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Sobriety + Society: What is it that makes us think drinking is so "cool"?

Aug 9, 2019

This week, a family member and I were having a conversation about my being alcohol-free. She said that since being alcohol-free is new to me, it’s normal that it’s what I talk about. But that soon, people won’t even notice it and I won’t feel the need to bring it up so much.

“Look at Grandad!” she said, “After he quit cigarettes, he didn’t walk into every room and announce, ‘I don’t smoke anymore!’ No one even asked him about it after a while.”

She does have a point, and I do agree with her on one level. Being a nondrinker has become my new normal. Over time I’ll continue to think about it and talk about it less and less.

But what I said to her, is that in my opinion, Grandad quitting smoking and me quitting drinking are not exactly the same. They were probably equally difficult for us individually and required equal commitment and diligence. But culturally...Grandad quit smoking around 2008. At that point, in North America, smoking cigarettes was no longer glamorized. We were getting inundated with messages about how bad smoking was for us. Grandad would hide from us when he was smoking. My four-year-old sister caught him once and with a face and voice of disbelief said, “Grandad….are... you….smoking?!”

He didn’t walk into bars where “cigarette-o-clock” was written on the chalkboard like “wine-o-clock” is these days. In an icebreaker, when asked, “what makes you happy?” people probably didn’t joke, “cigarettes!” like a woman joked, “tequila!” yesterday to me. Yes, at one point in his life, when he was a teenager/young adult, smoking was very cool, and if he tried to quit then, people probably would have made fun of him and pressured him to smoke again. But by the time he quit, smoking was not encouraged. At least it wasn’t in the culture we were living in.

When Grandad quit smoking in the 2000s, he didn’t walk into rooms every day where his friends, family and coworkers were offering him cigarettes, asking him why he didn’t smoke, and questioning this choice. He wasn’t faced with constant peer pressure to smoke. People probably celebrated his achievement in quitting this addiction that we all knew at that point can be so harmful for your health. So of course, after he quit, he didn’t need to walk into rooms announcing that he no longer smoked, because it wasn’t part of his daily social interactions.

I don't mean to diminish Grandad's achievement and effort, which was significant! I just want to compare the culture around cigarettes versus the culture around alcohol today.

When I quit drinking, I didn’t have this experience: because I was raised in and live in a society where drinking is still common and encouraged, both in North America and in the expat cultures in the Middle East that I’ve been part of. “We live in a society where alcohol is praised, celebrated, and used to add sparkle and sophistication to every situation,” wrote one OYNB challenger.

Special occasions revolve around having a drink. Birthdays, Christmas parties and engagements are done with a glass in hand. Dates take place at bars. Dinners and barbecues take place with wine and beer. In Abu Dhabi, the expats socialize at “all-you-can-drink” brunches and ladies nights where the women drink for free.

Not only is drinking common, but it's encouraged. At the very first party I ever went to in high school, I remember hearing a classmate who I thought was very cool at the time say to another, “You’re not drinking? Then why are you even here? Go home.” That was probably the first clear, strong message I ever heard about drinking being cool and non-drinking being uncool. Go home if you’re not drinking. We don’t want you here. You don’t belong.

While I was never told to "go home"...these are some things that were said to me, in the first 90 days I quit drinking:

When I chose to order a mocktail, a waiter said “You’re so boring!”

When I told a friend I wanted to quit alcohol for life, he said, “Woah woah woah, let’s not get TOO crazy.”

When I told a colleague I had quit, he said in disbelief, “Can’t you just cut back?! Why do you need to quit all together?”

People have asked me if I am pregnant. People have asked, “Have you always not drank?”

People have said, “Just have this one, why not? It’s free!”

And the hardest thing that happened is this: my first date as a non-drinker, on day 21. Leading up to the date, I was so afraid to even tell him I was a non-drinker, that I worded it in a text as “taking a break from booze” even though I knew already I was quitting long-term. I was so afraid of how he’d react that I felt the need to tell him ahead of time that I didn’t drink, in case he wanted to cancel on me.

He spent the first fifteen minutes of the date trying to convince me to have a drink with him. “What’s the big deal with just having one?” I had to literally persuade this guy to support me being sober. We did have a couple more dates (shockingly) and he did come around eventually to be a number one supporter of me not drinking on a night out we had together a few weeks later. But needless to say, our lifestyles were not going to be suitable matches and it was not a happily-ever-after. (It might have been if we met a month prior!)

Seriously...what is with this? The culture of drinking being cool and not drinking being uncool. The culture of peer pressuring people to drink when they say no. Why is it this way? Could you imagine if I said I had quit smoking and people were saying stuff like this? “Just have one’s free”...”Can’t you just cut back smoking? Why do you need to quit altogether?” ….“Oh, you’re not having a cigarette? You’re boring.”

Our culture encourages us to drink. Our language of getting together revolves around “Going out for a drink.” And not buying into it is something that I needed to explain to people around me. No one ever questioned me when I gave up meat the way they did when I gave up alcohol.

I have found that the key to getting through all of this a few things. To be confident and strong willed, to be sure that you’re going to say “no”....and also, most importantly, to find pockets of society that support your journey. No one gets through life alone. It takes a village.

One Year No Beer has been part of that. It’s also common in the yoga world to drink very little. My friends from my gym generally don’t drink heavily. And amidst the friends that were not awesome about it, many friends have stood out as EPICALLY awesome. If I didn’t have these little subgroups of society to lean on, I’d have no idea how I’d have quit drinking with the constant messages from the world that drinking is cool and not drinking is uncool.

Now that I’ve come out on social media as a nondrinker, people bother me less and less about it, and I have kind of forgotten how bad it was for a few months there.

So yes. Sober will one day become normal to me and I might start talking about it less and less. But what I don't think is normal is our culture around alcohol. The pressure to drink to be part of something. The idea that drinking is the key to relieve stress. The concept that drinking is cooler than non-drinking. The idea that you're not fun if you don't drink.

I am actively choosing to share about my alcohol-free life, because I want to be part of a movement that suggests there is another way. Before I quit drinking, I never got any messages that being sober could be cool or life without drinking could be fun. So I am saying that it is! Because in my opinion, being sober is cool (contrary to popular belief!) and when you quit alcohol, life can become way more fun.

There will be people that say,

-“You’re not ordering a drink? You’re so boring.”

-“What’s the big deal with just having one?”

-”You used to be such a good time!”

-”Can’t you just cut back? Why do you need to quit altogether?”

Look for the people that say: “I’m so proud of you.”

Find them. Focus on them. thing I realize when I think and write about this, is that the culture around smoking was not always the way it is now. It changed with time, and education, and probably some strong people who had to pave the way.

I think the culture around alcohol is like this too...the sober revolution is coming soon.

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