The Dismay Of A Teetotaler

By Jennifer Fliss

Unsplash/Billy Huynh
It’s time to address the mounting social and media pressures surrounding the decision to drink — and to call out the damning stigmas this has spurred.

I am offered a glass of merlot at a dinner party, a beer list at a restaurant, a flute of champagne on a holiday. No thanks, I say. An eyebrow goes up, and as a woman of prime birthing age, the first question is always: are you pregnant?

No, not pregnant.

Driving?

No. I mean probably, but that’s not why.

Whole 30? Mormon? Lent?

No, no, and no.

There’s also the question that never gets asked, but is almost certainly considered. And here’s my answer: no, I am not a recovering alcoholic.

I just don’t drink alcohol. No home-brewed pints of beer. No happy hour margaritas. No mimosas at brunch. Nothing.

This makes me, I realize, a bit of a social anomaly — and my feeling of isolation grows stronger all the time. Every day, it seems, a new meme celebrating booze crosses my social media path. It could be a pun about the difference between whine and wine, accompanied by a photo of a woman staring longingly at a glass of red while her toddler tugs at her leg. Or a woman on the treadmill reaching for the carrot/glass of wine. Or a runner languishing in the beer garden after a race. Or my regular reminder that sunglass-hangovers are cool.

A representative example of the drinking meme phenom (Credit: Flickr/Post Memes)
A representative example of the drinking meme phenom (Credit: Flickr/Post Memes)

And this isn’t just happening among the college set. Rough night? is asked with a wink and a smile no matter how old you are.

The numbers support my observations that drinking is becoming ever-more common, to the point that it’s starting to feel like an outright social expectation. In a 2013 NIH report, 70.7% of adults reported drinking in the past year, and 56.4% in the past month. Alarmingly, 24.6% reported that they engaged in binge drinking in the past month. To be clear, that is a quarter of the population. And those numbers are rising: according to a survey published in American Journal of Public Health, heavy drinking shot up more than 17% between 2005 and 2012. This despite the fact that drinking to excess has very real, and well-documented, consequences: 88,000 people die annually in the United States from alcohol-related deaths.

Heavy drinking shot up more than 17% between 2005 and 2012.

So why is drinking so ubiquitous? More than that, why is it so expected, not only in your teens on into your twenties, but still later, as a 30- and 40-something-year-old parent, and on and on?

The media — and its ability to shape behaviors from an early age — provides one obvious answer. In 2003, the alcohol industry put in place a self-regulation stating that commercials would be limited based on the television program and when it aired, with the intention of limiting underage exposure to its advertisements; as with most things, exposure when young can lead to behaviors that last last well into adulthood. Ten years after that pronouncement, a CDC report showed that one in four of these advertisements were viewed by someone underage. The Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health further found that between 2001 and 2009, youth exposure to alcohol advertising on television actually increased by 71%, due in large part to increased exposure via cable TV.

And that’s to say nothing of the inarguable influence of social media, which has made it easier than ever to publicly display drinking habits, and to perpetuate the idea that drinking signals an active, and worthy, social life. As a National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism report put it:

“. . . young people are exposed to and display pro-alcohol messages and images through online portrayals of drinking on personal pages as well as unregulated alcohol marketing on social media sites that may reach underage people. Such online displays of alcohol behavior have been correlated with offline alcohol behavior and risky drinking.”

Women in particular are increasingly being targeted by the alcohol industry due to their elusive “buying power,” with advertisers peddling alcohol as the secret to everything from thinness to a better sex life. And the approach seems to be working: just this month, it was reported that female drinking rates specifically are on the rise.

None of this is to disparage those who drink; I’m not interested in starting up a new Temperance Society. And as the daughter of an alcoholic, I understand all too well the tragedy of alcoholism. But I do think it’s time to address the mounting social and media pressures surrounding the decision to drink — and to call out the damning stigmas this has spurred.

I wasn’t always a teetotaler. In college and my early twenties, I drank alcohol. I was fortunate to understand my limits and after a red solo cup or two, I would switch to water. I was the responsible one. I don’t say that because I feel I need validation for my choices; I say it because it was true. I held hands and hair. I talked softly to wasted friends. I wasn’t the most fun ever!, but I preferred that to the sour tang of alcohol on my tongue, or to the risk of behavior I’d later come to regret.

And yet, despite having sound reasons for my decision, it’s been hard to avoid the sense that I’m a social pariah. Living in Washington, wine tasting is de rigeur for many, and a frequent social attraction. But while I can and have attended with friends, it’s always absurdly awkward to explain away my disinterest, both to my peers and to the people working at the wineries. I have been left out of such events when told “I just didn’t think you’d want to go since you don’t drink,” which is partially true but also hurtful.

For my bachelorette party, I celebrated with wonderful friends in Vancouver, B.C. I wanted to have high tea and a trendy dinner and then congregate in the hotel room, a la an 8th-grade sleepover. I later found out that some of my friends were none too happy when they didn’t end up drinking and partying at a bar or club.

My party, I wanted to retort back.

I have tried to partake in a $5 happy hour burger, only to be told that I can only enjoy the deal if I buy an alcoholic drink as well. And so, happy hour after happy hour, I’ve begrudgingly handed over $12 for my burger.

And that’s to say nothing of the relentless social media posts that suggest drinking is the elixir of coolness and social inclusion, making me . . . what exactly?

After being foisted out of college and into the “real world,” and after the messy second adolescence that followed, I began to understand who I was a little better. I had friends. Some drank; most did, actually. But these were not people who would think me uncool or unfriend me just because I didn’t join them.

I recognize that some may still see me as a buzzkill, but I’m happy with my teetotaler life. I am able to wake up early in the morning to my toddler’s cries. I can go for a run with a clear head. I can drive safely at all times. I can drive you home safely, if you want.

So to answer the inevitable questions: No, I’m not driving. No, I’m not pregnant. No, I’m not on a diet.

I just don’t want to drink.

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