Monday 18 December 2017

My five years on the dry: 'My not drinking was treated with suspicion and occasionally derision mainly from the heavy drinkers'

When health issues forced Sophie White to relinquish red wine, she became the odd one out on a night out

Off the wagon: Sophie White gave up wine for health reasons, and ended up energetic and glowing, but now enjoys a glass of wine again. Photo: Tony Gavin
Off the wagon: Sophie White gave up wine for health reasons, and ended up energetic and glowing, but now enjoys a glass of wine again. Photo: Tony Gavin

Sophie White

By 15 I was the classiest underage drinker around, exclusively drinking red wine - my preferred grape being the Jacob's Creek varietal.

By college, my wine-drinking career had flourished - I was one of the founding members of the Homebrew society. I engaged in fairly typical behaviours of the wine enthusiast: I stole a traffic cone, I kissed a lot of inappropriate people, I disgorged that very particular breed of vomit - the red wine vom, I was loose with my opinions.

Then, quite abruptly, I became ill and was put on medication that was not compatible with my wine hobby. Suddenly I was a non-drinker. It was quite a turnaround and probably very disorientating for my friends: "Now that Sophie's sober all the time, we can't just pretend to listen to what she's saying." So basically during arguably the most free-spirited, party-heavy years of one's life I was teetotal.

As this was Dublin in the Noughties, I found there were not too many companions in sobriety. I feel like now I encounter far more people who are non-drinkers or who are "in training" or "on a cleanse" and I'm not quite sure if that is because I'm older or as a result of a more general increased interest in health.

As it was, back in 2006, my not drinking was treated with suspicion and occasionally derision, mainly from the heavy drinkers. I think this stemmed from their own insecurities about their drinking habits. You know those insecurities that are all too palpable in the cold, harsh light of a fear-y hangover but then easily drowned out with the third glass of wine. "I'm not a problem drinker, I don't need a drink," we think, as we overtake our dining companions on the number of glasses thrown back. I know this because I've had those insecurities myself from time to time.

When I first gave up drinking, I was at a party drinking green tea, and an inebriated guy admonished me with an outraged, "Are you drinking TEA??????" To which I replied, "No, whiskey." It was a fairly lazy response, but I had gotten tired of having the "I don't drink" conversation with drunk people.

It wasn't that I particularly minded drunk people when I was sober, I actually came to realise that being sober around drunk people is as good as being drunk yourself, if not better. You get a contact high from their drunkenness. You feel less inhibited because who cares if you look stupid dancing. They're drunk, they're not judging you. You don't have a hangover in the morning, and you never say something that will result in waking up mortified. I had one friend in particular who used to get incredibly drunk and call everyone "c*nts". I guess it was supposed to be funny but for some reason standing there, sober, being called a "c*nt" by a drunk person can really start to get in on you.

I'm not evangelical about an alcohol-free lifestyle; people were always saying to me "You must feel amazing not drinking" and I have to say that I did not feel amazing, I felt no different. Sure there were probably all kinds of health benefits so subtle that I was unable to detect them, but largely I just felt the same. The non-drinking was grand and all, but when it was no longer a medical requirement I leapt off that wagon faster than you could say "where's the opener?" I really, really like wine.

However, I will admit a lot of good came from my five years on the dry. For starters, never having hangovers meant that I literally had more time on my hands. Not that I used this extra time in a productive way, but it was there if I got the urge. For the first time in my life, I got into exercise. Not in a high level, cultish way. I wasn't some serial hobbyist triathlete, but it became a part of my life then and has remained so since. And most importantly, I got confidence in myself. I had always been an extrovert, but that's not the same thing.

Giving up made me realise that drinking is an activity that can really become a part of one's identity - often in an unhealthy way. Judging from the amount of 'women drinking wine' memes on the Internet I think it's probably not solely an Irish thing. Therefore, the biggest thing I learned when giving up drinking is that the things that we do are not the whole story of who we are, and that I actually dance better sober.

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