Giving up Alcohol: My Experiences with Lack of Empathy

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When I hit my early thirties, I started noticing how my body reacted differently to alcohol. A couple of drinks already made me queasy and on the verge of vomiting, as though I’d just binged on shots all night after a hardy Mexican meal. You know that precipice just before the point of no return, where you’re summoning every fiber of your being to maintain composure and ward off the inevitable hurl? The next day was a continuation of that stymied state: my body seemed to constrict on the inside—tensing up into a knot while my face felt like it was stretching—like a balloon being pumped with just over its limit of air intake.

This new development was particularly noteworthy because: Once upon a time… I was a drinking superstar—a dubious honor my old friends bestowed upon me with a mixture of amusement, resignation, annoyance, pity, and good cheer. This was all relative though. I can honestly say I was never a binge drinker or a bona fide alcoholic in my heyday. I was simply a social drinker—ironically surrounded by nondrinkers and very moderate drinkers—so everyone saw me through their reverse beer goggles and amplified my drinking habits by default. Anyway, it was starting to look like I peaked early.

At my next all-around physical, I mentioned this new condition to my doctor, who dismissed it nonchalantly as part of the aging process: “That’s just your body telling you what it can handle now.” You mean I don’t have a choice? Maybe he was right: my body did check out all right with the requisite tests that day. Also, interestingly, my older brother had quit drinking in his early thirties too because he didn’t like how alcohol made him feel anymore. I guess non-alcoholism runs in my family, along with reticence and aversion to affection.

Indeed, I would prove all my friends wrong that year by quitting alcohol literally overnight. If I ever wanted irrefutable proof that I wasn’t an alcoholic after all, it was the simple glaring fact that it took no effort for me to put down the bottle. My last drink was at a friend’s birthday celebration a few months later. Still testing the waters at that point, I had one beer bottle that night—but I found that even that tossed my head into a slight tailspin. That was enough. From then on, good ol’ H20 was going to be my drink of choice on wild nights out on the town. And henceforth, I would encounter the strangest reactions from people I met who simply could not comprehend my new lifestyle.

Being Asian, I naturally grew up around many other Asians and befriended them throughout my life. If I learned one thing about my ethnic group, it’s this: most of us cannot hold our liquor. Hence, many of us simply forego the activity of drinking alcohol altogether, to spare the embarrassment of physical discomfort, vomiting, and the famous “Asian glow” (instead of being mysterious about it, I’ll give you the scientific definition: many of us including myself, turn beet red after just one or more drinks). And yes, I know some of you dear readers are all too happy to counterattack me on that—I’ll just say it with you: “some of by best friends are Asians who DRINK!!!” Yes—I knew some Asians who drank too—namely me! But I would say about ninety percent of the Asians I knew didn’t drink at all. Therefore, I was accustomed to this kind of lifestyle. I never questioned it—because I was aware that it didn’t affect me; it sure as hell wasn’t gonna stop me from drinking myself!

But since not everyone is Asian, there are some people out there who are baffled by the “dry” lifestyle. After I joined the other side, when I would meet new people—such as friends of friends—invariably, it would take place at a bar or a place where alcohol was served. These encounters often went down like this:

Drinker: “Hi, nice to meet you.”

Me: “Nice to meet you too.”

Drinker: (noting my lack of an alcoholic beverage) “Are you gonna get a drink?”

Me: “No, I’m okay.”

Drinker: “Why not?”

Me: “Oh, I don’t drink.”

Drinker: “You don’t drink? Why??!”

Me: “Oh, just health reasons.” (trying to be pithy but informative).

Drinker: “Health reasons?”

Me: “Yeah… it doesn’t sit well with me.”

Drinker: (discerning look, not convinced) “Oh…”

Me: “I used to drink—but not anymore…” (trying to paint a picture of the truth and letting them know that I’m not completely green either).

Drinker: (still bearing a discerning look)

Later, after chatting about our mutual friends, jobs, living situations, etc… :

Drinker: “So what do you do for fun—since you don’t drink?!!”

Me: “Oh, I like hanging out, watching movies, eating… stuff like that.”

Drinker: “Why don’t you drink??”

Me: (pause, annoyed) “I don’t want to.”

