Last year I turned 21 and decided to stop drinking. I’d just spent 5 months in America, where I’d made some friends, climbed some mountains, and broken my foot – the not so surprising consequence of downing half a bottle of whisky and heading out on a late night run.
The decision to not drink came easily. Things seemed out of hand. I’d use the words “quiet night” and “just a few drinks” before going out and, I think, getting blind drunk., I say “I think” because to be honest I wouldn’t really know. A lot of nights were followed by mornings of headaches and questions like: “why is my bed wet” and “how did I get home?”
It wasn’t exactly new; things had been like this for years. But living in the US had changed the way I thought. I’d been there on exchange, living in a college dorm where most people, including me, were underage.
At first it was strange. What is university orientation without free beer? But eventually it became kind of normal, even nice. In Australia, around 80% of my social life is centered on drinking. We catch up with people at pubs or in houses full of six packs and box wine. I still drank in America, but if you can’t get into a pub you can’t go to a pub (mostly), and that meant an increase in sober interaction.
In fact, sober interactions were happening everywhere. Hiked a mountain for three days? Grab a drink, of soda. Celebrating thanksgiving? Have a single glass of wine then we’ll crack out the lemonade and make strange comments about how tipsy we are. At first I put it down to the drinking age. But as I spent more time with friends and their families, I realised it wasn’t that simple. People just didn’t think about or crave alcohol in the same way we do.
When I returned home, there was beer everywhere. It was like the omnipresent god we built our lives around. I reacted by drinking too much and then; for six months, drinking nothing at all. The period of sobriety was good. It taught me that I can survive without a drink. But when it ended, I didn’t feel like much had changed. It’s not that I returned to endless nights of memory loss and mystery bruises. I didn’t. But as soon as I wasn’t completely sober, there was pressure to get uncomfortably drunk. “I’m not drinking for six months” was fine; “I’ve had enough beer for now” was not. It became apparent that we’re not the America I lived in for 5 months, and this is our culture.
It took a few months to realise it’s not me. Or, at least, it’s not just me. It’s all of us. We’ve somehow created a world where it’s foreign and frightening to attend an alcohol-free event. Hangovers are a point of pride. Too few people know how to say no, and even fewer want to learn. I don’t like it but, that said, I’m not doing much about it. I don’t know what any one person can do until everybody pauses for a second: stops and surveys the situation we’re in.
For that reason, going a while without alcohol is good. It’s not the perfect solution to what is a very large cultural problem, but it gives you space to discover what you really enjoy, without the fog of alcohol. And I think if everyone had that space, even for a short while, then we might make some progress.