That nondrinking life

I’m reading Kim Addonizio’s Confessions From a Writing Life. I’m surrounded by piles of junk mail from various supermarkets filled with holiday deals on beer and wine. The sun is shining outside and I catch myself thinking I’d really enjoy a heavy-on-ice, two-slices-of-lemon gin and tonic. ‘Tis the season for drinking. But not for me. 

It’s hard to pinpoint exactly when I stopped drinking. When I got sick four years ago, one of the first things I noticed was that I got drunk much more quickly, and I’ve always been a lightweight, so this was saying something.  This was before I was hospitalized, and long before I got diagnosed with Ankylosing Spondylitis. My symptoms of fatigue and near-constant nausea were confusing multiple doctors. I was told to cut gluten, caffeine, and yes, alcohol, from my diet.

I wasn’t what I’d consider a big drinker. I was probably average for New Zealand (which is worrying). I’d often have one or two glasses of wine after work. I might have two or three on the weekend, which was enough for me to get pretty inebriated. In my late teens and early twenties there was a lot of tequila shots. I did some stupid shit. But so did everyone else, so it was ok, right?

Nah. It wasn’t. I put myself in danger. I made decisions I definitely wouldn’t have made sober. I relied on alcohol to get me through social anxiety, deaden depressed thoughts, and escape. I’m not going to lie, sometimes, I miss having that option. But it’s not healthy.

After I left hospital, it became apparent that my low tolerance for alcohol had become zero. A few sips of cider will deaden my legs and leave me nauseous. This is partially to do with my illness, and partially to do with interactions with my medication. Either way, my liver isn’t having it.


Never is my being a nondrinker more apparent to myself and others than during the holiday season. I don’t really experience peer pressure. No one hassles me. But I get invites to “drinks,” to “celebratory bubbles,” to work dos and BBQs and New Year’s parties. These weeks are literally saturated in alcohol. And it’s socially acceptable to imbibe as much as you like.

I’m not here to give a lecture. I think most people know that drinking culture in New Zealand is pervasive, problematic, and often married with violence and toxic masculinity.

I asked people to share with me if they were nondrinkers too, why, and how it impacts their lives. The responses were extremely interesting and I found some of them really challenged me, which is good. (All names are changed. Thank you so much to everyone who trusted me with their story).

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“Having gone from being an enthusiastic drinker in my early 20s, to a relatively moderate drinker in my late 20s, and now a more or less never drinker in my early 30s, I am incredibly wary of the drinking culture in New Zealand. Stopping drinking in earnest for me was brought on by two things: the realisation that alcohol has a ruinous effect on my mental health, and my prolonged and repeated exposure to intoxicated people and their obnoxious behaviour.

What I notice at the moment is just how much effort, energy, time and resources are put into producing and consuming alcohol. If I wished, of an evening, I could go to any of a number of bars or restaurants and choose from a mind boggling range of beers – carefully brewed with seasonal ingredients and in innovative fashion. I could also choose from a range of wine, similarly crafted with scientific understanding and flair.. Even one of these drinks is enough to tip my mood into a mildly unpleasant place over the next hour or two, and too many more than that will set off the beginnings of a depressive episode.

It seems almost unthinkable to celebrate in New Zealand without a communal degree of intoxication.” – MP

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“I don’t especially enjoy the taste of beer, wine or spirits; don’t enjoy the feeling of consuming alcohol; don’t enjoy any of the sensations associated with intoxication; don’t enjoy the hangover or how it lasts 3-5 times as long as the intoxication itself; don’t especially like the company of drunk people and have never had a conversation that made me go “this alcohol sure is making people talk or think interestingly.”

As someone who enjoys dating and sex I find alcohol massively problematises respectful relations between consenting adults. I don’t much want to get into discussing whether or not I’m bothered by others’ drinking because that isn’t your question and I’d like to think I’m a fairly permissive sort; but it’s somewhat irksome that not only do people have trouble believing that someone might not enjoy drinking, but drunk people are less likely to appreciate the respectful suggestion that they’re incapable of giving consent and so won’t be receiving it. Perfectly willing to countenance that I may have phrased myself poorly in these conversations, but it’s hard to be sure, because you can’t make any fucking sense of what someone’s saying when they’re drunk.

