What You Lose When You Don’t Drink

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S1: This ad free podcast is part of your slate plus membership.

S2: So I’m really excited about this topic, mostly because I don’t really drink.

S3: You know, this is something that I’ve really struggled with. You know, we had like a recent holiday party here, like a Christmas party at our office. And I didn’t even go either. It wasn’t I wasn’t excited about hanging around and cheering people with my my cup of water. So I just built it completely.


S4: That’s kind of a great Segway into things because a big thing to break bread with those around you is to bond over a drink. And so that’s kind of what makes everything a little difficult because it is such a huge culture that, you know, if you can drink together, you can laugh together, you can trust each other. You have like mutually assured destruction on each other, so to speak. It’s a really funny way of putting it.

S1: This is Claire. About a year and a half ago, she graduated from her college’s Air Force ROTC program and is now active duty in the U.S. Air Force. When she first joined the military truck, she quickly learned it was easy to get on with her fellow recruits, at least partly thanks to one thing. Alcohol flowed freely out of uniform events where she could mingle regardless of rank or gender.


S5: But now that she’s given up drinking a central part of that machismo culture of any military branch, she’s not quite sure what’s going to happen next.


S6: Hello and welcome to MAN UP. I’m your host, Ayman ismaii. On this show, we crack questions big and small about manhood.

S7: This week, an Air Force officer learns to bond with men in her company without having to drink them.

S1: So clear made most of her friends on base over a drink, I’d never been in the military, but I can relate a little bit. I’ve been in big organizations where I had a lot less power than other people and boozy events helped break down those barriers. A lot of us have experienced this at the workplace. Right. But what happens when you’re used to that crutch and then decide that you have to give it up altogether? Especially when drinking bravado defines the culture.


S2: So tell me about the moment that you decided that you didn’t want to drink.

S8: What’s your excuse for that?

S9: Initially, it started kind of as like a health fitness goal, I suppose.

S10: But what really made me quit is I realized that I was looking more forward to the alcohol at events and the drinking and drinking with people specifically than I was the event itself.

S11: Or I would go to concerts or events or museums and we would drink a lot and I’d kind of wake up the next morning. I realized that I don’t. I kind of missed what I was supposed to be there for because we were having so much fun drinking and paying attention to that. And I think the big thing for me. Like the day I decided like, OK, this something’s really got to change is when there’s sort of a going away party for me as I was getting ready to move and I was gonna catch a flight the next day to go take care of some stuff before I completely moved and my friends convinced me to stay out so late.


S9: I was very, very intoxicated and I almost missed my flight. Like I woke up forty five minutes to spare before my flight took off, and I still hadn’t packed or anything yet either.

S12: And so I was like rushing through the airport. Crazy. Like, probably still a little drunk, a little hung over. Just that awful stage. And I was on the airplane in that tiny little bathroom, like throwing up, telling myself like, hell, no, I can’t do this anymore.

S11: That’s yes, it did. I did make the flight, though. There was a happy ending for that. And on that flight, I was like, all right, I’m done drinking. Like, I got to quit. And then as soon as I showed up to my friend’s house, he was like, hey, I got your favorite beer in the fridge. And the. Fast forward a few more months. And then I stopped drinking.


S8: He got your favorite beer. I know.

S2: So I’ve never served have been in any kind of military. I think maybe the closest experience that I’ve had to that kind of environment is working on set on like a movie set. And there’s like that hierarchy, right? There’s like the director, the grips, the the you know, like that was like the lowest of the low. I was a P.A. It’s just a straight up production assistant. So I’m taking orders. I’m rushing around. And, you know, I didn’t really feel like I got to see other people on set either. I because of that hierarchy, until we were like having dinner with each other or we were doing like something else offset. How do you get along with people in your unit or people outside of that?


S10: You know, going out to eat, going to movies, kind of spending time, that helps, but it wouldn’t really tell our kind of stop drink thing that I realized how much of a main course. The drinks are.

S13: So what’s difficult about socializing with them without drinking?

