10 years sober — what I learnt about the social context of alcohol

People love drinking. But do they really — or is something else the driving force? For most of us alcohol becomes a part of our lives as teenagers. What’s the trigger though, how does it start? During the last 10 years drinking was always an issue for me in my everyday life. Over the years I gathered countless experiences to help understand the dynamics of it. Here’s what I learnt.

I am German and I don’t drink.

No kidding. I don’t really know why it matters where you’re from but with peoples prejudice it seems to be a serious abnormality not to drink, especially if you’re German. Countless times I had to explain myself and justify why I didn’t. With almost every person I met I had the same conversation. It seemed to be really important for them or just so normal that it wakened the curiosity of the unknown. However, the answer is so simple. It’s the taste. I tried various kinds of alcohol, sipping here and there, but never found anything I liked. Most people find it hard to believe but I cannot agree. Remember when you tried your first beer, did you like it? The majority of people didn’t. Still they kept on drinking till their body got used to it. But why go through all that effort? Here the setting gets interesting, the situations people are in when drinking. You drink with friends, at home, at a party, bar or restaurant and even if you go out by yourself you’re never really alone. So most drinking implies a social environment which clearly differentiates to the mere consumption of alcohol. Thus a social setting encourages drinking.

But let’s go back 10 years. I was 14 when all my friends started drinking. And they weren’t sitting at home in their rooms by themselves. It all began at a place were all the young people of the village could come together and talk, watch movies, play foosball, have a party etc. So we hung out with older guys, they’d just give you a beer and that’s it. The question wasn’t whether to drink or not but how much. At first I didn’t even want to try but it was hard to say no. People push you, place bets on getting you drunk and talk at you over and over again trying to convince you. It’s peer pressure. Most people seek the corporate feeling, they just want to be part of it, want to be cool or whatever. It took me 4 years and a lot of personal strength, courage and self control till even some of my friends finally accepted my abstinence.

For me personally drinking is either black or white. Like it — drink it. Dislike it — leave it. Same with food, if you don’t like spinach you’re supposedly not going to eat it. At least I’ve never seen a group of teenagers going wild over a big bowl of spinach. But let’s say your girlfriend invites you home for dinner at her place to introduce you to her parents. You don’t like the spinach casserole her mother made but you’re a decent guy and you want to be polite and respectful, so you eat a fair amount. The social circumstances made you do that. The principle is the same, but unlike spinach alcohol evolved to be a social and cultural institution in our society over hundreds of years. So for a lot of people it doesn’t seem that easy to simply say “yes” or “no”. They become victims of the social paradigm and drink despite their distaste for it. When I ask them why the responses vary. “I don’t know.”, “It’s not supposed to taste good.”, “I like the feeling of being drunk.”, “I want to drink with my friends and not be left out.”, just to name a few.

Most of the people reading this will probably have at least a few years of drinking experience of some sort. And once you reached that stage where you created a routine, when you actually like alcohol, drinking alcohol at a party is more of a habit than a decision, because it’s just what you do, what everyone does. I’m not saying you always dislike an alcoholic beverage when tried the first time. However, everyone should feel free enough to decide whether to drink or not and not become just another victim of the social non-acceptance of abstinence.

For me it has been character forming but I don’t want anyone to fall victim to the social constraint. The world is opening up constantly and like you’re supposed to be tolerant and accepting to any other culture you should also give people the freedom to go their own path without putting a spoke in their wheel.