Welcome to It’s Complicated, stories on the sometimes frustrating, sometimes confusing, always engrossing subject of modern relationships. (Want to share yours? Email pitches to firstname.lastname@example.org.)
I was 18 and squished as far into one side of the couch as I could go. He was on the other side, with the door closed, and one full bottle of vodka, a half-empty bottle of tequila missing a lid, and mismatched shot glasses piled on the nightstand. I’d been told it was a big group movie night. Imagine my surprise when I arrived and discovered it was just the two of us… and all his booze.
“Just have a drink, it’ll loosen you up,” he said. He poured me a glass of straight vodka. “Why don’t you drink up?” It sounded more like an order than a question, and I meekly reached out to take the glass. “I don’t really drink,” I told him. Which, at the time, was not entirely true.
“Everyone drinks,” he said, and before I knew it, he had one hand on the back of my neck, trying to pull me in for a kiss. I shoved him off, dropping my drink all over his dingy rug. Later, when I was trying to navigate my way out of the frat house, he snuck up behind me, almost like he wanted to dance. He wrapped one arm across my shoulders, whipped out the vodka, and tried to pour it down my throat.
It was the first time I, who at 15 routinely sat with her much-older friends as they drank to their hearts’ content, was terrified in the presence of alcohol. And I still remember that moment every time someone tells me to have a drink.
Now, at 24, in a new city, I’m neck-deep in dating culture, scrolling and swiping, wondering if any of it will ever feel like it means anything. And I’m doing it all with the knowledge that I’m also an outlier when it comes to drinking, which sometimes feels like the backbone of dating.
I’m an unusual kind of sober. I like wine, and sip it if I’m out with friends or at a party. But that’s usually it. I don’t mind being around alcohol and have clocked more hours as a hair holder-back-er and hangover cure deliverer than any person should.
I can’t pinpoint the moment when I made a conscious decision to stay sober. Maybe it’s because heavy drinking just never really seemed that appealing: Having older friends in high school meant I wasn’t impressed with the sudden flood of booze in college, and growing up with parents who shrugged off the drinking taboo – their refrain was “if you’re going to drink, don’t get in a car, pay attention to who you’re around”– gave me a “meh” attitude about getting drunk. It never seemed like a big deal.
But as I get older and spend more time sitting across from strange guys in bars and in restaurants, wondering if there’s something there, I’ve been confronted with the realization that not drinking is, in fact, a huge deal – or, at the very least, something that’s considered controversial in the dating scene among people my age.
A year before I moved to New York, I was at lunch with a guy I’d known for a few years – one with whom I’d and participated in the on-again, off-again disaster borderline synonymous with millennial relationships – when the conversation turned to a party happening later that week. “But I couldn’t take you. Because you don’t drink,” he said with a shrug. I gestured to the glass of wine sitting in front of me. He shook his head. “You’d drink a glass, but would you chug a bottle?”
Part of me wanted to throw the wine in his face. But the part that wanted him to like me was crushed. Because I knew the answer: No, I wouldn’t chug the bottle. No, I wouldn’t get drunk.
I tried every argument in my playbook: I’d sip a drink and dance.
I wanted to talk to people. It’s not like I didn’t go to parties! He finished up his second beer. “But it doesn’t matter,” he said. “Like, you’re so reserved. Who wants to hang around that?”
That’s the moment when it dawned on me. To him – to most of the people I knew – drinking was more than a social lubricant, an easy way to make plans, or a way to chill out. It was a social classification, a way of announcing to your date or friends or the rest of the bar, I am here, I am fun, I am participating!
And in his eyes, I’d signaled the opposite: that I couldn’t have fun, that I was socially awkward. It wouldn’t have mattered if I’d wanted a drink more than anything in the world, because there, across from him mentally crossing me off his list, I was busy swallowing down my own shame.
Statistically, excessiveness isn’t “a thing” anymore when it comes to young people and alcohol – research shows that that millennials as a group drink less than either Gen Xers or Baby Boomers – but socially, it’s another story. I never announce I don’t drink, but I don’t make an effort to cover it up, either. I’m good with whatever decision I make. The bizarre part is that other people aren’t. If I had a dollar for every time someone told me I was “lagging behind” or asked why I wasn’t drinking, I could buy a round for the whole Twitterverse. It used to plunge me into social discomfort; a couple times, I ended up drinking more than I wanted to, just to prove a point.
But the whole thing is pretty lopsided: If I comment that someone seems to be drinking too much, I’m judgmental, or a prude. But my not drinking is fair game for critique. I’ve never heard a friend apologize or make an excuse for their drinking habits. So, I wondered, why am I?
A couple weeks ago, I went out on a first date with a guy who showed up to the restaurant already three beers deep. Though I was cool with him drinking (and said I’d order something later in the meal), it was clear he was uncomfortable. My mind scrolled through my list of excuses faster than my thumbs could ever swipe on Bumble: There was the total BS, like “I’m not in the mood”; the moderately true but still weak, like “I don’t want the hangover,” or concerns about my health or budget; and somewhere a little more personal than I wanted to go.
Alcoholism runs in my family. My cousin passed away from it last year, the gut-wrenching kind of death where the dying person clearly isn’t at peace. Watching his face become yellow with jaundice from liver failure and holding my sobbing mother after his funeral are experiences that will forever be burned in my brain.
It doesn’t fit into the fluffy fodder of first dates, and there’s no way to tell this story without being the epitome of a buzzkill. People don’t see it coming. But that’s the point: There’s more to a decision than meets the eye. If someone being sober is a dealbreaker, that’s fine. But deciding not to drink isn’t a character flaw; it is simply a decision about what I do that belongs to me.
I’m still waiting to meet the person who sees beyond the empty glass–who sees I don’t need to get drunk in order to dance on a table or tell a dirty joke or have a good time. But if the stats are true, if our worldview really is shifting to entertain the idea that young people aren’t doing things the ways we’ve always done them, then I look forward to seeing the not-drinking stigma evaporate faster than shots at a party. It’s something I’ll toast to.