Coming Clean on my Relationship to Drugs

I used to say that with a smoker for a parent, fate leaves you two options: you either join them in their addiction (and it will feel oh-so-rebellious at the time) or you grow to become an evangelical non-smoker. I took the latter route, my brother the former.

I never used to give much thought to the fact that in most friend groups I automatically take on the role of “the abstinent one”. To be fair, I’ve met and befriended quite a few non-drinkers, non-smokers, vegetarians, and coffee naysayers over the years. But I don’t think I’ve ever come across a kindred spirit who, like me, can boast with all of these titles. Pondering this observation now, I suspect the beverages are to blame. A lot of people I surround myself with don’t smoke or eat meat, but there seems to be something irresistible — I can’t put my finger on it — about alcohol and coffee that makes those who abstain from their consumption a rare breed.

Before you’re led to assume that my lifestyle choices are inspired by some moral high ground, let me get a couple of things straight.

1. I have tried all of the substances I now avoid hundreds of times.

I was raised an omnivore and only started to stray from that well-trod path two years ago; I drank what I believe was my last drink of alcohol at a micro-brewery in downtown Toronto on my 19th birthday, because that date marked a second entrance into legal drinking age* for me; around the same time I also treated myself to the odd “Double Double” coffee-to-go at Tim Hortons in pursuit of a Canadian cliché; and yes, in the foolish days of my youth (I was 14, not proud of it), I also experimented with cigarettes.

*) German law permits beer and wine from age 16 on and hard liquor starting at 18. In Canada, I wasn’t allowed to drink until I had turned 19.

2. Except for vegetarianism*, there’s no moral or dietary reasoning behind it whatsoever.

Many of my close friends can attest to the fact that I do not live a healthy lifestyle. Like, at all. Even my sporty housemate recently got a taste of my bad condition when I told him, “Ugh, I’ll be glad when I have a boring office job someday” following a morning of light physical activity. But be that as it may, here’s why I don’t drink alcohol. Like coffee, the many flavours it comes in hardly rival the taste of a thoroughly brewed black tea or freshly made fruit juice; and compared to what I’ve been told about some mild psychedelic substances, I find booze to be a rather pathetic specimen of a drug that doesn’t deserve the good name it’s inherited. (Bite me, wine connoisseurs — like you would know how to do if you ate actual grapes for once!)

*) Yes, I’m aware that only veganism would allow me to live in line with my values. Vegetarians are all a tad idealistic, but it’s a start.

All that said, what I’m grappling with here isn’t so much about disputing taste as it’s about situating myself within a culture that values things I don’t particularly enjoy (or that I object to). To an extent we all have to do that. After all, nobody grows up to be a perfect incarnation of their cultural heritage, no matter the importance we can attach to nurture over nature. Although I don’t recommend that you draw a sense of superiority from the special snowflake effect which often accompanies a disaffection with mainstream culture, I do think it offers an opportunity to scrutinize yourself and your surroundings from a new angle.

My relationship with alcohol may be atypical, but so is that of a recovering teenage alcoholic. What’s important is not whether you’re effectively targeted by dubious cultural stimuli but what you do with how they’ve affected you. As concerns my exposure to alcohol in an abstract sense — i.e., the signs all around me that it’s featured or, more accurately, advertized in — it doesn’t have that negative a connotation in my mind all the time. I even get to have a sentimental view of it at times, which is mostly due to the plethora of folk songs I grew up singing around campfires that, for some reason, mention wine quite a lot.

Although I cannot understand for the life of me why a person would feel the impulse to have grapes go bad before consuming them, I can appreciate the way wine has shaped many a people’s culture — appreciate it from afar, that is. Being critical of your culture’s obsession with certain food, drink, or other substance can be its own reward (especially if staying away from it spares you a bad trip), but I submit that saying no for the sake of it isn’t the way to go. Of course you don’t owe anyone an explanation (oftentimes there is none), but if you’re willing to at least stand by your taste you can make other people reconsider their own lifestyle choices. Did they make these choices consciously or not? The first time, did they only say yes because it was the easy thing to do? (I often do.)

I wouldn’t call myself abstinent; I’m actually pretty open-minded about things. But I want to be conscious about my decisions — and insistent on my personal taste — lest addiction deprive me of these decisions entirely. Lastly, I want to share two more observations with you. First, people sometimes find it drastic that I call alcohol and tobacco drugs, because they prefer to reserve the term for illegal substances (maybe that’s a German thing, I don’t know). Frankly, it strikes me as awfully convenient — and even deceptive — to stick by the law on this issue: not least because it’s subject to change. Second, the most frequent feedback I get after a night out is a word of respect for my supposed strong will to refuse a drink. Obviously, to me that isn’t an act of will at all anymore; it’s become second-nature. But doesn’t the mere assumption that it requires effort speak volumes about the culture we live in?


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