Nfld. & Labrador·Point of View

When every January is dry: The surprising appeal of living without alcohol

Do you really need to have beer, wine or a cocktail to have a good time? Not at all, writes Ainsley Hawthorn.

If you're of legal age, drinking is an option, not a requirement

Do you really need to have beer, wine or a cocktail to have a good time? Not at all, writes AInsley Hawthorn. (Ainsley Hawthorn)

It's January, a month that many people now observe as 'Dry January' — a period to set aside alcohol and focus on health. 

It's not something I will be observing as a special occasion, because I don't drink at all.

I can't remember when I decided not to drink.

It was before I turned 19, because my celebration didn't include the traditional first (legal) bar visit. It was before I started university, because I was able to enjoy being the only sober person at the end-of-orientation-week party, where I banked some wild stories to recount to my friends once they recovered from their hangovers.

I had had the occasional sip of alcohol as a teenager, and I thought it tasted terrible. I never enjoyed the astringent kick of wine, the malty foulness of beer.

But, honestly, who does? Alcoholic drinks taste objectively bad to most people at first. As the saying goes, you don't drink them for the taste, and it's likely that if alcoholic beverages were uncoupled from their euphoric effects we wouldn't drink them at all.

When I declined a glass or bottle, I often found myself in the hot seat, being grilled on my reasons for abstaining.

The difference between me and most of my peers, I suppose, is that I wasn't enthusiastic enough about the idea of getting buzzed to push through the nasty flavour.

My choice puzzled my friends at the time. After all, in our society we drink alcohol not only for its pleasurable effects but as a rite of passage.

Alcohol is a symbol of our transition into adulthood, and most teenagers are anxious to enjoy adult freedoms and to prove themselves worthy of adult responsibilities. We indulge in alcohol furtively when we begin to feel suffocated by the authority of our parents and guardians. We partake in alcohol openly to celebrate when our numerical age makes us legally (if not actually) independent from them.

When I declined a glass or bottle, I often found myself in the hot seat, being grilled on my reasons for abstaining. Not drinking, I've discovered, is one of the few purely personal choices that can make even strangers deeply uncomfortable.

It's a singular experience to be questioned about why you don't drink alcohol, because there are a limited number of answers people consider legitimate. An illness, a religious doctrine, a family history of alcoholism — these seem to be acceptable explanations for abstaining.

My reasons? I don't like the taste, I'm having a good time already, I just don't feel like it? These never seem to be good enough, so much so that I've sometimes fallen back on the excuse that there's been alcoholism in my family (which is true, but not a factor) just to cut these awkward conversations short.

Why all this public concern over one aspect of my diet? I don't like spicy food or cilantro either, but no one interrogates me about that.

Did you know that Newfoundlanders and Labradorians spend $1,056 per person on alcohol each year?

Reckless libertines or hopeless degenerates?

Not drinking, on the other hand, is often taken as an affront. This is probably a legacy of the temperance movement, the organized crusade against alcohol consumption that snowballed during the 19th and early 20th centuries and eventually led to prohibition.

The temperance movement took a moral stance against alcohol and portrayed drinkers as reckless libertines or hopeless degenerates.

As a result, when you say you don't drink, even today, the people around you begin to wonder if you're looking down your nose at them like the temperance teetotallers of yore.

Add to that the fact that our society considers alcohol essential for relaxing, socializing, and partying, and the non-drinker becomes a very suspicious animal indeed. Is she a puritanical square, the sworn enemy of all things fun?

Each of us deserves to assess for ourselves whether drinking works for us, our bodies, and our pocketbooks.

This heap of cultural baggage makes it difficult for each of us to untangle how we really feel about alcohol from how we're supposed to feel about it, how alcohol really affects our bodies from our expectations of how it should affect them.

I know a number of moderate drinkers who've recently given up alcohol after realizing they don't actually enjoy drinking.

Alcohol is a depressant. It can lower your inhibitions and relax you, but it can also dampen your mood and make you feel gloomier than you did before. If you're already prone to depression, drinking alcohol may not be a fantastic experience.

Others quit drinking because it's getting in the way of their fitness goals (many alcoholic beverages are high in calories but, because they're liquids, don't fill you up) or because they want to save money. Newfoundlanders and Labradorians spend $1,056 per person on alcohol each year.

Each of us deserves to assess for ourselves whether drinking works for us, our bodies, and our pocketbooks. So, I propose a reality-based reset of our society's approach to alcohol:

  • Alcohol is a depressant, which can be a good thing or a bad thing depending on the circumstances and the individual drinker.
  • Alcoholic drinks are not only drugs but food. You may or may not like their taste, and you may or may not want to include them as part of your diet.
  • Alcohol might be a social lubricant, but you don't need it to cut loose, act silly, and have fun. (I should know. I tend to be the friend who dances with abandon and occasionally lands on my face, despite being sober.)

Whether you'll be enjoying the occasional drink this month or having a dry January, just remember that, if you're of legal age, drinking is an option, not a requirement.

Read more from CBC Newfoundland and Labrador 

About the Author

Ainsley Hawthorn, PhD, is a cultural historian and author who lives in St. John’s. She is currently finishing her first book, The Other Five Senses.