As far as what impact this choice has for me, people seem to think of a non-drinker as damaged or not-right in some way. they just can’t get their heads around the idea that every single person in the world might not enjoy something. Which seems a remarkable failure of imagination or empathy, to assume that ‘I like something, obviously that means everyone does.'” – CQ

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“I couldn’t drink for 2 years for health reasons. The peer pressure in NZ was tough. … The main reason I resumed drinking is due to my reduced social life without alcohol (I got invited out less). But the second reason was the impact on dating.

Basically. I found woman trusted me much, much less if I didn’t drink alcohol on a date. I tried coffee dates, and they worked ok, but then there would always be stage where it was time to go out at night together. And when I wouldn’t drink it seemed to be quite a big roadblock to a relationship developing further.

I was told point blank once that me not drinking was creepy, and that my date felt she couldn’t drink either as she would be at risk of me taking advantage of her when she was tipsy. I totally understand why a woman would be worried about this… but it was a major factor in my choosing to drink again (although I know it would be better for me if I didn’t).”  – GH

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“I don’t drink. It’s because I lost some kidney function about 5 years ago. The nerve that releases my bladder had stopped working or never worked. I was very fit for many years so my body managed to function in spite of it, it turns out I was pushing urine out with my abdominal muscles, I just did it naturally no idea it was wrong. My kidney function got as low as 18%. Everything happened very fast. I had been sick for a long time with flu like symptoms, so I stopped drinking. Once they found my problem I spoke to a doctor in ED about drinking (I kinda knew the answer) he told me “You can drink but it would have to be 1 for 1 maybe 2 for 1. 2 waters for 1 beer.” He also said “Drinking will never help a problem.” That last part stuck with me.

I was never a big drinker so giving it up wasn’t hard. At first I switched to flavoured milk. It was a cheap alternative and in a party situation it’s still fun. My non drinking took friends a while to adjust to, especially my Dad who kept asking me if I wanted a beer. Today I was gifted a bottle of wine by a new person at work via office Secret Santa. I thanked him but also said I was regifting it to the office, He felt a little awkward but I just explained I have low kidney function (it’s now 44% so I am getting better).

People’s first assumption seems to be I’m a recovering alcoholic so I always point out it’s medical, I shouldn’t have to but I understand the assumptions that go on. I have never been hassled about my choice. And I do consider it a choice. I have sipped a beer once since I quit, I got light headed pretty fast and I haven’t gone back since then. It’s been 5 years since October this year.” – AT

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“I drink very little alcohol for a few reasons… firstly, I used alcohol inappropriately in my university days and I put myself in dangerous situations that jeopardised my safety and relationships. I made bad choices over and over again so I made a pact with myself to stop. Secondly, my meds don’t work properly when I drink and I value my well-being over a boozy night. Thirdly, I really don’t need to drink alcohol to have a great time, I don’t judge anyone else but I have just as much fun on a couple of glasses of juice.

At this time of year I find people bring it up more regularly than any other time of the year. I often have a glass of champagne at my Christmas party and people make comments along the lines of wow, you’re really partying it up and they tell nearby people that I hardly ever drink, which always gets gasps of horror. But on the flipside it means I’m always safe to drive and I never have to wake up feeling horrified or embarrassed of my behaviour at a party.

I feel like people take it almost as a personal insult against them that I don’t want to have an alcoholic drink. I was at a house party a few years ago and some guys got really angry with me for drinking cola, they started yelling at me and pushing me around for being a ‘downer.’ People try and convince you to have a drink, but I don’t understand why it’s such an issue, I’m happy to have a soda, I’m not stopping anyone else from drinking but they want me to get drunk with them because otherwise I’m ‘ruining’ the party. – JD

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“I was 18. I had my first drink. I was sick into my boyfriends parents garden. His dad held my hair back. I don’t remember anything else. It’s called blackout. Where you’ve drunk so much that your brain can only focus on keeping you alive, it’s no longer able to store memories. it happened to me almost every time I drank.

