I'm Halfway Through an Alcohol-Free Year; Could You Do It?
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January is a divisive month in many parts of the world, especially my current country of residence, England. Large portions of the population have decided to spend the month sober in an attempt to exorcise the sins of 2013. Some make it through the month and receive their imaginary gold star and real-world sense of superiority, some don't. But either way, the rest of the country thinks they're idiots. In pubs, bars and restaurants, the disdain for sober Januariers is palpable. Well, I've taken it a step further: I'm over seven months into an alcohol-free year.
This idea seemed to be a conceptual hurdle to everyone I told in London. My friends all looked confused and asked why I didn't simply … drink … in moderation? So I spent the first month after I gave up smiling manically and struggling not to shout "Wait, let me get this right: just DON'T drink too much? Oh now I've got it – what a helpful idea! I'm sorted!"
My American friends back home didn't find it confusing. In fact, they didn't find it anything. When I told them I was giving up drinking for a year they just blinked in my general direction. Because as much the ladies on Sex in the City may have conned everyone into believing that being single in New York is a stream of Cosmopolitans and mulling over all of the dating questions that "we couldn't help but wonder", my life as a single 20-something girl in New York wasn't saturated with alcohol. If you meet someone after work, it's probably for a coffee. Drinks come later, and while in New York you're much more likely to be in a bar giggling drunkenly at 4am, you are much less likely to drink so much you fall over on the way home. It happens, of course, but post-university, it's not part of the culture like it is in the UK.
Apparently, what I've been experiencing is backed up by data. The US has less drinking generally than almost everywhere in Europe. In fact, one study found that the percentage of young binge drinkers in the UK was twice as high as the percentage in the US. This trend continues into adulthood, with the UK group Alcohol Concern recently reporting (pdf) that over 10 million adults in England exceed the recommended daily limit, and that a quarter of adults drink at hazardous levels. The numbers are eyebrow raising, but what they don't speak to is the toxic atmosphere this creates. If people are not drinking to get drunk, when having "a few drinks" actually means a few, it doesn't really make a difference who's drinking and who's not. So when I tried to explain my apprehensions about giving up drinking – and the impact it would have on my social life in London – my friends in New York couldn't understand why this could possibly be a problem.
They were wrong. While I felt like I was taking a positive step in my life, constantly facing the cultural obsession with moderation made it not only an uphill battle, but an embarrassing one. Telling friends in the UK that I wasn't drinking was a consistently humiliating affair, riddled with sharp intakes of breath, worrying looks and choruses of "not drinking at all? Isn't that a bit …EXTREME!?"
Right – "extreme". Extreme was everyone's favourite buzz word, as though not having a glass of sauv blanc with dinner is somehow akin to duct-taping myself to a live cheetah and bungee jumping off Tower Bridge. I felt freakish. Everything in moderation, right? Everything. I have no idea where I first heard that, but it's so familiar to me – to us – that it now sounds true. The ubiquity of the rhetoric of moderation makes it seem like an obvious solution and that it's really no trouble for anyone to just keep themselves in check. It took me a long time to realise that this simply couldn't be true.