appreciate jazz or watch an Ionesco play and actually take pleasure in it.
Chelsea Handler would like me better that way too. In her 2005 memoir, My Horizontal Life, she memorably quipped: “There are two kinds of people I don’t trust: people who don’t drink and people who collect stickers.” Though one of my boyfriend’s heavy drinking pals assured me that, “people aren’t thinking about you when you refuse a drink, they’re thinking about why they themselves like to drink,” I can’t help but take Handler’s statement personally. How does not drinking make me less trustworthy?
Being sober doesn’t mean I don’t know how alcohol works. I would not phone a co-worker’s wife if he drunkenly told me that he liked me more than he should. (This happened, and I didn’t). I would not assume my married boss had a crush on me if he were three-sheets to the wind and proceeded to give me a lap dance at a staff party. (This also happened, and I also didn’t.) I knew that at the time, my co-worker and my boss’s GABA and serotonin receptors were going haywire and that their NMDAs and CACNL1A3s were dozing off.