I don't drink alcohol the way other people don't eat oysters, or don’t start the day with a cup of coffee. I don't drink because I don't like it, I never have. But the difference between me and people who don’t eat oysters is that I have to explain my choice—and I've had to for 20 years.
Alcohol isn’t just a drink, it’s a rite of passage. Forget getting your period, or your voice finally breaking—being an adult in North America means being legal. The irony being that alcohol is essentially childhood in a bottle. For a few bucks, you get a trip back to the carefree days of slurred speech, impaired balance and nonexistent inhibitions. Who’d turn down a bargain like that?
"You just don't like it or ..." is generally the response I get when I abstain. The ellipsis, along with the furrowed brow, covers everything from a bad case of alcoholism to a bad case of religious zealotry. A female friend of mine whose uncle owns a bar and who recently stopped drinking, added, "people always ask me if I'm pregnant, which makes me want to have a drink."
It’s not that I haven’t tried alcohol. I have. I've tried it more times than I would ever try anything else I know I don't like. And I still don't like it. My mom recently told me that when I was a toddler she was once in the bath with her eyes closed, and when she opened them she found her glass of Bailey's gone. Apparently, when she asked where it went, I yelled from the hallway, "Chocolate milk!" (Despite that bathtub cocktail, my parents barely drank. “Neither mom nor dad were particularly big drinkers,” my brother recently reminded me as we both considered why neither of us drink. “They tended not to keep alcohol in the house, so it's not something we associated with adulthood or anything else.”) In addition to that premature shot of Bailey’s, I’ve given beer, wine, and hard liquor a chance. And I still don’t like to drink.
In high school, I lied about why I never drank. "I don't want to lose control,” I said. The truth—I don’t want to be like you—would no doubt have been less palatable. I remember one kid, eyes filled to the brim with Molson Canadian, asking me, "Don't you want to know what's going on in my head right now?" And, well, the joke kind of wrote itself. According to my best friend at the time, who I consulted for this piece, I spent my teen years looking "uncomfortable and a little bit disgusted" with everyone. "I guess I felt like I was disappointing you," she said. "But I was like, 'Hrm, I'm gonna go get drunk anyway.' "
I grew out of the disappointment but not the disgust. When I finally elbowed my way past the high school meat heads and into university (more meat heads!), I still couldn’t stomach the flavor of fermented what-have-you enough to benefit from the euphoria it afforded. These days, I use that excuse more than any other because it seems to be the one that everyone can understand. In an episode of the U.K. sitcom Peep Show, for instance, socially awkward anti-hero Mark Corrigan, struck with a case of insomnia, bemoans having to suck down fermented grain mash instead of something a little sweeter. "Ahh! Horrible whiskey," he says. "Still, midnight down the bar, can’t exactly have a chocolate milkshake, can I?"
I am the midnight milkshake drinker. According to my boyfriend, I regularly replace alcohol with food. Apparently I ask to see the dessert menu every time I accompany him to the bar. Presumably, the drunker he gets, the fatter I get. When I asked if he ever wished I drank, he emphatically denied it. "I see it as a bonus that I don't have to worry that you are choking on your own vomit down an alleyway when you're not back 'til late," he said. "I just know you've collapsed in a cake shop." (I never said I had self-control—sugar is my drug of choice.)