A Bit Of A Drink Problem

17th October 2014

and not the one you think. Heather Harris explains…

My name’s Heather Harris and I am teetotal.

There. I said it. A secret I have hidden from friends and family for years, for fear of being ostracised, is finally out in the open.

So many times at social events I have tried to fall on to the wagon in order to fall off it again …but I just can’t do it.

I have a serious drink problem – I don’t like alcohol.

And I am not alone. According to the most recent survey by the Office for National Statistics, ‘one in six adults have now sworn off alcohol’: 18% of women and 12% of men don’t drink at all.

That’s an incredible statistic in today’s alcohol-obsessed society and one which, frankly, I do not believe. Or perhaps, like me, these secret non-drinkers hide their anti-social habit behind a large glass of Appletiser and hope it looks like something more interesting. Dressing up a non-alcoholic drink is not uncommon.

This apparent rise in abstinence has, according to the ONS’s report, entitled Smoking and Drinking among Adults, occurred since the turn of the century. ‘The falls in average alcohol consumption since 2000 are partly due to the proportion of people who abstain from alcohol altogether. In 1998 this was 10% but this figure has now risen to 15%.’

Perhaps the change resulted from a massive UK-wide millennium-induced hangover on 1 January 2000. More realistically, there is a whole host of reasons – religious, health, medical and personal preference – that have an increasing number of men and women reaching for the mocktail menu. Just over half say it is for health reasons; nearly a quarter don’t like the taste or effect.

Personally, it’s not for the want of trying. I have locked myself in a darkened room and sampled all manner of drink – from a vintage rosé to a Malibu and Coke, with every type of grape and grain in between. The only drink I found vaguely palatable was a Pina Colada (not readily available at my Hertfordshire local) and that’s only because the smell reminded me of sun tan lotion.

The rest either sent me to sleep or gave me an instant blinding headache. “But we all get that!” I hear you cry – maybe so, but not after the first sip, and not so you can’t actually see out of one eye, as happens to me.

In the end I resorted to the motto of my life: ‘If at first you don’t succeed, try something else’. In my younger days this applied to playing the piano and asking out older boys; in my later years it has worked for both skiing and drinking.

Mother of three teenagers, Anna (not her real name; in fact, all names have been changed as being teetotal is clearly not something people want to go public on) feels the same. “I never drink anything at all. I had a few as a teenager and hated the way it tasted and made me feel.”

For 50-year-old Sue, it was a combination of factors. “I really don’t like the feeling of losing control, life is too short for hangovers and I’ve got to the stage in life when I don’t need alcohol for social confidence!”

Phil, my 20-year-old apprentice electrician, whispered across the confessional box that is our utility room, “Beer tastes like yeast, wine like vinegar and gin like perfume. I much prefer coke [I presumed he meant the drink?] but I don’t dare tell anyone…”

In a country where alcohol-related deaths, from diseases such as liver and throat cancer, continue to outnumber those caused by smoking or obesity, it is ironic that ‘mine’s just an orange juice’ is such an unpalatable statement.

“Keep trying it and you’ll get used to it. Start with shandy and work up,” was my – otherwise quite rational – husband’s reaction when our 17-year-old son plucked up courage to tell us that he didn’t like the taste of alcohol. No pat on the back for his clean-living lifestyle but a panic resulting from the realisation that they’ll never be able to do that traditional father son bonding by ‘going for a pint’.

For Anna, “Most of the reactions were ‘oh don’t be so boring’. I think they were feeling judged.”

That’s a belief shared by Rebecca, who was forced to give up alcohol eight years ago, after being diagnosed with a chronic liver disease unconnected to drinking. “I have not been invited on boozy girls/mums nights out by different groups of friends. I think I make people feel self-conscious when they are drunk because they know I am sober.”

Mark, aged 22, who has recently left Liverpool University, and gave up drinking two years ago had a similar experience. “I’m seen as the loner, the odd one out. By not having a drink by my side I’m consciously making a statement to those around me which in turn (and this is their belief) makes me a bore and somewhat detached from the fun and frolicking that forms part of a good old session.”