S10: It hasn’t been too difficult yet because I’m still in the same place as I was when I was drinking. So they’ve known me in like both scenarios, like already kind of broke those walls down and got my end. But oftentimes that’s kind of how you do the ice breakers or like that’s how you bond after a hard, hard day or something. We’ll just go out and get a drink or something. I’m just worried about when I have to move to a new unit, to an base, how to break those walls down so everyone gets a little social anxiety. You know, so it’s just easier to bond over the prescribed, like, let’s just go for a drink, fill in the blank right there. Yeah. So I’m more worried about when I move and change units in a new place where I know absolutely no one as opposed to here where I already knew people after I decided to stop drinking.


S13: What are you afraid of, like what could go wrong?

S11: I don’t think anything bad can come from not drinking, however. I think it’s going to put me in a life outside of my comfort zone when it comes to how I, like, manage my social life and expectations of other people. And it’s going to make me kind of re-evaluate what I actually enjoy, what I actually want to do and how I interact with other people. Like if they’re drinking, you know, is it going to actually bother me to put myself in that situation? It’s just going to cause me to re-evaluate some things that I’m just so used to. And it’s gonna be in an environment that I have never been in with people I don’t know.


S12: And while it’s kind of exciting, it’s definitely going to be tricky. I think.

S14: So after talking with Claire, I kept thinking about something. What is it about really male environments that lends itself to this kind of intense drinking and what happens if you break that code, especially as the odd woman out? So I talked to Claire again about it.

S1: Could you just explain to me a little bit more? Do you feel any kind of pressure to be one of the guys?

S15: Absolutely. Yeah.

S16: So something I’ve noticed is how guys treat other girls that are very girly and really feminine and stuff like that, it’s like they kind of go stupid and they forget how to talk to girls and they forget that that’s like a co-worker and one of their, like, sister in arms, so to speak. And girls kind of have to be extra tough and extra like thick skinned to make sure that they have that respect.


S17: So I wonder how much of that influences your choices, like does this factor into how whether whether or not you wanted to quit drinking? Kind of.

S16: What the guys do socially isn’t really held against them professionally as it is with women. Now, that’s not completely true. If you do some like if a guy does something like terrible, like obviously that’s gonna be brought up. But just typically with the behavior, especially their shrinking of all the guys can go out and party and act like total morons and be ridiculous. But like if a girl does that, that’s gonna carry over into the next work day where that’s what they’re going to remember about her. Now, I mean, it is kind of important to have that trust in that vulnerability with your with your guys and stuff. Whether they actually be male or female. But it’s just sort of a double standard that you see in a lot of areas of work and life where what the female does is just completely held under a microscope, a scope and heightened, whereas whatever the guy does isn’t as a question, I suppose.


S17: So it sounds like, if anything, the fact that you are a woman.

S1: Meant to you that you couldn’t drink as socially as some of the other guys in your company.

S18: It’s a weird, fine line between having to be able to drink them all and when they respect in that sense, but still be able to lock it up.

S16: It’s like we have to be two hundred percent in every single aspect that we present ourselves as, whereas they can get by with amusedly like 50 percent. Seventy five percent.

S18: I think something that really does impact it too, is that the guys get very brony and vulnerable when they’re drinking, which is something that I think men still have a lot of trouble with, is opening up and being vulnerable. And they can do that, you know, if they’ve been drinking. That’s a great excuse. And I don’t know for women.

S19: I think we’re just sort of used to being a little vulnerable with ourselves. But we can’t really do that with the guys until we really, really trust them and they trust us.

S20: We’re going to take a quick break, but right when we come back, Claire and I are going to hear from a military vet about her much more extreme experience with this and what she wishes she knew when she was still active duty.

S21: I’ve been sober for almost three and a half years. And you know, all the stuff that Claire’s talking about, man, like I had that fear of missing out. You know, I had a whole lot of fear. You know, when I quit drinking, like, how am I ever going to be fine again? How am I ever going to be in a relationship again? How am I ever gonna be intimate with that with a partner again, like all of these things that I just didn’t know how to do without alcohol because I was an alcoholic and that’s how I lived my life.


S1: That’s Heather King. She’d always been a heavy drinker. Partying with the other kids in high school and drinking with her older brother. And after she enlisted, she found even more reason to drink as one of the only girls in her company. She felt like she had something to prove. She later wrote in a New York Times essay that that impulse nearly killed her.

