I don’t drink alcohol. I have never been hungover, and though I’m from Spain, where socializing inevitably involves alcohol, I’m able to have a fun time and even go out until 7 in the morning without feeling the need to drink. My choice not to drink is a personal one, but in my opinion, it’s a healthy choice that should be celebrated.
Yet when someone offers me a glass of wine and I refuse it, I attract curious looks and quite a few unsettling reactions. From total strangers asserting that I must be a very boring person to PR reps flat-out asking me if I am a recovering addict, it is somehow socially acceptable to put someone on the spot for not drinking.
I was a teenager when I realized that drinking was truly not worth it for me. At age 14, I developed severe gastritis due to a Helicobacter pylori infection, and while I was under treatment I had to stick to a very mild diet and absolutely no alcohol. So when most of my friends starting going out on the weekends and binge-drinking to have fun, I had to find a way to be a part of the group without jeopardizing my health.
If there is any silver lining to being sick because someone prepared a contaminated meal, it was that I didn’t develop a taste for alcohol.
Still, I didn’t want to be cut out of the group or considered a party pooper. If you think your teenage years were confusing, add to the mix having to pretend that you drink. Was there vodka at the party? I would refuse it under the pretense that only rum gave me a nice buzz. Were my friends bringing in their own alcohol? I would bring my flask, which happened to be filled with a watered-down syrup that smelled so strong it could pass for alcohol.
At some point, I realized there was no point in pretending to be cool. I found a new group of friends who understood that I simply couldn’t drink, and made sure there were plenty of soft drinks on hand when we went out until the early hours of the morning.
It took me three years to recover from the H. pylori infection and its aftermath. By age 17, I had never been drunk, the few liquors I had ever tried felt like they were burning my insides raw, and I realized that alcohol tastes bad. My logical conclusion was that I was better off being sober. I had managed to go through my teenage years in absolute sobriety and still had a fun group of friends and a cute boyfriend, so my understanding was that the adult world would be a bit more mature about my choice.
Boy, was I wrong.
Fast-forward to last year’s New York Fashion Week. I was invited to a fun afternoon event because I was covering several shows. After being greeted by the hostess, the PR rep for the brand approached me and my friend and offered us something to drink. My friend went for wine, and I asked for a soft drink. She said they didn’t have soft drinks, but that I could choose between four varieties of wine and vodka. I said that a glass of water would be fine then.
Oh, the look on her face. She started grilling me with questions about why I didn’t want the other beverage choices. I calmly stated that I just don’t drink alcohol.
“I see, you are a recovering alcoholic!” she practically yelled.
“Sober people don’t owe you any explanation whatsoever for our perfectly valid choice.”
To this day, I still cannot understand what made her think it was OK to scream what to some people is very private information out loud in a public setting. After three decades of sobriety and 10 in the industry, I truly didn’t see that one coming.
But that is just the tip of the iceberg. Early in my career, my bosses decided that the whole office had to participate in a compulsory team-building exercise for the holidays. Fair enough. Their poison of choice? A wine-tasting evening.
I calmly explained that I would gladly go, but given the fact that I don’t drink, I wouldn’t actually partake in the actual tasting portion. The head of the office mumbled something about me being a killjoy. At the actual event, the workshop leader spent half the time trying to force me to drink the damn wine.
Are you getting the picture of what it means to be sober in a social context? Merry Christmas to me.
The truth is that sobriety, like drinking alcohol, is just another personal choice. Very much like going on a vegan diet, playing sports, recycling or picking a career. I don’t drink, but I don’t mind if you, my friends, my family or my work colleagues drink. Honestly, I couldn’t care less.
So why does my sobriety make people around me so uncomfortable that they grill me with questions to try to understand why I would prefer to stick with a soft drink while everyone else is binging on the open bar? Although I very much wish to answer that it’s really none of their f**king business, social conventions again demand that I graciously explain the many reasons I don’t like alcohol. I’m just tired of this sober-shaming nonsense. I have never been drunk; get over it.
The truth is that you don’t know what is happening in a person’s life when you decide to ask why someone doesn’t drink. A person can be sober for many different reasons. The cute guy might be the designated driver for the night. The blonde in the red dress might be in the early stages of a much-desired pregnancy. That person you just met might be waiting for a liver transplant. The fun guy at the office might be in recovery after a long battle with alcoholism and your question might jeopardize the entire process. That girl at the party might be following a religious practice. And so on and so forth.
Stop being the alcohol police. Sober people don’t owe you any explanation whatsoever for our perfectly valid choice. So if you are throwing a party or hosting a holiday gathering, please practice true hospitality by having an assortment of alcoholic and nonalcoholic drinks, and leaving your guests alone to drink or not drink as they please.