Mark’s a bitter man. Or not, as the case may be. Rightly or wrongly, though, he admits to becoming increasingly upset by people’s reactions.

Personally, it doesn’t bother me as I genuinely believe drinkers do not mean to make us abstainers feel bad – we are simply a walking/talking reminder of their lack of self control. We are the angel on their shoulder saying ‘look, you don’t have to drink’ – and who wants an angel at their Stag Do or Christmas Party?

Ironically, unlike dieters or even ex-smokers, non-drinkers do not tend to preach the benefits of self denial. We do not go around extolling the virtues of a mug of hot brew over a pint of homebrew. As Sue says, “I never try to convert drinkers… there’s nothing like a sanctimonious teetotaller to spoil a good party”.

On the contrary, secrecy is the key to being happily on the wagon.

I’m ashamed to admit that in my younger days I played the ‘I’m trying for a baby’ card as a hostess loomed into view armed with a drinks tray. Note: this excuse is not advisable at family gathering where would-be grandparents are within ear-shot. Alan, 49, who has a chronic reaction to alcohol similar to mine, confesses “I tell people I am a recovering alcoholic. That way they don’t try and force a drink on me…”

…because that’s another habit that drinkers have – an entire cabinet of persuasive approaches. ‘Oh, go on, just have the one to keep me company…’ ‘It’s a celebration, it would be rude not to toast the bride…’ or my particular dinner party favourite, ‘But I bought this red especially to go with your main course…’

The ‘recovering alcoholic line’ is a tempting one as it instantly projects the non-drinker from health obsessed bore to street-cred ex-addict. This is a badge worn proudly by stars of stage and screen from Bradley Cooper and Ozzy Osborne, to Russell Brand and Davina McCall.

The actual origins of abstinence date back to 1833 with the founding of the Preston Temperance Society by Joseph Livesey, author of The Pledge: ‘We agree to abstain from all liquors of an intoxicating quality whether ale, porter, wine or ardent spirits, except as medicine’. The term teetotal derives from the Society too. Apparently, one member, a certain Dicky Turner, had a speech impediment and when trying to tell fellow members that partial abstinence from alcohol would not do, stammered that it had to be ‘tee-tee-tee total’.

Roll on nearly two hundred years, and finding a satisfying alternative to alcohol is giving the marketing men a headache of their own.

Wine correspondent Fiona Beckett observed in The Guardian that there is a shortage of alcohol-free options ‘that you'd be happy to order in front of your mates’, adding that ‘creating a best-selling adult soft drink is, of course, the holy grail’. Recovering alcoholic Peter Spanton (partner of Janet Street-Porter; some would argue that that’s a reason to drink in itself) is the latest to ‘step up to the bar’ with his range of favoured tonics. Bizarrely his website promotes them as ‘great with your favourite spirit’ rather than as drinks on their own, but that’s beside the point.

Critics applauded their taste but remarked on their hiccup-inducing price of £1.90 a 200ml bottle (that’s £7 for a wine-sized bottle) plus whatever the bar or pub might add on top.

Clearly, Peter Spanton has not digested the statistics which show that the middle classes drink more than the working classes. A third of professional women exceeded the recommended alcohol intake on at least one day in the week before they were interviewed, compared with 23% on lower incomes.

With a meal it is widely accepted for the abstainer that water is the only way to go. Fizzy drinks with a curry may be acceptable, but there are vanishingly few occasions where the À la carte is complemented by a decent glass of Fanta. And even the latest organic, healthy fruit juices are simply too sweet, or too filling, to sip whilst pontificating over meat or fish.

Awash with the contents of a vintage bottle of ‘still or sparkling’ most of us non-drinkers can happily enjoy an evening out surrounded by any number of inebriated individuals. We can laugh at their drunken antics and even join them for uninhibited dancing. And at the end of the evening, we can pour them a large black coffee or pour them into a taxi. We do not judge.

In fact, the only thing that threatens to drive us all to drink is that one single crushing and usually rhetorical question ‘Everyone happy to split the bill?’


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