S2: When I talked to her, Claire was on the line to say that the first point I really want to try and unpack is because I thought you put it very well in your essay. You wrote that you wore your ability to drink others as a badge of honor. What does that mean?

S22: Absolutely.

S23: Those guys were not gonna outrank me. They may be able to lift tires more, they may be I mean, big run circles around me on the flight line. As far as like what they could list and changing tires and changing brakes and all that stuff, and that’s fine. But when it came to light going out, I was going home, I was going to hold my weight in one way or another because I felt like I had so much to prove. I wanted that camaraderie. I wanted like I wanted all the things that I was taught that the military would offer me. And and I wanted that closeness. And I wanted to feel like these people had my back and I didn’t know any other way to get it other than I was going to drink them. I was going to be like the baddest mofo that they knew, you know, and I was I was already a tomboy. So obviously, like that, you know, helped.

S2: Could you paint that picture for me, though? Like, what did it look like when you were like out with these guys and drinking them?


S24: Yeah, I was actually in tech school and there is this guy that I was I was infatuated with and he wanted to go shop for shot and I was like, all right, let’s go. So we went through a bottle of Southern Comfort and then there was nothing left and we were both standing. And and so somebody brought out a scene of BlackBerry brandy. The smell of it is, is I can still smell it. I took a shot. He took a shot. I took another one. And that was that was it. I was done. I could not put any more alcohol in my body. I I I’m pretty sure I had alcohol poisoning, which wouldn’t have been the first time. And I ended up getting carried to another person’s room, stripped absolutely naked and put in a shower where they just ran cold water on me for God knows how long while I threw up in the shower. And that was like four hours.

S22: And you would think you would think that that would be enough for me to say. I’m done.

S25: But no, I woke up at 4:00 in the afternoon the next day, knocked on his door and said, let’s go and we drink beers. You know, the restaurant the rest of the night.

S26: Mm hmm. Do you recognize where Claire’s come from?

S27: Yeah, I’ve been where she’s coming from. I did not get sober while I was in the military. I’m not drinking around my peers was never like it was just never an option. I worked on the flight line and I was the only female for the longest time. And so, you know, I was gonna be damned if I was ever gonna be the first one out. And I was never you know, those guys could call me, you know, a lot of things. And they did because I was a girl. And let me just be very, very clear. The military is very different today than it was when I came in. I came in prior to 9/11, but I was never going to be that girl. I was never gonna be the girl that couldn’t carry her weight. I was never gonna be the girl that wasn’t tough enough to be around the guys. I was never going to be all of those things. I was never gonna be. They could never call me weak. And so for me, you know, that meant I went out, I got drunk with the guys.


S21: It’s funny because all the people that I used to drink with, a lot of them don’t drink anymore. And we’ve all kind of had that retrospect of, you know, how things could have been different had we not been drinking.

S1: Do you think that had more to do with the fact that this is a male dominated field or is this just what.

S26: Partying with other military folks looks like.

S22: Well, I think it’s I think it’s yes to both. Right. I think it’s yes to both because when I came on the flight line. So this is 2001.

S23: And and guys were not, you know, so, so keen on having females there. And it’s kind of the same argument that you hear now about, you know, women in combat roles. It’s the same crap, the same mentality. And so you have that. And if you’re rebellious and insecure and you know, all the things that that I was as a 19 year old girl, you look for any way to bond with people, you know, and. And so that was that as far as the military, as a culture, the layer that comes there is it’s so it’s so complicated because you you drink when somebody has a baby, you drink when somebody dies.

S22: You drink when you when you lose somebody, you drink and you you just you drink like that, is that is the coping mechanism, right.

S23: And I’m I’m sorry. I think of all the all the funerals that I’ve gone through and we’ve, you know, gotten drunk before and after and in that person’s name.

S28: And you do it because there is no real time to cope. And so the easiest way is, hey, drink beer, suck down. Let’s go. Well.


S8: It resonates. How does it resonate glew?

