by Niall Doherty

So I’m now halfway through my year without alcohol.

I had my last drink back on December 5th, 2010. Twas a wild and blurry night visiting a friend in Merced, CA. There were only three bars in that town, and methinks we hit each one up at least twice. I remember standing out on the street at closing time, talking to random people, saying things that would make me cringe the next morning.

I had planned in advance to give up alcohol. I wanted to experiment going without for a prolonged period of time, to see how my life would be different. I’d given it up for stretches before, but I’d always go back drinking once I had a strong urge or there was any significant bit of social pressure. This time I wanted to make a longer commitment and push myself over the hump, to see what lay beyond.

And, as I mentioned in a post back in December, I wanted to be rid of the crutch…

I’ve long felt that I’ve used alcohol as a crutch. I wouldn’t go talk to that girl or take to the dance floor until I had a few drinks. Alcohol was my liquid courage, and I was often dependent on it to be at my best socially.

… I’m less self-conscious when I’m drunk, more likely to take risks and be myself. That’s the gift alcohol gives me. The curse that comes with it is feeling less able to take risks and be myself when I’m sober. And that’s a cop out. That’s giving up control to something external, letting myself off the hook. I’d like to dig deeper and find that courage within myself, not in a pint glass.

Sober in Ireland

I spent my first five months of sobriety living back in Ireland. I thought that would be a challenge, but it turned out to be fairly easy. On average, I went out to a pub at least once per week. I was able to explain the reasoning behind my no-alcohol experiment to whoever was curious and pretty much everyone respected what I was trying to do.

Perhaps it helped that I was hanging out primarily with Couchsurfing folk, who tend to be of the cool and open-minded variety. Had I been palling around with a bunch of old-fashioned manly-men, I might have encountered more resistance.

Not drinking in Ireland also saved me a whole bunch of money. Definitely not a cheap place to be getting drunk. I also loved that I had less wasted days, no time lost to hangovers or the like. And, most notably, I grew much more comfortable in my own skin, proving to myself that I don’t need alcohol to be at my best socially.

Overall, I didn’t experience any downside to not drinking for those five months back home.

Sobrio en España

It’s a different story here in Spain.

I found myself sitting with a bunch of random people last Monday night, around a table covered in cheese and ham and red wine. While everyone else feasted the traditional way, I ate green olives and dry bread and sipped on water, trying to understand what little I could of the conversation. One guy seemed particularly put out by the fact that I didn’t drink, combined with the whole me being vegan thing. When he offered to pour me a glass of wine and I responded with a no gracias, he shook his head and rolled his eyes. I’m sure most everyone else in the room was thinking the same thing he was.

Last Friday there was a big festival here in Burgos, muchas personas crowding into a park near the university. I ended up in a pub getting to know some folks. A porrón was passed around and everyone was having a whale of time throwing back the vino. I had to say no gracias several times, and one big dude became especially perplexed. “But it good for you!” he kept telling me. He seemed a little insulted that I wasn’t willing to partake in local tradition.

It’s easy to get frustrated in those situations, but I have to remind myself that the problem isn’t that Spanish people are especially intolerant of teetotalers. (I actually believe they’re every bit as tolerant as Irish people.) The biggest lesson in all this is the importance of communication. If I can explain clearly why I don’t drink, people are usually cool with it. It’s only when I don’t have the words and folks are left to draw their own conclusions, that’s when it becomes an issue. Because most of us humans always seem to assume the worst. That’s our default.

When I meet someone here in Spain who understands English, I can explain that I’m not one of those holier-than-thou sober types, that my non-drinking is a personal choice and not a judgement on others. And we usually end up chatting away about other things and getting along brilliantly.

Since finding myself in those two awkward situations recently, I’ve decided to redouble my Spanish-learning efforts. I’m sure I could have gotten along great with those people if I knew more of the language. The differences between us would have become insignificant if only I could have steered the conversation in the direction of our similarities.

Or, hey, maybe not. I might still have had difficulty connecting with those people even if I did have the words and could explain all about my sobriety and veganism and other such weirdnesses. I know I’ll never be able to click with everyone, and that’s cool. But I’ll do what I can to allow for more opportunities. Circle of influence, FTW.

In the meantime, I try to focus on the good that comes from those awkward and uncomfortable situations: I’m building up some excellent resistance to social pressure 😉

Will I ever drink again?

The past six months have been great. Shunning alcohol still feels like the right thing to do, and I now find it hard to imagine myself ever drinking again.

But I’ll refrain from answering the above question with a straight yes or no. If you’d asked me three years ago if I could imagine myself being a non-drinking vegan living in Spain by 2011, I would have shook my head and rolled my eyes, as if you’d just refused a glass of vino from a local 😉