Wednesday, November 3, 2010

The Life and Times of Young Teetotaler

I can only imagine what a difference alcohol makes in a person's life. As a life-long abstainer I've found no use for the stuff. Yet, now that studies are beginning to show that moderate alcohol consumption is healthier than no alcohol consumption, I feel a slight pull to defend my position in light of health benefits. Further, since teetotaling is relatively rare amongst youth, it may do well to explain what appeal it holds for me.

* * *

I'm 24 years old. I've not been legally drinking for three years now. I didn't illegally drink for 21 years before that. My whole life has been one of abstaining from alcohol.

There's no religious reasoning to my decision, which I presume accounts for most youth teetotalers. Having no religion I have no religious qualms as Muslims or Baptists or Mormons might about the dangers of drink.

Let's not kid ourselves about those dangers, either. The other day in the UK there was a study showing that the effects of alcohol were in that country more damaging than heroin. Simultaneously there is research being vaunted by the pro-tipsies that alcohol in moderation is linked to longer lifespans than no alcohol at all. What to make of this?

I think the latter study on the benefits of alcoholic moderation is correlative rather than causative. That is, I'm not surprised that most people who drink a bit live longer lives. I think alcohol is, for many, the number one stress reducer in their lives.

Stress, as much more research has shown, really is a killer. We can reduce stress through chocolate, or sex, or alcohol. Chocolate only goes so far, and a great many people get together every Friday desperately looking for sex, so I think alcohol may be the way most people choose to relieve their tensions.

Obviously, as a drug (more accurately a poison) we know that alcohol has horrid side effects, in fact many more than a Hersheys. The liver damage is one deterrent, no matter what, if anything, it does for the heart. My heart is fine - I want my liver to be as well. Like any drug it also has the potential for addiction.

Here's a story: Once when I was a teen I was contemplating pot usage. Literally all of my fellow classmates were users, with the exception of only two or three individuals (who later were). A fellow I wasn't fond of took me aside and gave me some solid advice.

"Three things could happen. First, you could try it, find out you don't like it, and not smoke it anymore. Or! Or! You might just try it, find out you like it and that it improves your life giving you depth and clarity that you didn't have before, and be a regular user. Or you might turn out like Jesse."

Jesse could not, medically, have been addicted to marijuana. But the dude was addicted to pot. This was the kid who smoked up after school, before school, and in-between classes. He smoked at least three times a day, and got horribly irritated if he didn't: docile as he may have been high, he was a mean cuss when deprived of his weed.

So I didn't try it. 2/3 odds? Not good enough. To this day I still don't smoke.

This same type of roulette applies to alcohol. Someone very wise once pointed out: No one starts to do drugs with the intention of becoming an addict. No one initially starts smoking or shooting up or drinking hoping to become a victim of abuse. Yet millions of people fall prey to addiction.

Some day, genetically, we'll be able to know who is more likely ahead of time. But that day is still only a glimmer at the end of my lifetime. For now there is no way of knowing with your first hit, first drink, or first smoke, what the outcome will be. Whether you will escape or have it ruin your life.

Here's part of where the atheism comes in: I only have this one life. I'm not going to play around with a possible loss of ten years to drink or drugs and (hopefully) rehab. Even as a possibility it is abhorrent - an obvious path to avoid. Would you take the road whose warning sign said 'Caution! 1/3 chance road will lead to inescapable cliff!' You're lucky if you survive the fall, and far too many don't.

Furthermore, from a social perspective, we know that alcohol is very damaging and costly. As The Streets succinctly put it: "Government funding for further education pales in insignificance when compared to how much they spend on repairing leery drunk people on the weekend in casualty wards all over the land." We repeat the mantra over and over: Don't Drink and Drive. Every year innocents keep being killed.

Even if we enforced the laws we had there'd be a nice change. Try and figure this one out: Drinking in bars is legal. Being drunk in public is illegal. An interesting thing it would be if police stood outside bars waiting for the drunks to hit sidewalk so they could arrest them. Maybe bars would have special sobering-up rooms - not allowing patrons to leave until it's all worn off.

But enough reasoning for a bit. On to the life and times.

Being a teetotaler does put you at odds with a society where drinking is common in some obvious and other more opaque ways.

Dating is more difficult. Think about it: if you don't drink why go to a bar? Most people who drink or not have had the experience of being the sober one surrounded by people drinking. Everyone who has knows what a bad time it is. Some do it for charity, and put up with it out of kindness. Others simply feel like they're wasting their time being around drunks.

So if you don't drink going to a bar is very awkward, unless you stick to a close group of friends, in which case it's, at best, just a dull time. On your own, however, it's a little peculiar to try and chat people up for flirting if you're sober in a bar. The same goes for young people's parties, of the collegiate sort, and clubs. I suppose you can still dance at a club without drinking. But so often there is a drink minimum that you either waste your money or don't go.

Besides the brusque social and dating ramifications there are subtler ones. I love food and love good restaurants. Ever been to a 4-star restaurant with a date and not ordered wine with dinner? The waiter is never pleased. Or assumes you're a mature looking teen playing 'adult'. Neither experience is much fun, but hopefully when my hair goes grey that'll begin to change.

Teetotaling can also be a slight strain on relationships. The only two major fights I've ever had consisted of sober me and a girlfriend who'd been drinking. If being around drunks is a bore or outright unpleasant to you, then if your partner is drinking it means spending time with them can be a bore or unpleasant. Drama!

Then there are the small details: the aisles in the grocery store which you will never go down, the commercials on television for beer, the toast, the shared experiences and mindset you've not had.

Two final stories.

The first can't be told by the guy who lived it, a friend of mine from high school. Avery Mathieu and I were just beginning to cultivate a great friendship the end of my Junior year. We shared a similar sense of humor, intellectualism offset by silliness, and we could sit a jaw for an age. Ironically, before a drunk driver killed him that summer, the last thing we talked about was how he wanted his funeral to be joyous. I miss him.

The other was from a work colleague telling a story, which I will try to recapture while doing justice to the original, of some times he had in Hungary:

"I was drinking the night after exams and I got totally wasted. In Hungary they have a game where you take two shots for every one someone else takes, and I was already buzzed on beer. I started the evening in the bar I usually do. What I remember next is kind of fuzzy, but:

First I ended up in a bar I didn't know with some girls I didn't know.

Then I was sitting on the sidewalk of an alley with some bums puking and crawling towards a streetlamp.

Next I somehow ended up in the middle of the street, lying down, with cars driving around me.

I may have been naked at that point, come to think...

Anyway, I don't know how I got home, but somehow I ended up back in my room. Ii didn't go to work the next day. In between these visions, these episodes, I must have blacked out. I have no idea what on earth happened, and talking to my friends they don't know either. Who knows what I did. I don't even know. It's a weird knowledge that part of your life you lived without knowing it."

* * *

In a way I find the latter story sadder than the first. I have only one life to live, and I want to be aware of it. So my teetotaling will continue. Thank you, out there, for putting up with it. I do my damnedest to put up with you.

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