Drinker: “So you never drink?”

Me: “No. I used to drink…”

Drinker: “—BUT YOU DON’T NOW!!”

Later on in the night, the topic would somehow just naturally come up in conversation—a sticky residue that just glommed onto everything:

Me: “Today was such a beautiful day!”

Drinker: “It’d be even better if you drank!”

Me: “I love Indian food.”

Drinker: “You know what goes well with Indian food? Jack n’ Coke. Too bad you don’t drink!”

Me: “I went to Oktoberfest last year.”

Drinker: “Oh yeah? I love the sausages there!”

Not being a drinker was like having food stuck between my teeth—only everyone was eager to point it out—repeatedly. I was subject to conversations like the hyperbole above, indefinitely. Usually I was the only person not drinking; the interrogators had plenty of cohorts to bond in their alcohol consumption—yet they felt compelled to zero in on me, refusing to accept that one person in their presence wasn’t participating. To be fair, I think some of these people simply brought up the topic incessantly out of sheer ignorance (a pervasive human trait)—without realizing that they sounded like a car alarm that wouldn’t shut up.

I only met one person who expressed any sense about my predicament. After I lamented about the opposition I was receiving, he remarked: “Well, I just assume that if a person doesn’t drink, that they might be a recovering alcoholic or something—so I don’t push it.”

… Thank. YOU.

It astonished me how little sensitivity and respect I was allotted for my lifestyle choice—my RIGHT—to choose this lifestyle. Alcohol is inherently a delicate subject and should be treated as such without question. It can be a divisive and taboo topic because of all the connotations it bears, unique to each person.

But—not to pull a victim card here—I suspect I often wasn’t afforded this minimum of consideration because: no one thought it was possible that I’d be a recovering alcoholic or anything close to that. I wasn’t some aged, weathered-looking hard-ass (apologies for typecasting “recovering alcoholics”… ) I’ve always conveyed an image of, shall we say: even-keeled, reserved civility… to my own benefit and detriment.

To corroborate this theory: many people throughout my life have conceded that they didn’t even think I was a drinker! So there is something about my personality and appearance that evokes the impression of a “clean” lifestyle.

And indeed: (after I stopped drinking), I had one mutual friend drop the label “innocent” on me twice in one night, so there you go. I was an object of derision, not empathy. I wasn’t someone with a past; I had no past in his eyes: a simpleton.

This was what baffled me—the inability of people to simply put themselves in someone else’s shoes—to realize that not everyone enjoys the same things! Badgering someone to explain why they don’t drink is like badgering them for not eating broccoli or peanuts. The simple combination of free will and preference should be explanation enough.

It has been two years since my last drink. Although I’m certainly proud, I’m also very unceremonious about it—just as I was when I decided to quit so ably in the first place. I never felt defined by alcohol before or after quitting, and I prefer it that way. Too bad some people simply can’t see this.

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10 thoughts on “Giving up Alcohol: My Experiences with Lack of Empathy

  1. This was a very interesting read to me for various reasons. I’m Asian as well, and my current city does not have many of us outside of the main university area. I saw a Korean lady once in my neighborhood and it was like seeing a unicorn. “I thought I was the only one!” Ahahah. Anyway. I definitely have had friends that turn beet red after just a drink. I’ve also had (Asian) friends that can drink a fair amount and not physically show it.

    The conversations that you outlined–holy moly–I don’t know where you live, but that has to be aggravating. Part of it is that you’re the specific place you’re in is a place where alcohol is served, so the people there are much more likely to be drinkers than not. Also, the younger the commenters, the less life experiences in general.

    I have to say, due to stereotypes, one does not right off the bat expect an Asian to potentially have problems with any kind of substance, which may lend itself to the incredulous reactions you get. So, you’re supposed to be good in math but generally overall smart, if you’re female, you’re supposed to drive pretty bad, and well, you’re supposed to be quiet and respectful and know a martial art, no? Problems with alcohol doesn’t really factor in. I have to admit personally, I’ve flown quietly under the radar multiple times thanks to those more positive Asian stereotypes. I can imagine it’s difficult when they work against you.

    Glad you’re posting and look forward to reading more of your stuff!

