Why I Don’t Drink

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When I was ten I once found myself walking with my brother on a Lake Michigan beach when we came upon a half-empty bottle of beer. Curious, I picked it up and looked inside at the swirling dark liquid. Then, impulsively, I took a sip. It was hot, having baked in the sun for who knows how many hours or days, and tasted awful.

I never took another drink of alcohol again. The reason for this isn’t because I found that first sip so revolting (though I did). It’s for the same reason my wife hates to have her blood drawn—that is to say, not because the needle hurts (she’s voluntarily taken on exponentially more pain throughout her life, most recently when she climbed Mt. Rainier)—but rather because the idea of a needle being inserted into her vein is so utterly revolting to her.

Though I have no problem having my blood drawn, the idea of having my mind influenced by a drug fills me with the same sense of revulsion that she feels when she thinks about a needle puncturing her skin and sliding into a vein. The origin of these feelings? I honestly don’t know. Perhaps they relate to a pathological fear of loss of control. Or perhaps to a subconscious sense of moral superiority that remaining always in control of my faculties gives me. (I feel no conscious moral outrage toward drinking or drinkers—at least, none toward those who drink responsibly.) But when you combine an emotional aversion to feeling even tipsy with the fact that the ability to enjoy the taste of alcohol must, in general, be acquired, what you get—at least, in my case—is a lifelong teetotaler.

Abstaining from alcohol hasn’t always been easy. Especially in college, there was frequently subtle and even occasionally intense and direct pressure to drink. My not drinking separated me from my peers in a way I found frankly—though in retrospect naively—bewildering: I wasn’t just left out of drinking games but also of other kinds of fun they would have. It hurt sometimes to be excluded—but never so much that I ever decided to join them in drinking. I often found myself wondering if my friends felt that my not drinking was my way of rebuking them for drinking to excess. And though I have to confess I never admired anyone for drinking so much that they threw up or couldn’t remember what they’d done the night before, I never once criticized anyone for it.

Being excluded from a group because of choices you’ve made, what you believe, or what you are is painful, to say the least. But it can also make you strong. It forces you to define your boundaries. To know why they exist. To practice defending them. To practice paying attention to your own voice amid the often deafening cacophony of the voices of those around you.

And it does one thing more: it makes you more empathetic. This, by helping you to appreciate the struggles of those others who also don’t fit, who find themselves trying to find their own community. Being excluded because of the choices you make can even make you empathetic to the suffering of those who most stringently seek to ostracize you. In sum, being excluded makes it far more likely you’ll be able to live according to Plato’s admonition to “be kind, for everyone you meet is fighting a hard battle.” For few things, I’ve found, make us as kind as needing a little kindness ourselves.

Next Week: The Undefeated Mind

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  • I am having trouble getting my Buddhist mind around “constructing an indestructible self.” For years I have been taught, and believe, there is no self. Please share your thoughts. Take care.

    Sally: Ah, that’s exactly the subject of next week’s post. Stay tuned!


  • Hi Alex, I can’t tell if this post is more about feeling excluded or about justifying your choice to not drink. Why does this matter?

    Molly: Neither. It’s about how making a choice that separates you from your peers is often difficult but has its benefits. At least, that was my aim.


  • Here’s the hard part: teaching your children to stand for their beliefs or stand up for whatever physical anomaly their peers will conjure up, when as a parent your heart is telling you very loudly to keep them from any sort of pain at all. For various reasons, most parents fail at this and thus we have a culture of spoiled kids who aren’t prepared for the harsh world and aren’t willing to fight through it.

  • Hey Alex,

    My mom passed your blog on to me. I also don’t drink. Part taste and part because I’ve never felt the inclination—yes, even during those rowdy university days.

    I agree—there is the control aspect too. I can remember a girl at university who would get so trashed, end up passed out and vomiting in the ladies bathroom. Just awful! I think too much of myself for that.

