The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

The hardest part of being sober is explaining it to you. Here’s why you shouldn’t ask.


I’ve never had a drink of alcohol. Ever. People have strong reactions to that during this season of toasting.

This year’s responses could be different, given the pandemic, the rising drinking rates and changes in alcohol consumption. People everywhere are evaluating their relationship to drinking. Still, every year, I anticipate regurgitating all the reasons I’m raising a glass of something different. The scene plays out like a stale Hallmark movie:

Standing in a dim bar for the annual work party or a festive meet-and-greet with my graduate school classmates, I order a Shirley Temple, just to have something fizzy and reddish to hold — a prop to make others feel more at ease. It helps that the bubbly ginger ale and little cherries taste delicious. I am one of those types who genuinely loves the season — the ugly sweaters, the smell of pine and even getting “Jingle Bells” stuck in my head. Then someone approaches and we exchange niceties. I’m relaxed, having a good time — enjoying the radio soundtrack and the casual conversation — until a well-meaning person asks me what I’m drinking. Then comes the shock, followed by a response tinged with pity or slight offense (as if my choice reflects judgment about theirs).

“Why don’t you drink?”

States rushed to loosen alcohol laws in the pandemic. Heavy drinking went up, some studies say.

Most don’t know, or seem to care, that this is a deeply personal question — not the kind of thing I want to get into with an acquaintance or a colleague while Mariah Carey belts “All I Want for Christmas Is You” in the background. But then again, our social culture and traditions often revolve around alcohol. It’s tough to avoid the question outright. I’ve tried for most of my adult life to satisfy these curious inquiries with a revolving set of answers.

The first: I grew up in a devout Mormon home in suburban Utah and tell them about the strict health code — no tea, coffee or alcohol. But that only invites more questions. Like, “How can hot chocolate be okay but not green tea?” Or: “Haven’t you read the studies on red wine and health?” I don’t want to talk about my complex relationship with Mormonism with folks whose only touchpoint is Mitt Romney or “The Book of Mormon” musical. I did not come to the holiday happy hour to talk about God. So I’ve learned not to lead with that one.

The second: I have boring preferences. My favorite drink is honestly lukewarm tap water straight from the faucet. Try saying that in a bar without getting laughed at. I’d rather be drinking that over a Shirley Temple, which will leave me thirsty and upset my stomach, however fine the syrupy soda tastes. People inevitably don’t believe me and instead offer to buy me something “better.”

Another response: It’s too pricey. I’d rather buy a meal or the greasy fries at half the cost on the bar menu. But money conversations prove thornier than drinking conversations, with someone again offering to buy.

Another: Bad memories. Though those memories tend to be from other people’s drunken behavior. Watching a friend hurl a brick into a car window, then maniacally laugh as it shattered, was not something I enjoyed.

Another: I’m the designated driver. This is often true, but not enough to sideline: “Then just have one!” Which, at that point, doesn’t seem like the smoothest timing to talk about my grandmothers’ long-term health struggles after being hit by an intoxicated driver, not a reindeer, on Christmas Eve.

Another: Addiction runs in my family, which gets compounded by lots of mental health challenges — depression, anxiety, delusions, etc. All too true, but I’d rather enjoy myself at the happy hour than walk down that memory lane.

Finally: If I’m worn down, I’ll say, “I’m working on sobriety,” as if I haven’t been stone-cold sober all my 32 years of life. This response gets a quiet head nod and, at last, respect for a personal boundary.

I quit drinking 2 years ago. Over time, my brain made it easier.

All of these reasons I offer people are accurate (except the last), though they seem to encourage people to continue probing my choices. Maybe the problem is less about me and more the act of having to perpetually convince.

I’m happy to hang around others while they drink. My choice isn’t about them, though I dislike making others uncomfortable. I know how to have a good time on my own terms and often dance so wildly that people forget I’m sober. But when they do remember, they tell me to call them when I change my tune. “I want to see you get tipsy for the first time!” They predict what kind of a drunk I would be: pensive, flirty, depressive? They want to know if I’d try “just a sip” of theirs.

We might afford more deliberateness as we toast to the new year. The research about excessive alcohol during the pandemic is staggering: exacerbating mental health challenges, negative physical health consequences, and poor stress coping with 1 in 5 Americans reporting saying they consume “an unhealthy amount of alcohol.” Rather than asking nondrinkers to defend their position, maybe we could all ask ourselves the question — regardless of the choice: Why do I drink? Why don’t I drink? Why am I drinking tonight? Why won’t I drink tonight?

It might be complicated, and that’s okay. Trust me. I know complicated.

A perfectly valid answer I have not yet tried, but will this year — as I hope many others renegotiating their relationship to alcohol during the pandemic will try: I’m not drinking because I don’t want to. Period. Not drinking during the holidays, and always, is a personal choice that doesn’t require justification. Whether someone is pregnant, refraining for religious reasons, navigating health challenges, actually working on sobriety or something else, let this be the year we quit asking anyone to disclose their reasons. I’d raise a glass of fizzy red soda to that.

Rachel Rueckert is a recent MFA graduate from Columbia University, where she also taught Contemporary Essays. She is working on several book projects.

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