Saturday, December 13, 2008


I was reading the New York Times blog Proof, which is about the intersection of American life and alcohol, earlier today. It got me thinking about my own relationship with the substance.

Such as it were.

When people get to know me, one of the first things they find unusual about me is that I don't drink. In the entirety of my life, I've probably had less than 10 servings of alcohol. I'm not a recovering alcoholic, and I don't have a religious prohibition against the substance, so I don't fit into the standard reasons people have come to expect from those who don't partake. Alcohol is so central to adult society in our culture that any deviation from it marks the teetotaler as an aberration, and seems to demand an explanation. I generally just tell people that I don't enjoy the taste of alcohol, and so I don't see the point of drinking it; while it's true that I don't like the taste, as a reason that still seems to leave people baffled. There have been other reasons for pretty much my entire adult life, though which ones have been in place at any given time have fluctuated.

When I was first in the age in which drinking was considered a social norm, I was under the legal age requirement. I am, and pretty much always have been, a goody-two-shoes, and just didn't see myself as the sort to break the law even when it was expected. I remember interviewing to be an RA in a campus dorm on my 20th birthday, and having a hard time convincing the faculty member who was interviewing me that no, really, I actually did not want a glass of wine to celebrate. It was less the fear of being punished for violating the rule than it was my self-image as someone on the straight and narrow that meant that my being underage was a reason not to drink.

There was also the fact that I knew full well that alcohol primarily serves to lower our inhibitions. I'm gay, and I was in the closet for quite some time--not out of fear, but because my libido was much weaker than my desire to eventually have a family, and at the time it seemed unlikely I could have both. I didn't want to risk saying something or doing something in regard to my orientation that I would regret in the harsh light of the next day. In my mind, no matter what allure alcohol might have once I tried it would be worth that risk.

Then there's the potential risk of addiction. I have a large number of family members with alcohol problems, running through both my mother's and father's families. I suppose I shouldn't be too shocked by that, given the stereotypes of my predominantly Irish and German heritage, but while some of them are functional alcoholics, others are clearly not living the lives they would otherwise be capable of because liquor is holding them down. To be fair, there are also family members who don't seem to have any problem with their drinking, and others who abstain completely, but I know that the risk is there. It may even be pretty close--though I only ever saw my mother drunk once in my life (after a really bad superbowl loss by the team she rooted fanatically for), when she was hospitalized just prior to dying at 52 from kidney and liver failure the doctors asked us how long she had had cirrhosis of the liver. None of us knew she did. I don't know if that could have been caused by the abdominal infection she's had for months. It's possible that she drank no more than any of us knew she did, and just had a low tolerance for alcohol; it's also possible she had had a drinking problem for years and kept it secret from us. And I wouldn't be surprised if my father's liver isn't in great shape either; though it has moderated somewhat over the past couple of years, since he retired he's drank more than he knows he should. He definitely doesn't have an addictive personality (unlike my mother, he didn't have too hard of a time giving up smoking, and he still every once in a while smokes a cigar and then feels no craving to do so for months), so he seems to go through intermittent phases of deciding he's drinking too much, cutting way back, and then slowly loosening the restrictions. So with at least some evidence that both of my parents are/were disposed to drinking more than is healthy, I'm not exactly itching to dive in to the bottom of a glass myself.

There's also the fact that alcohol is toxic. It destroys brain and liver cells, and that's even with the human body's defense mechanisms. Hell, I use alcohol to sterilize lab equipment in my life as a biologist. This reason must be tempered by the fact that low to moderate drinking seems to have beneficial effects on the heart--ideally, I should be drinking a glass and a half of red wine a day--but it can't be totally overlooked.

Then there's the issue of deep core personality. I've known relatively nice people to turn into mean drunks--when all the layers of social skills and conscious choice are stripped bare, they're shown to be nasty, or depressed, or whatnot. Granter, there are also happy, bubbly drunks, and sleepy drunks, but I look at it somewhat through the cost/benefit ratio: there's not much to be gained by finding out that at the core I'm happy; there's significantly more to lose by finding out that at the core I'm nasty. The potential downside is enough worse than the potential upside to not be worth investigating.

And, finally, there's the fact that not drinking, and not for the most common of reasons, makes me different. A friend once observed that I seem to have a strong desire to be atypical, and I think she might be right about that. Choosing not to drink is a very easy way to be different. I'm not proud of the notion that some of my quirks may ultimately derive from a simple and somewhat childish desire to be unique, but I'm too introspective to dismiss the idea entirely.

And, of course, I still really do dislike the taste. I'm not the sort who really has acquired tastes--if I don't like how something tastes, I stop consuming it and find something else. The only taste I know I've acquired is for V8 juice, and that was by way of making myself drink it daily for a stretch of time in order to boost my intake of vegetables.

Thankfully, I'm not a moralist who looks down on others for drinking. As long as you're not an obnoxious drunk, and as long as you don't try to drive while impaired, I don't actually see a moral aspect to alcohol. So, enjoy your libations, which will be free flowing this time of year. I'll be over here with my soft drink, an oddity in your midst.


Sheila said...

Excellent article !
Thankyou Mike !!

Anonymous said...

Wow. How insecure are you that you have to bend over backwards like this to find something to brag about? Narcissism and insecurity: a very bad combination.