S12: So much of it, I’m afraid that if we’re speaking the same language, that a lot of what she was drinking to forget is the reason I was drinking to forget stuff like that.

S10: Not necessarily military related, but it’s resonating. And I realize now that, like, I don’t blame the military for my drinking, but it definitely provided the perfect environment for me to hide amongst all the other heavy drinkers. And it provided basically the culture where my heavy drinking was, you’re seen as like regular drinking until it wasn’t. And that’s different because out in the real world and I come home with family and stuff, it is incomparable, like she was talking about being able to just like out drink anybody. Yeah, I wear that with a badge of honor too. Like I would drink. The black is like most stout beers. I would have multiple. I’d be fine and I could just go for it. And yeah, like with the guys like that forged a bond like because you don’t want to be the girl that’s like like all over the guys or the one that’s too prudish or too this too that whatever.

S12: So you can bond by becoming one of them.

S29: And if they’re all morning by drinking, so are you. And that is your option.

S2: So could you talk a little bit about what you lose when you don’t drink with other guys and you’re in the Air Force?

S11: It makes it really easy for them to form their opinions on you and still see you as sometimes less whether it’s them doing it on purpose or not. If you can’t keep up with them, if you can’t, you know, spar back and forth with them on it, all that sort of stuff, it can kind of.


S10: Put you in a situation where you have to prove yourself and you have to keep up with them and you have to make sure that they know that you have their back and you’re not gonna be like like she was saying that girl, you know, you’re not going to be the like I mentioned, I was an officer, too. Like, I’m not gonna be like that bitchy leader that’s just barking out orders and stuff like, oh, I can I’m cool. I can hang stuff like that.

S12: It’s just a way to kind of break down those walls and show people like who you are.

S11: Take care of each other. And I don’t know, it’s just it kind of humanizes people in a sense, but also can really screw up perceptions of people, too.

S27: You have a clear like you are in such a way, you’re in such a unique position that, you know, I wasn’t in.

S25: You really have an opportunity by not drinking like to be a more effective leader. Like, I had no idea that I was a lot of fun without alcohol.

S30: I thought that I was like, dull and boring. And I’ll tell you what I still do. Beastie Boys. Paul Revere karaoke with or without a microphone. Silver Lake.

S27: And you’re in such a position that, like, you can be an inspiration to people and you can people can see like she goes out, she has a good time and she doesn’t drink like and she’s still a ton of fun. That trust that that we have with each other, you know? Yeah. It’s easy to say that it comes from, you know, partying and drinking alcohol and tune in. To an extent it does.


S31: But that trust is built on a far deeper level than alcohol. That trust is built on, you know, being there for people, being, you know, when your word is what you mean, like when people know it is clear, says this. It’s gonna be this way.

S32: Like that’s that’s the real, real trust. You know, we buy into this idea that, you know, you can only be a battle buddy if you’re if you’re getting drunk with somebody. You can only be, you know, a good NCO or a good leader. If you take everybody out to drink and buy shots for everybody on the first round at a ball or whatever can only be and only be effective if you’re if you’re drinking out of the broad bowl like that’s I mean, that’s just stuff that that’s stuff that we perpetuate because it’s you know, it is such a part of our culture. But if people don’t stop making it a part of our culture, it’s not like it’s not going to change. And you have a chance to to change, to set an example. You know, like it’s.

S28: It’s free. It’s scary, but if if if anything is going to change, then it has to. It has to start somewhere.

S10: And that’s really what I’m finding. Everything you were saying about having the opportunity to lead and set an example like I was so scared of what would happen when I stopped drinking. But that’s really what I’m finding is that people are kind of. That’s me. Like, well, you know, how did you do it? Maybe I should do it. Stuff like that.


S12: And you know, you saying Grug made my eye twitch. It’s such a riot at a passage. But it’s good to know that I’m providing myself more credibility as well. And people are able to come to me with these sorts of things, too.

S33: I mean, and you’re like, you’re on the right track.

S27: And you I mean, it’s it’s easy to get caught up in what will people think. But at the end of the day, you know, it doesn’t it doesn’t matter.

