“I Don’t Trust People Who Don’t Drink”
Why my remarkably shallow attitude towards sober people was a serious red flag that I had a problematic relationship with alcohol
I have many regrets about the things I did during the years when I drank alcohol.
I regret the Sunday mornings that I wasted nursing hangovers on a wine-stained mattress, I regret the small fortune I spent on cheap prosecco, I regret the perpetual mess in my flat, I regret the friends and the phones that I lost.
But what I regret the most is the open contempt with which I treated sober people. “I don’t trust people who don’t drink,” was a thing I said behind people’s backs and sometimes to their faces. I knew it was a cliché, a phrase that appeared on tacky birthday cards and gift-shop T-shirts. Even so, I would slur this staggeringly stupid line without a hint of irony because I believed it was true.
Never mind that my drunk self had consistently proven herself to be devastatingly untrustworthy. The way I saw it — through glassy, bloodshot eyes — was that sober people were weird at best and shady at worst.
I’m admittedly ashamed that I used to think this way, but perhaps it was inevitable, given how much I worshipped alcohol.
For fifteen years, I believed alcohol was practically God’s gift to humankind, or at the very least, a magic potion that amplified all the good things in life and obliterated the bad. The tipsy version of myself was the best version of myself — I used to believe— a version of myself that other people also liked more because she was livelier, wittier, and less socially anxious when she drank. And so, unless someone told me they were ill, pregnant, religious, or alcoholic, I found it incomprehensible that they refused to indulge in this holy grail of a substance.
Not that I regularly encountered sober people, especially while attending university in the UK, where binge drinking was practically part of the degree curriculum. But sober people did exist, people like Sarah, with whom I clicked right away after sitting next to her during my first lecture. Sarah was from Hungary, and we bonded over the few words her language has in common with my mother tongue, Finnish. Then I asked her if she was looking forward to an orientation event that evening at a shot bar nearby. “I’m going to skip that one. I don’t drink alcohol,” she said. My face dropped. We made plans to hang out but never did. We never even went for coffee.
I must have abruptly decided that Sarah’s sobriety was a friendship deal-breaker, a personality trait that was incompatible with mine, and that we wouldn’t have much to talk about, even in an environment where drinking alcohol was off the table. So I judged Sarah for her sobriety, but I also judged her for refusing to come to parties. (It would be another decade before I understood how hellishly uncomfortable it can be for a sober person to sit in a bar full of drunk people, let alone a shot bar).
But even if Sarah had shown up and drank seltzer until 4 am, I still wouldn’t have trusted her.
Because the other reason I didn’t hang out with sober people was that I didn’t want them to see me drunk. When I drank, I often drank too much and did things I didn’t want to remember the next day, things I needed other people to forget, too. Sober people, and their unimpeachable recollection of events, posed an obvious problem. Later, I applied this stunted logic to people who didn’t drink as heavily as I did, which was most people. In fact, one of the reasons I liked drinking at home by myself was that I could drink as much as I wanted without anyone observing me.
Because I wrote off sober people as broken or dull, I didn’t have any sober friends and didn’t know how to make them. Most of my adult friendships emerged from after-work happy hours or networking events where there was more booze than finger food.
One exception was Claire, a photographer who I got to know through my freelance work. We usually met in coffee shops, and the topic of drinking only came up during our third or fourth meeting when I suggested we order wine with lunch. “I think I’m fine with water, she said. “I’m not really a big drinker.” Undeterred, I still ordered a large glass of Sauvignon Blanc for myself and tried to hide my disappointment. The old adage of “I don’t trust people who don’t drink alcohol” was doing the rounds in my mind.
Although I didn’t recite the phrase with as much gravitas as during my university years, I began to question whether Claire and I had enough in common to continue our friendship. Did that mean we’d never go to that cocktail bar I wanted to check out? What about going to a party together? The fact that we’d chatted for hours without drinking should have been proof enough that we were getting along just fine, but I didn’t see it that way. Claire and I lost touch shortly after.
It was some time before I realized that my remarkably shallow attitude towards sobriety was a serious red flag that I had a problematic relationship with alcohol.
Unsurprisingly, this belief was also a major hurdle to quitting drinking, as I feared people would distrust or reject me, much in the same way I had. I was scared to give up alcohol because I worried that I couldn’t cope with my anxiety, but I was also reluctant to give up what it symbolized: normalcy and belonging. Holding a glass of wine in my hand during a social gathering was, I thought, an easy thing I could do to get other people to like me.
In my drinking years, I was perplexed as to why non-drinkers chose to make their lives more complicated by deliberately standing out. I believed — and still do — that choosing not to drink is a radical act, something I didn’t think I could do until I did. And I have to confess: it’s nearly not as bad as I imagined.
This article is part of my sobriety series, where I examine society’s relationship to alcohol, as well as my own. If you’d like stories like this in your inbox, consider subscribing to my newsletter on Medium.
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