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    • Thanks for the insightful comment! You’re lucky, regarding your experiences. And I agree: it’s all about location LOL. I live in a major city, and mostly have hung out with people my age or younger (I’m in my early 30s). But I’ve met a few older people who simply bring up the subject of my “Dry” lifestyle repeatedly too—perhaps out of social discomfort. Sigh. I do believe there are cool people out there who will not make an issue of this; I’ve just had quite my fill of antagonistic experiences, since I quit drinking just two years ago. It’s still ongoing. Thanks, and I’ll check out your blog too!

      Liked by 1 person

  2. I really enjoyed reading this, and as someone who doesn’t drink because of what has been unreservedly an unhealthy, decade-long, relationship with alcohol I still find it infuriating that ‘to drink, or not to drink’ falls into the same ‘public property’ bin as age, sexuality, wealth in terms of what people feel that they are allowed to comment on.

    I also resent the implication that to drink is to be fun, to not drink is to be dull. I often thought, at the worst of my drinking, that I was at my best after a few drinks – most gregarious, outrageous, flirty, life and soul, inhibitionless, talk-to-anyone, and sometimes that translated well, but sometimes it translated to being passed out on a pavement whilst commuters stepped round me on their way to work. Funny right?

    Thanks again for this – I (like all the cool kids) also write a blog, and wrote on a similar subject, feel free to take a look, would love to hear any thoughts!

    http://speaking-easy.blogspot.co.uk/2015/09/just.html

    Liked by 1 person

  3. this was really amusing, if for no other reason because I love how bewildered people get by nondrinkers…
    I mean I’m a drinker, no denying that. but “what do you do if you don’t drink??” ….ummmm….live my life? haha! weird questions, you should’ve flipped the script and feigned major concern about their drinking habits 😉

    Liked by 1 person

  4. I feel you! I do drink, but not always, and rarely very much. Like you, I started to feel it a little differently and “didn’t like how it made me feel”. And also like you I turn beet red, but I’m as white as they come (blonde hair and green eyes and everything) so I’m not sure what my “glow” is called. 🙂 I usually have water, but in a cocktail glass. People presume it’s vodka seven, it just saves the painful conversation.

    But your experience touches on another one for me! I’m vegan. And I HATE talking about it with people. But I can’t get away from it as social events where there is food. People are really uncomfortable with it and make a lot of jokes about how much meat they eat and how they love it, etc.

    I think maybe the issue is that you’re not participating in something that is a social norm and people want to catagorize you (recovering alcholic, Mormon, hater, whatever) so they can better understand and, at the same time, know you’re not judging them. Just an idea. 🙂

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    • Thanks for your comment. Omg, I totally didn’t think about your point regarding food restrictions. I’m ashamed to admit—but glad to say I only (THINK)—the following thoughts, having the soundness of mind to keep it to myself: I do tend to feel dismay towards those with food restrictions. It’s never towards vegetarians or vegans though, interestingly; I actually understand their ethical and dietary issues with eating meat, etc. In my experience, I just butt heads with people who choose to not eat something ” ’cause they don’t like it” lol. (Such as tomatoes or a whole ethnic category of food!). I think to myself: “Why deprive yourself of pleasure?” LOL. But yeah, it’s their business and it’s not my right to impose. Everybody is different, and to tie my reaction to food with the drinkers I’ve encountered, I guess when we really enjoy something we simply can’t fathom someone choosing not to enjoy it either. This is the mystery of life: we are all different. Go figure, lol.

      Liked by 1 person

  5. Funny. Here we are in the same boat again! I stopped drinking about a year ago for the same reason. Everything you have stated here is 100% accurate. I hope people have read it and realized how they should speak to anyone without a beer in their hand!

    Liked by 1 person

    • Hi! Thanks for validating my thoughts… it’s gratifying to know I’m not alone lol. Sometimes I think I’m crazy lol! (I know I’m not). You should read the previous comment about people who have dietary restrictions. That’s another point of contention that others encounter; I totally overlooked it. Now I empathize with people who “just don’t get it” at the very least: we need to respect people who simply don’t like what we like. It’s really that simple. I’ll check out your blog too! Thanks.

      Like

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