One of the things that I worried about, before I stopped drinking, is what on earth I would drink if I didn’t drink alcohol. It’s a common query; all the sober communities I know of have this question as a recurring topic, and we trade tips about sparkling elderflower cordial and dry ginger ale.
These days, conversations like that seem, if not boring, at least completely irrelevant.
Last night, LH and I had a ‘date night’ dinner of nice cheese, olives, smoked salmon and other nibbles on a platter. He drank red wine and made me a complicated mocktail of pomegranate juice, freshly squeezed lime and tonic water. He’s a sweetheart, my LH, but it made me realise how unimportant the whole ‘what to drink’ thing has become. I drink a lot of Diet Coke, these days, because it’s the only diet soda that doesn’t taste entirely of aspartame, and I drink a lot of coffee, and I have to remind myself to drink enough water in a way that I never did in my dehydrated drinking days.
Complicated mocktails are all very nice, but the effort involved seems disproportionate to the importance. I mostly enjoyed it for the gesture it represented, although the combination was delicious.
The process of giving up alcohol, for me, has largely been about discovering how completely unimportant alcohol actually is. I want to draw an analogy with the little man behind the Great and Terrible Oz in the Wizard of Oz, but that’s not right. It’s not right because behind the curtain is real sobriety, the thing we were afraid of, and sobriety isn’t a sad little man; it’s great and glorious and bigger than any terrible fear can be.
The mythology of alcohol is so powerful, though. Different drinks have a different effect on our moods (this is not borne out by science, by the way), there are special glasses out of which each drink should be drunk, some drinks are for certain occasions. What you drink is part of your social identity, like which football team you support or what clothes you wear. If you’re writing a hard-boiled cop character, you don’t describe him sipping Lambrusco from a stemmed glass; the latest It girl is unlikely to be drinking Jack Daniels and Coke unless she’s doing it originally; port is the sole province of musty old gentlemen in book-lined studies.
Who remembers back when smoking was still glamorous? Sobranies were the ultimate in glamour because they were long and slim and black; stylish women used cigarette holders; cigarettes didn’t live in packets but in special boxes; lighters were collector’s items. The paraphenalia of smoking is mostly gone now, but at the time it added to the allure. Alcohol has that going for it, too. It is not just about the drug, but about its accessories.
When I imagined myself as a non-drinker, it always seemed as if I’d be giving up a whole world. What would I drink with dinner? Should the answer change depending on whether I was having fish or beef? If I wasn’t holding a thin-stemmed glass, and instead my sparkling liquid was in a tumbler, did that infantilise me? So many little losses, so many little griefs.
What I realise now is this. When I asked ‘but what will I drink if I don’t drink alcohol?’ what I meant was ‘but who will I be if I am not a drinker?’. I no longer worry about what to drink, and I no longer worry about who I am. I just live.