At a recent dinner party, I asked a bartender for a spirits-free drink: “Sparkling water, no ice, lime, please.” It threw the fellow for a loop. “The pinot noir is excellent,” he almost whispered, trying to persuade me to take a glass.
Throughout the evening, the bartender, who had morphed into a server, repeatedly tried to put a glass of wine in my hand. “No, thank you,” I said, repeatedly but to little effect.
I could have made up an explanation: I’m allergic to sulfites, or I’m taking an antibiotic that requires I just say no to alcohol, or I’m in Alcoholics Anonymous. Truth is, I had a different reason — one not so good for party talk: I was suffering from depression, a diagnosis I didn’t want to share with my server.
I have many friends who have found it challenging to stop drinking; they’ve tried 12-step programs such as AA, entered rehab programs, undergone hypnosis or taken prescription drugs to curb their alcohol cravings. In my case, I thought drinking might be worsening my mental health, so I just simply and quietly stopped about 30 months ago.
Little did I know that the hardest part of that prescription would be its impact on my social life. Social drinkers around me were clearly uncomfortable having a “mocktailer” in their midst, almost as if I were passing judgment on them. And the recovering alcoholics in my life looked at me with suspicion because I hadn’t joined AA, where they assumed I belonged if I was no longer drinking.
I found myself in strange place, a DMZ between drinking friends and sober ones. I made no grand pronouncements, and I — someone who writes a column about manners — followed the rules of good etiquette. I declined with a simple “No, thank you,” and refrained from ostentatiously turning over my wine glass at the table. That would be rude.
I was also no Carrie Nation, the temperance radical who tried to convince others of the evil of alcohol more than a century ago. My behavior was about my mental health, not about anyone else’s. As my trial month turned into a year, the social pressure continued. “Try one of my organic margaritas,” a friend insisted. “Just one!” she pleaded, as if I’d ruin her fun if I didn’t indulge.
Then one evening at a workplace get-together I was offered a cocktail; before I could say, “Perrier, please!” I heard a colleague call out to the entire room: “Steven doesn’t drink anymore.” Although my work pal didn’t say why, eyebrows went sky-high.
It wasn’t that I was ashamed of my sober status, but I did feel exposed. Was I supposed to explain my reasons? Depression, like alcoholism or an infection, is a medical condition. Meaning it’s private. I wanted to be able to choose when to disclose my diagnosis, thank you. This fellow’s public outing felt like an unwelcome violation of my privacy, but it was his teasing and vaguely accusatory tone that gave me the most pause. Why, I wondered, would a sober Steven be threatening to others?
Kenny Levine, a licensed clinical social worker in Durham, N.C., who specializes in alcohol and drug abuse, told me that my colleague’s reaction is common: Others fear that a nondrinker will disrupt the camaraderie at the table. “Just as often,” he added, “your sobriety might make your friends question whether they, too, have a problem with drinking that they ought to be attending to.” That much has proved to be true, as friend after friend confided to me that they knew they drank too much but didn’t want to stop — or couldn’t.
My drinking buddies notwithstanding, I was surprised that friends in recovery also were not always supportive. By not declaring myself an alcoholic, I was assumed to be in denial. A college pal insisted that I go to AA meetings with him because he “knew” I’d need that level of support. When I didn’t say yes, I felt the weight of the shade he threw in my direction.
Nonetheless, I’m satisfied I made the right choice. I lost five pounds of belly fat, I sleep better and I wake up with more energy. Those were my personal prizes.
But my decision had side effects, too: After a year without red wine, my HDL cholesterol (that’s the good one) had dropped precipitously; half-serious, my cardiologist told me to drink more. In the evenings I found myself regularly eating a scoop of ice cream — to mitigate the loss of the sugar found in wine, I think, and my blood sugar started to creep up into the prediabetic range.
Recently I’ve learned some tricks to help me avoid unnecessary attention.
If I’m going to someone’s home, I’ll tell the hosts ahead of time that I’m not drinking, so they don’t try to pour me a pour. And when I encounter an insistent person — like that server who kept pressing me to take a drink — I’ll be a bit more strident, saying something like “No, thanks. Alcohol doesn’t agree with me.” Or “I’m the designated driver.” I’ve heard others make up white lies including “I’m passing tonight because I’ve got an upset stomach,” which tends to deter overzealous hosts. At restaurants I frequent regularly, I make sure the bartender knows my nonalcoholic “usual,” which allows me to not deal with any Nosy Parkers.
My “usual” happens to be what’s called a shrub, a spirits-free cocktail made with drinking vinegars. Scott Crawford, a recovering alcoholic and James Beard Award-nominated chef who owns Crawford and Sons in Raleigh, makes a mean one with elderberry drinking vinegar, club soda and satsuma peel.
But, please, leave the straw out of my drink. I had no idea that once I stopped imbibing, every nonalcoholic beverage would come with a damned straw, a telltale sign to all that “This person doesn’t drink!”
How do I feel 2½ years later? My depression is better, and my friends now stock up on sparkling water, offering a variety of flavors and citrus garnishes. They’re better at respecting my choices and my privacy. Practice makes progress. I’ll drink a shrub to that.