On December 23, 2013, I had the last drink I will ever have in my life.
I was 25. I’d been out with my boyfriend and his old school buddies, and social lubricant had turned, once again, into an excuse to lose control.
I could argue that I had valid reasons for drinking that night: my partner went to a private school, his classmates oozed that slightly sneering pride that privileged English folk seem to possess, and with my comp background and cheap clothes, I felt unworthy. But the truth is, I just loved to drink. And increasingly, I was having trouble keeping a lid on it: one beer would inevitably turn into a session, where I mixed whatever I could get my hands on until I could no longer stand, or think.
For a while, it was a joke. I once used wine as a mixer for vodka — but I played it off as my gregarious nature. Two years before I stopped drinking, I skinny dipped in the River Ouse (where 24 people have drowned, I never said), and had to be rescued by two pot-smoking fishermen—a great anecdote, and one I told time and again. I didn’t admit that I broke my foot trying to get out. I didn’t mention that my friend had just suddenly died, which is why I hit the bar harder than usual. I didn’t say I thought I was going to die that night.
It didn’t make for a good punchline.
I didn’t have a Christmas in 2013. I was staying at my boyfriend’s, but I got plastered and we ended up in a huge fight — about my drinking. That night, I had friends pick me up and drive me home. I spent Christmas eating pizza in bed, watching How I Met Your Mother, alone. I wouldn’t call it rock bottom; being considered a suicide risk by a stoner on a riverbank was probably lower. But it was the moment I decided it wasn’t worth it anymore.
Fast forward 4.5 years. I’m married to the boyfriend I fought with that night, and my go-to drink is a diet soda. Sometimes a thirst creeps up — that nagging feeling, like a magnetic pull toward the inside of a bottle — but I’ve managed to navigate it. So far.
Then I landed a new job.
We moved to Vancouver, Canada, in November 2017. I took a job with a SaaS company in Chinatown, which pays a decent salary and boasts a laid-back atmosphere. SaaS skews young, so the perks tend not to lie in the “steady pension” realm, but in free snacks, subsidized travel, and, in this case, free drinks at the built-in bar on the ground floor.
It’s not that anyone is pressuring me to drink. I’m open about the fact that I’m teetotal, and while I’ve gotten some pretty pointed questions — and offered some brutal responses — over the years, this is one of the most chill crowds I’ve been around in that respect. The problem is the proximity and consistency of alcohol in the office, and the unquenchable thirst of alcoholism I’ve largely ignored for the better part of five years.
If you’ve ever tried to give up smoking, or meat, or to lose weight, you know what it feels like. At the moment of denial, the world is suddenly flooded with people joking over a butt, savoring bacon sandwiches, or bringing plates of cake into the office. Everyone around you is delighting in the vice you just shunned, and as a social creature, you want back in the circle — not just to have the object of your craving, but for the social acceptance as part of the “in” crowd.
So when the new group I’m trying to join is drinking free beer at lunch, bringing it back to their desks, celebrating their successes and bonding over a good stiff drink, it’s hard not to feel left out.
Yes, there are (some) free soft drinks on hand. But they run out pretty quick, and if you’ve ever done Dry January, you’ll know the feeling of being just a little dissatisfied with your Coke. It’s like when you go out for brunch, order the salad, and then drool as the rest of the table has a stack of waffles that look like they’re worth getting diabetes for. You wallow in a mix of disappointment, shame, and isolation, simultaneously present but still missing out.
I started to feel it last week: the call to drink. The just one won’t hurt goblin in the back of my brain. If you understand how placebos can affect body chemistry, or even if you’re more in the “positive thinking will alter your impact on the world” zone, you’d better believe a combination of social anxiety, normalized drinking habits, and a previously dormant (but not dead) desire to drown your synapses is both palpable and dangerous.
I’ve nearly died from this disease, a couple of times. I’ve poisoned myself. I’ve accepted the company of strangers in bars and crashed in hostel rooms, just so I could keep on drinking. I’ve been naked in a Yorkshire river, drank back-alley booze in Shenzhen, China, broken bones and hearts and my own spirit on more than one occasion. And now I can see the vortex opening up again, like Voldemort coincidentally returning at the most pivotal points in Harry Potter’s adolescence.
I have a British accent. But I don’t have a magic wand. Or a Patronus to protect me from the inside of my own head. And I’m not alone: the NCADD estimates 1 in 12 Americans have an alcohol problem. In a year, 88,000 people die from excessive alcohol consumption; it accounts for 1 in 10 deaths for people aged 20–64, according to the CDC.
So, please, companies: turn off the tap. We are being killed by your kindness.