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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.