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Why Does Society Think I'm Some Kind of Freak for Abstaining From Alcohol?

No one ever asks me why I don't shoot heroin.

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When you don't drink, you start to notice how big of a problem alcohol is for so many people, despite the industry's efforts to conceal this fact. After spending a couple New Year's Eve parties sober, you start to ask yourself why anyone would want to do this. Somehow, when you're sober, getting into a fistfight with your best friend and then puking in a bathtub just doesn't look like that much fun. 

And these aren't even the worst effects of alcohol. Alcohol use is positively correlated with domestic violence, and alcohol is a factor in over half of all rapes. Alcohol abuse is the third leading cause of preventable death in the United States. And as AlterNet reported this week, the number of liquor stores in an area is one of the strongest predictors of the rate of violent crime in the area.

Still, there's absolutely no social stigma related to alcohol consumption. It's actually the opposite, as I've learned since I quit drinking. Not only do people find it strange that I don't drink, some people refuse to believe it. I've had more than one argument that began with the other person insisting "No, I saw you drinking last week." 

Some people actually don't understand what it means not to drink. I've heard everything from "But red wine isn't really alcohol, right?" to "Yeah, I know you don't drink, but you can just have one beer."

The problem is that I can't. I quit drinking when I was 21 years old, after an escalating series of alcohol-induced problems over several years, culminating in a bout of alcohol hallucinosis that ended with me being sedated in a jail cell after a fight with the guards. I finally realized that, for me, alcohol is an all-or-nothing proposition and that I would never be able to drink in moderation. 

This is obviously not a story I want to share with every stranger 10 seconds after meeting them. But drinking is so ingrained in our culture that my decision not to drink almost always requires some kind of explanation. And abstinence from drinking is so unusual that it's often impossible to wave the question away. People want details of why, exactly, you don't drink.

This is a phenomenon that doesn't occur with any other substance. People aren't ever curious as to why someone doesn't smoke cigarettes or why they don't like coffee. Even vegans are subject to fewer questions than teetotalers.

Just how socially unacceptable not drinking is was driven home for me a couple weeks ago during a party at a friend's house. I was sitting with a friend, a guy I've known a couple months, when, not realizing that I don't drink, he started talking about his opinion of people who don't drink. "My grandfather told me never to trust anyone that doesn't drink," he said. "And it's true! He was right!"

Actually, it's drinking that makes people less trustworthy. Along with other parts of the brain, alcohol affects the frontal lobe and the amygdala, causing a lack of inhibitions and making you more prone to out-of-control behavior. Throughout my adult life, I've seen countless examples of alcohol causing horrible behavior, from violence to accidental injury to a shirking of responsibilities due to hangovers. 

Another important thing to remember is that marijuana, still illegal under federal law, does not carry these same risks and is overall much safer than alcohol. Marijuana is much less addictive than alcohol and much less harmful, too. In the entire history of marijuana use, there has not been one recorded instance of death from marijuana overdose. Several studies have shown that marijuana use actually reduces aggressive behavior leading to violent crime. 

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