The worst part about not drinking is having to tell people you don’t drink.
It’s difficult because drinking usually occurs at a time when it’s socially acceptable to drink; situations where not drinking is a little bit strange. On a Friday night after work. Someone’s leaving their job. Maybe someone’s celebrating?
Why are you not drinking? Is my thing not meaningful enough? Am I not important enough to you? These questions are asked.
Or at a buck’s night, where you’re expected to cut loose. Or a work related function where you and a potential client are supposed to drink together and build the connections made when you buy one another beers and create those shared stories that usually occur when you’re short a few brain cells.
You’ll be offered a drink; someone will ask to buy you one -– a friendly gesture — an outstretched hand waiting for the handshake that never comes. This is the difficult part, because it’s extremely tough to say ‘no’ without sounding condescending, or lying about being a designated driver or, in some small way, bruising egos.
Of course no-one gets visibly upset when you don’t accept. Just a short “fair enough” and everyone moves on quickly. But a small barrier now exists. You’ve refused to sign a simple social contract. You are on the outside of a circle. Some take it well, and gracefully, but even then you’ll be asked the question:
“A Scotsman that doesn’t drink?” is how it’s usually phrased when directed at me. “That’s a first.”
Then the completely polite “if you don’t mind me asking . . .”
And of course I don’t . . .
“Why don’t you drink?”
In the beginning
I have so many reasons for not drinking. Some take the form of stories; some are simple, subjective preferences on my part. Others are objective facts.
But I remember the first time I stopped drinking. I was 21. I also remember the first time I got drunk.
I was 12 years old.
I grew up in Scotland and everyone drinks. It’s cold, wet and miserable — what else are you supposed to do? But, ironically, the first time I got drunk it was sunny by Scottish standards.
The sun blasted 24C and it was a long weekend. My friends and I hung out with the older kids, and approached one with hair on his back and fluff on his chin, the one with the best chance of getting served in the lax convenience store with a booze licence.
“A two litre bottle of Olde English please,” we chanted in unison.
Dear God, our poor pre-teen livers. In Scotland you start early. My brother got drunk for the first time when he was 10.
I sloshed around, trying to hold down this foul cider. The longer the day went, the more rancid the drink became; losing its fizz, increasing in temperature. It wasn’t long before I was barfing it back up, alongside the Weetbix and Fruit Pastilles I had eaten that morning.
So that’s reason #1. I can’t hold my booze. Literally. I cannot hold it inside my stomach. It simply rests there, dormant, until my body decides to lurch it out violently, a volcanic eruption of stomach acid and undigested carrots. The second time I drank I barfed all over my Mum’s couch and thought it was a good idea to hoover up the vomit with a vacuum cleaner and cover up the smell with a healthy spray of Lynx Africa. That didn’t work out so well.
I was 21 when I first stopped drinking. And it all started with a nipple cripple.
Actually it started in a bar, with a drink. Several in fact. I had slammed back a fair amount, as had a group of my friends, including my brother, who was 18 at the time.
Things got a bit rowdy, in a seemingly friendly way. Seemingly. As someone who is now deathly sober in such situations, I can tell you there’s always a taut tension amongst those who are visibly drunk, the feeling that civility is teetering on a sharp precipice. One wrong word, one poorly timed stare, a single clumsily bumped shoulder and that delicate structure crumbles into a mess of verbals and fisticuffs
So it all began with a nipple cripple. A simple joke. My brother thought it would be funny, and it was. People were laughing. I thought it would be funny to throw the remainder of my drink over his brand new shirt in response. That wasn’t quite so funny.
The slap from my brother that followed was even less funny. It was painful. And deathly serious.
Then it spiralled out of control.
It was the first and last time I ever hit my brother in the face with a closed fist. Two punches — a double jab aimed directly at his jaw. Probably the worst thing I have ever done as an adult. Definitely the thing I most regret doing. If I could take anything back, it would be those two punches.
Instantly our friends pulled us apart. A bouncer tossed my brother out the front door and I followed immediately after. My brother waited by the door. As it opened he launched into a headbutt that caught me square on the eyeball.
