Like the air I breathed, alcohol was unquestioned in my life. I gave it up, but still felt pressure to drink | Briony Whitton

My first drink was at the age of four.

My family was living in a caravan park in Roeburne, in Western Australia’s north; a quick trip around Australia gone awry. A lady across the way, lonely after being recently widowed, would pour me a small glass of beer on my daily rounds to visit the neighbours on my tricycle. After a few days of being confused by my stumbling, napping, and unusual appetite, my mother worked out what was going on and nipped it in the bud, taking my place as the widow’s afternoon drinking buddy. Apparently, in the late 80s, giving beer to a child was not out of place.

Like it is for many Australians, alcohol was as unquestioned in my life as the air I breathe. Drinking is how we bond as friends. Working in bars and clubs was a university rite of passage. Beers are drunk after work, a glass of wine with dinner. You drink on bad days, and then good days, until it’s any day that ends in Y, amirite? We all know about Boonie’s 52-can flight to Heathrow and Bob Hawke’s ability to scull a beer at the age of 82. Hell, shoeys might now be Australia’s signature move thanks to Daniel Ricciardo and Grace Tame.

In my mid-20s, I started drinking less. Booze made me disproportionally sick; I was That Girl in the bathroom hurling my guts up halfway through a night out. My hangovers lasted days, one so bad after drinking a bottle of vanilla Galliano on an empty stomach that I fell asleep at my desk the next day. Nights out were expensive between booze and taxis, so I nominated myself the designated driver for my friends. Being a sober driver was an easy way to decline a third $22 espresso martini and since everyone loves a free ride home, nobody looked that gift horse in the mouth.

It wasn’t my intention to completely quit drinking. Yes, I had dramatically sworn I would never drink again as I lay my head on the cool bathroom tiles at 3am, haven’t we all? I didn’t know anyone who could make it through dry July, let alone give it up entirely. It simply wasn’t an option. But by the time I turned 30, even one drink was enough to make me nauseous and fuzzy. Four years ago, I went to a restaurant opening and spent more than an hour nursing a single glass of Tempranillo, the half glass I’d drunk already curdling in my stomach. The sommelier, a friend, encouraged me to try the carefully curated drinks list, and I realised I didn’t even want the one I had in my hand.

That was it for me. I was done.

My relationship with alcohol is not complicated. Quite simply, it no longer served me. After a six-year reduction, I realised that I didn’t feel good when I drank it, so I stopped.

Other people’s relationship with me not drinking is another story.

Once I entered my 30s, people were tired of the reasons I gave for declining a drink. Since I could afford an Uber and corporate networking drinks are free, why wasn’t I getting a little white-girl-wasted with my peers on a Thursday? As any woman of a certain age has experienced, there were raised eyebrows and whispers of pregnancy (just bloated! Thanks though!). Once that was ruled out, there had to be a reason and I didn’t have one that people found satisfying. People considered my lack of consumption a judgment of theirs. Did I think they drank too much? Why don’t I just drink more and get used to it? Could I stop being such a buzzkill?

It turns out peer pressure is not something we leave behind in our teens. Studies in the UK have found that women between 35 and 50 still experience peer pressure to drink, while younger people deploy avoidance strategies to avoid “coming out” as a non-drinker. For men at any age, the expectation to drink and keep pace was directly linked to the perception of their masculinity. Why do the contents of your glass decide who you are as a person?

In bars and restaurants, non-alc options were largely coke and orange juice, the kid’s options of any drinks menu. Until recently, most bartenders wrinkled their nose when I asked for a non-alc option that was appropriate for a nice dinner. What was wrong with me that I couldn’t just split the bottle at the table like everyone else? I’d weigh up a glass of merlot against the sleepless night of heartburn that it would inevitably trigger, and settle for a lemon, lime and bitters.

The boom in alcohol-free options in recent years has been a gamechanger for non-drinkers like me. No one asks any questions when I show up to a party with a heavy glass bottle that looks like gin. My partner can sneak a non-alc pale ale or dark stout between rounds on a Sunday afternoon and still be clear-headed on Monday morning, with his friends pushing for a rager none the wiser. Most states now have brick and mortar non-booze bottle shops, and online retailers like Killjoy Drinks or CraftZero deliver to doorsteps. Even bartenders have come around, with most venues having a respectable non-alc gin and tonic on their drinks list.

At last, there’s space for me at the bar.

Non-alc options have eased the pressure for people who want to quiet quit booze without the questions or judgment of people who have perhaps never questioned the role that alcohol plays in their own lives.

Feeling included tastes pretty good.

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