I quit drinking for good three years ago. I don’t miss it. I’m not an alcoholic—although several of my family members are. I’m not pregnant. I’m not Muslim or Mormon—in fact, my religion wholeheartedly supports getting toasted on Friday nights. I quit because I didn’t like the way alcohol made me feel. Ever since I first started drinking in college, my body never took well to alcohol. Just two or three drinks were enough to give me tortured, 9th Ring of Hell hangovers. Eating a big meal first, Advil before bed, B vitamins and oceans of Gatorade, nothing truly helped. In my late twenties, the effect was only magnified, the point where one drink could leave me dry-mouthed and queasy. Apparently my family’s alcoholic gene skipped me, because by my thirtieth birthday, I had no tolerance left at all.
So I stopped. I ordered sodas and passed up open bars. That’s when the trouble actually started. I live in New York City and work in a business that revolves around cocktails. Passing up a few drinks at a working lunch—or, God forbid—ordering soda on a night out is met with outright suspicion. My polite, “no, thanks” was often met with nosy disbelief. Was I pregnant? No. On some kind of medication? No. Mind your own fucking business. I became increasingly intimidated—and irritated—by the rolled eyes and “Really?” I dreaded going to parties where I’d have to turn down liquor because I knew it would lead to another round of “You’re kidding! Seriously? Why not?”
One night, I met a colleague and two other friends for after-work drinks. I ordered a soda and some fries, and when I came back to the table, my fries awaited me…alongside a shot of bourbon. My colleague winked at me and said, “Come on…don’t make me drink alone.” Peer pressure! I was smack in the middle of a 1980s after-school special. Several months of irritation boiled over and I found myself ranting at him through clenched teeth. I didn’t want to drink! How dare he try to push it on me! He didn’t want to drink alone? Get the fuck over it! This wasn’t about him!
And that’s when it hit me. None of the peer pressure or the nosy curiosity really had anything to do with me. I had felt like people were judging me, but it turned out people felt I was judging them. In their minds, I was the snide guest who refuses dessert and looks pointedly at the host’s waistline. I discovered, when I started asking, that I’d hit a nerve without meaning to. It turned out that a lot of my friends were so laden with uncertainty or even guilt about their drinking habits that when someone—not just me—refused to drink with them they felt criticized, or shamed.
This was brought home even more starkly this past fall, when a member of my immediate family came out of her second stint in rehab for alcoholism. For a couple of years, she was absolutely flattened by booze—emotionally, physically, spiritually. The sheer, soul-sucking misery she endured was one of the most painful things I have ever witnessed. For her, not drinking is an act of intense, agonized willpower, eked out minute by minute, hour after hour, one day at a time. To be surrounded by the same intrusive questions or peer pressure that I encountered isn’t merely irritating, it threatened to upset the delicate balance of her sobriety and dump her back into the hell of alcoholism. And yet, the same holds true for her as for me: when people who don’t know her reasons question her decision not to drink, it’s almost always because they have deeper issues about their own reasons for drinking.
Not long ago, I went to a reception at a wine bar in Jerusalem, with beautiful local wines being poured left and right. I stood for a long time talking with a delightful and charming old man who was Israel’s premier wine critic and author of several books on the subject. When the waiters brought around glasses of red and white I felt guilty turning one down in front of such an expert, and began stammering about why I had ordered Pellegrino instead.
“My dear,” he said with a generous wave of his hand, “You should never have to explain to anyone why you don’t want a drink.”
And dammit, he’s right. For the record, y’all, it’s not you, it’s me. I promise. I’ll take that soda now, thanks.