Then, complete chaos. We scrambled down the street, brawled in the middle of a main road and hit the deck. I kneed my brother multiple times in the back; he punched me from the ground position. Eventually we managed to wrestle each other to a drunken standstill.
We stumbled home for 15 kilometres, 100 metres apart the whole way. It took two and a half hours. Hurling abuse at one another the entire time; tragically, pathetically drunk. Dizzy from booze and beating the shit out of one another.
In the morning my Mum went mental. I decided I didn’t want to drink ever again.
The love train
And then there was the time drinking made me fall in love, and made someone fall in love with me. That’s reason #3. What was I thinking?
I was 23. I had been living in Japan for a year and a half, miles from Scotland, far removed from the threat of nipple cripples and headbutts. I felt more at ease with the idea of throwing back booze once in a while. No big deal. It was difficult to make friends in a strange land without lubrication, so I felt justified, and drank most weekends.
For Valentine’s day I had decided to surprise my girlfriend. I bought us tickets on the bullet train to visit Kyoto – a trip we’d frequently discussed, but never followed through on.
“We’re going tomorrow!” I said, excitedly. She threw her arms around me. We’d been together for two months.
That night I went out with friends. It started with some drinks, and continued with more drinks. Things got a little out of hand. Before long, I stumbled with leaden feet back to my girlfriend’s apartment and collapsed onto her bed. Within seconds I was sleeping the glorious sleep of the drunk.
If I miss anything about drinking, it’s that incredible moment when you finally hit the bed, the world spinning uncontrollably around you then… Nothing.
I woke up hours later. It was 11 o’clock. Our train was supposed to leave at 11.30. My girlfriend was sitting, still in bed. Arms folded.
“What the hell, why didn’t you wake me up? We’re supposed to be at the station,” I said, frantic. Scrambling out of bed.
My girlfriend dead-panned. “You said we weren’t going anymore.”
She stared at me. Cool. Unforgiving. Holding back a torrent of rage that could burst forth at any second. I couldn’t remember anything. But she couldn’t forget.
Apparently, two hours before, I had woken up, wandered aimlessly around the apartment for 15 minutes and then informed my girlfriend that we weren’t going to Kyoto anymore.
At this precise second I was tremendously hungover. My girlfriend was furious.
“No, no, no!” I protested. “Why would I say that? I wouldn’t say that.”
I must have said that. But I couldn’t remember.
We made it to the station,an hour late, and jumped on the next Bullet Train headed to Kyoto. I spent most of the trip throwing up in the toilet. Because we were late and on the wrong train, my girlfriend had to buy two new tickets.
This was unknown to me at the time. I was too busy vomiting my guts out.
At one point during the trip, in between dry retching the bile from my stomach I looked up at the girl patiently waiting while I puked into a bin and I sort of fell in love with her.
Months later she told me that she couldn’t understand why she hadn’t just dumped me, this stupid selfish boy doing this thing that horrible people do. She was mortified and considered it her worst nightmare. The only way remaining made sense, she reasoned, was love.
So she made the rational decision to fall in love with me. As I wiped drool from my chin with one-ply toilet roll in a petrol station toilet.
The reservoir of memories
The worst part about not drinking is having to tell people you don’t drink. But the best part about not drinking, without a shadow of a doubt, is not drinking.
The above stories are all good reasons not to drink, but the best reason is far simpler – I never really enjoyed it. Sometimes I drank because I was bored, other times I drank because I was in an uncomfortable situation but, for the most part, I just drank to fit in. And that may be the worst reason for doing something you don’t enjoy.
I find it very easy not to drink and for that I consider myself very fortunate. The only difficult part, as I’ve mentioned above, is telling people I don’t drink. I’m always worried that people will think I’m being judgemental, or condescending, despite the fact that – more often than not – I’m the one being judged.
But if at any time I do feel tempted, I have a reservoir of memories to ease that urge — the gurgled vomit of Weetbix, carrots and fruit pastilles; falling in love with one-ply toilet roll dangling from my chin. The punch I wish I could take back.
Drinking can be a fun thing for a great number of people — and I have absolutely no problem with that — but it will never be for me.
This story has been updated since its original publication.