A drink didn’t slake my thirst, it made me thirstier.

There were some times that I could have one or two drinks and be okay, but for the most part, that one drink was ten, or twenty, or thirty. As much as I could buy or steal.

I was 20. $2 doubles at the pub on Thursdays, Friday night after work drinks. Saturday night going to town. I wasn’t anxious with a drink in my hand. I had a great time. But then said the wrong things to the wrong people. I woke up and was full of remorse. Rinse and repeat.

I was 22. I worked at a bar. The bouncer took me home. I was covered in vomit and slept on my parents bathroom floor. Mum told me she was terrified I would be in that comatose state for the rest of my life.

I was 24. I was at uni. Uni meant parties and BYO dinners. Drinking as much as you could for as little money as possible. I was scared of going out because I didn’t know where I would end up, who I would end up with. I lost my moral compass. I went out anyway.

I was 26. I had been wandering Cuba Street alone and a stranger drove me home. I realised my drinking wasn’t the same as everyone else’s. I had been waiting for the day that I would be able to “drink like an adult” like my friends. I didn’t know how they only had a few drinks and stopped. I couldn’t. I was depressed.

I stopped drinking for ten months. I went to counselling. I didn’t tell my counsellor that I had a problem drinking. I had problems with depression and anxiety and my relationships. But I didn’t I have a problem with drinking.

I was 27. I left a bad relationship and I sought treatment for my depression. I leapt off the water wagon. I got scared of what happened when I drank again. I tried to control my drinking. I bought low alcohol wine. I drank it and walked to the bottle store an hour later.

I was 28. I went to a BYO. Someone I had never met found me alone on Courtney place. She took me to her house and fed me toast. I was unresponsive on her kitchen floor. She called an ambulance.

I went to AA. I discovered binge drinking is still drinking alcoholicly. I discovered alcoholism is the obsession with drinking despite knowing what the consequences are. I discovered I can’t drink like everyone else. I have an allergy which means I can’t stop drinking once I start. I discovered I never learned coping mechanisms as a child. My coping was alcohol, drugs, food, shopping and relationships. Taking away how I coped with my feelings was terrifying.

I’m 30. I’ve been sober 18 months. I’m learning how to be an adult and cope with life on life’s terms. I seek treatment for my alcoholism, depression, anxiety and codependency. I have woken up from a nightmare. I’m grateful to be alive.

I’ll decline your offer of a drink this Christmas. Maybe you were having fun when we used to drink together. But I wasn’t.” – JR

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As I mentioned, I’ve been reading Kim Addonizio’s essays, Bukowski in a Sundress. dropshadow_template.inddShe’s amazing but I have felt really alienated by a lot of the writing because she talks so much about drinking and being drunk. Which lead me to think about this seemingly inescapable connection between writing – or other creative endeavours – and alcohol. So many famous writers were also major alcoholics, but their health and behaviour was or is excused as an artistic disposition, or right, or something. Which is, frankly, bullshit. And it really only goes so far, because very few people produce anything worthwhile when they’re off their face. Even Hemingway said “Write drunk, edit sober,” or whatever/whoever that was, I think it’s disputed. No matter, the message is pretty clear.

Oh dear. I did say that this post wasn’t meant to be a lecture, and I really don’t want to be on a high horse about this. Honestly, unless people are hurting others, their drinking is their business.

But when it comes to me, I’d really love it if everyone around me could just tuck away a little note in their brain that I don’t drink. I don’t want stop being invited to things, I just want to stop being offered alcohol. I hate the fact I have to say no – like I said at the start of this, the sun is shining and really I’d love to sit in it with a notebook and a G&T like I used to do every summer. But me and my body have both decided that’s not an option, and I’d like nothing more than to stop having to explain myself to people when they want to know why I’m not necking a bottle. My health is my business.

This isn’t a post telling you to stop drinking. It’s a post saying stop expecting everyone to.