"No, I'm not pregnant, I'm just not drinking." Illustration: Kate Hazell

Meet the secret non-drinker

Why don’t we make it easier for anyone to have a glass of water without interrogation?
September 18, 2018

"Who do you have to screw to get a glass of water around here?”

I’ve never actually said this in the 16 months since I stopped drinking alcohol but I think it all the time. I expected to have to battle with myself over the booze—it’s ongoing and I’m winning—but the big surprise is how hard it is to navigate the outside world. I keep reading that sobriety is a trend but in my real world I feel like the party pooper who has called time on wine o’clock.

For almost three decades I reached for a drink when I wanted to relax, take the edge off, or celebrate. I drank every day and often to great excess. I liked myself with a glass in my hand; I felt confident and amusing and much less of a worrier. The world looked fuzzy and friendly and everything was easier to tolerate. “I’ve never met a drink I don’t like,” I used to say.

Sumptuous elegance, brutal hangovers

I loved it all, the liquor and the language. I liked benders, chasers, liveners, pushing on until dawn and the hair of the dog. Equally happy downing pints of Guinness at the bar of a scruffy pub or working my way through the cocktail menu in a fancy bar, I liked getting squiffy, trousered, trashed, hammered and slaughtered. In recent years I especially loved the flutes full of fizz handed around on silver trays at literary parties. Sometimes they came with pomegranate seeds, once even gold leaf.

This sumptuous elegance made me feel I’d arrived. Whenever I tried to exercise restraint I heard the voices of my ancestors in my head urging me on: “Go on, love. It’s free. And you don’t know how long it will last. Get stuck in while you can.”

Sadly though, the aftermath got increasingly brutal as I aged, with hangovers that lasted for days and came with an increasing side helping of self-loathing. I tried to moderate but none of my complex strategies worked for long.

My last night on the pop wasn’t especially flamboyant or excessive. Feeling insecure at a literary festival, I coped with being ignored by the posh men opposite me at dinner by guzzling all the wine. The next day, continually on the edge of a panic attack, I spent the journey home thinking I might throw up while watching my hands tremble. Enough was enough.

The secret non-drinker

Those literary events I used to love are harder now. The trays of sparkly stuff are always by the entrance but to get a glass of water usually involves a long, lonely walk of shame. I sing under my breath, “The first ‘no’ is the hardest,” to the tune of “The First Cut is the Deepest.” This calms me down and cheers me up as I get ready to run the gauntlet of people demanding why I’m not drinking and staring at my tummy trying to work out if I’m pregnant or just fat.

Sober life gets easier as time ticks on and there are benefits galore. My depression and anxiety are much easier to manage now that I’m neither drowning my sorrows nor toasting every success. I try not to get stuck in nostalgia.

My most vulnerable times are when I start moping and questioning the decision. Why can’t I be normal? I moan. Normal people would raise a glass at their birthday dinner or on holidays and at Christmas or with friends or… I’ve come to see that this is the great trick that alcohol and its advertisers has pulled on us; making us all think there is no fun to be had unless we have a glass in our hand.

I’ve discovered a new category of drinker—the secret non-drinker. There are loads of people out there holding a glass they aren’t drinking from because they don’t want to answer the inevitable questions if they ask for a water. They might be in the early stages of pregnancy, or cutting down but don’t want to talk about it, or just don’t like quaffing sugary giggle juice and being forced to lose control in front of their colleagues.

I find this fascinating. Some of us want it but can’t allow ourselves to have it while others don’t want it but have to pretend they do. Time for a rethink, surely?

So here is a small good deed to consider. Why don’t we make it easier for anyone to have a glass of water without interrogation? Maybe not everything has to come with a twist or on the rocks. Maybe we could all question the ubiquity of alcohol, whether or not we’re in personal danger of drowning in the stuff.