S32: The people that are going to the people, people are going to trust you more when they see you sticking to your values than they would seeing you out drinking with the guys. Now that I’m not drinking, so many people come up to me like you were saying, and they asked me how to how do you do it? How do you do it? And that like I would much rather have people asking me how do I stay sober than people that are like, hey, let’s go to a bar.

S34: Absolutely. Just not fulfilling anymore.

S26: So it seems like Claire’s challenge is trying to get over that belief that she needs to drink with her unit to get along and. Yeah, I think there’s something. I think there’s. I kind of understand where she’s coming from. Like, you almost want to feel like they see you as just one of the guys and that you could just fit in perfectly. Do you have any strategies that you can share with her? And like, how did maybe feel more comfortable being sober on this?

S25: Yeah, I’ve got I mean I’ve got to one of them is a lot harder than the other. So I’ll finish with that one. My first one is like if I’m going if I’m going to a setting like I went to Tampa this summer and to see my best friend who she was military police and we went to brunch and they had drinks and I had mojitos like or no Cheetos, which is my what is one of my favorite drinks. It’s a mosquito, but with no alcohol. And then they stop drinking and we’re like, oh, let’s see what else we can get non-alcoholic and like, we just kept challenging the bartender to, like, make us non-alcoholic drinks. And it was like it was fun. So that’s one that’s one of the things that I do is I try to go and have, you know, mocktails. And because if people if people at least see a drink in your hand, they usually don’t ask. And then the second piece is it’s a lot it’s a lot harder. But it comes with with being comfortable and at peace with who you are when when you can find that level of peace.


S31: And know who you are.

S23: You can go anywhere and you can do anything and you can be around anybody because you know that like. It’s not you’re not what you say you are, you’re what you do.

S33: You know, I’m saying.

S32: I learned to say no, if I if I don’t want to go somewhere like you were saying, you didn’t go to your your work party. If I don’t want to go somewhere I don’t like.

S30: That’s a big deal for me. Like, it’s so.

S32: It’s so freeing to tell somebody. Now, I don’t know why. Because I don’t. I don’t want to. Like you can tell me. No.

S35: It’s so liberating. It is like it’s my new favorite thing is to tell people no. And they cancel plans. I love it. It’s great.

S36: Yeah, it is so weak. It feels so good.

S8: I like it. It’s so clear. How do you feel?

S29: You know, she’s had a lot of things that I just hadn’t quite formulated into my thoughts yet. You know, like I got to work through my feelings and opinions on things and assigned, you know, words and logic to them. And she kind of cleared a lot of stuff up for me and how I see things. And I feel very optimistic still. And I’m excited about it.

S12: And I’m sure there’s so much more left to be said about this topic and everything else that we just kinda handed to and scratched the surface on. I don’t want anyone listening to this podcast to think that the military is like bad and forcing you to drink and like, oh, you’re. It drives you to drink. Not necessarily. I don’t think it’s the military’s fault per say. While it can definitely be handled better, it’s improving.


S29: It’s just such a intense culture. It’s like magnified. Yeah. In the military. And so I’m still very thankful for it.

S35: I’m not talking smack about it, especially cause I’m still active duty.

S10: But, you know, I’m still like she was saying, if she didn’t have the military to install those like instill those values and that environment, she would have been a lot worse off. And I feel the exact same way that it still gives me something to strive for and stuff.

S37: And that’s the show. Thanks so much for listening. If you’re enjoying it, please hit us with that good rating and your podcasting app. It’s a free show, so come on. It’s literally the least you could do. Also, we still need your help to figure out what we’re talking about. Next, we’re looking for folks who wouldn’t mind coming on this show to explain how they, too, are a work in progress. So if you think that’s you call us at 8 or 5 6 2 6 8 7 0 7. That’s 8 0 5 men up 0 7. Or you can always e-mail us at man up at Slate.com. And don’t forget to make sure you subscribed because we’ve got new shows every week and at hate for you to miss out. Man Up is hosted and written by me. It’s my. It’s produced by Cameron Drewes. Our editors are Jeffrey Bloomer and Lo and Lou. Gabriel Roth is the editorial director of Slate podcasts. June Thomas is a senior managing producer of Slate podcasts. And we’ll be back next week with more manna.