    Other alcohol-related things that come to mind… As I child I had a friend with an alcoholic father. We would search cupboards, drawers and under furniture for hidden bottles…

    Grandparents who drank too much—”wasting” (a relative judgement) the rest of their lives by drinking from noon. Kind people with no hobbies or interests outside of drinking.

    The interesting part is how my not drinking makes others uncomfortable. Alcoholic beverages from shooters to wine are pushed on to me. I politely decline and happily consume fruit juice or other non-alcoholic beverages.

    I hadn’t really thought about being left out—but you’re right. I also bow out gracefully from parties where it is all about drinking or I leave once people start getting drunk. Fortunately most of my friends are light, social drinker and they rarely overindulge so this hasn’t been an issue in recent years.

    Good post. Thank you.

  • To add to this… same goes for dietary preferences. I’ve got a couple of vegan friends and they have exactly the same non-drinking issues you’ve raised about. People don’t accept their choices and they haggle them with ever groups meal. They always get “Why?” asked of them. Whether they’re bunny-huggers or their choice is preference or nutritional why doesn’t really matter. It’s their preference.

    They have changed their behaviour to avoid dinner/lunch get-togethers and to stick with tea-time gatherings or they will try to guide restaurant choices to venues where they know they can get something half decent. Or they’ll happily come for meals at friends who respect their choice and cater accordingly. If my friends only ate pumpkin I’d make them pumpkin soup, bread and pie for lunch 😉

    Like them my food choices are a bit “odd.” I’m not fanatical but I’m also veg and I try to limit my dairy intake (affects my lungs when running—wheezy). It’s not easy.

  • Alex, this is off topic.

    As part of a pilgrimage to shrines dedicated to Lord Ganpati, I recently visited a Buddhist cave site dating from 3 C BC and would like to share some photos with you. Can I please have a mail ID to reach you at?

    Thanks and regards,


    Mira: alickerman @ gmail . com.


  • I was reluctant to drink—didn’t start until I was 23 or so—but I’m glad I did. Experimenting with alcohol made it a little easier to deal with the effects of other drugs when I started having panic attacks years later. I still resisted taking the medication I needed for quite a while, but I ultimately realized that my intense desire to be in control of my emotions and thoughts was not useful. It was a manifestation of my grasping at lots of things I shouldn’t be holding on to. I had learned to enjoy the experience of feeling alcohol’s effects (the mild ones, anyway), and I learned to let medication return my brain chemistry to the normal range, when no other techniques would work. I think learning to drink was a useful part of me learning to let go of control. Just my experience.

  • While I do enjoy the taste of a cold beer or a good wine, I’d be lying if I said that’s why I drink. In truth, I drink as an escape from my social anxieties. It makes me more relaxed and talkative, receptive to meeting new people and trying new things. In short, it makes me feel and behave how I wish I could feel and behave *all* the time. As a Buddhist, I think you’ll appreciate that altered states of mind are almost impossible to justify to those who haven’t experienced them, as they’re only capable of seeing it from the outside which, especially in the case of alcohol, is often less than dignified.

    The loss of control issue is an interesting one, which I think divides people by their own character. Personally, I actually feel *more* in control after a moderate amount of alcohol, in the sense that I often feel socially restricted when I’m sober. Those who are lucky enough to be naturally outgoing, assertive and gregarious will have no need of it. Some might see it as a crutch. I prefer to think of it as training wheels on the way towards making the positive effects more permanent.

    Another great post, Alex, with all your usual eloquence and humility.

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  • I don’t drink, or I should say I have about one or two drinks a year, and then they are never finished. For me, it is a physical thing—alcohol gives me migraines. So if I drink, it is a few sips of something that tastes good to me after a full meal. Anything else I will pay dearly for. And it’s not worth it.

    But the real point, I think, is how you have taken your practice of not drinking and used it to understand how that affect social relationships and to awaken compassion for those who are excluded for whatever reasons.

    So glad I found your blog (through JD’s blog)! It is now marked as a favorite. I look forward to reading more.

  • Same thing for me. I disliked first time I tested to drink some beer! But it was different when I was older, a light and fresh beer is think I prefer when the weather is hot!