A Teetotaller's Plight


Kevin Rudd’s initiative to tackle the alcohol epidemic fills me with some hope. Maybe there is a chance for people like me. For I belong to a very odd category of Australians: the teetotallers. Yes, the truth is that I have never had a drink. I mean ever. You may think this is odd. But it gets worse.

Being a teetotaller in alcohol-fuelled Australia is not easy. At functions, parties, and events you are essentially a social outcast. Well, for a start it’s often worse than that. People are suspicious of you. It is not just the horrible adage so engrained in many and which says so much about our society: "Don’t trust a man who doesn’t drink."

It‘s more personal: every time the issue of my non-drinking habit arises, I am asked with a barly disguised accusatorial tone: "So you don’t drink anything at all? But really nothing at all?" That remark triggers in me an automatically generated message: "That’s right, but I am not a reformed alcoholic. I actually never drank anything. Some people don’t like beetroot. I just don’t like the taste of alcohol". You can almost hear the sigh of relief. Their consumption is not tempting me, so they can carry on drinking without guilt.

To an outsider, alcohol is everywhere in Australia. Social functions are generally a let down for me. I attend events because I like to converse. However, after an hour or so it is nearly impossible to have a decent conversation with most people. That is why I normally leave social gatherings early. By then, most people have downed their second or third glass of wine and any attempt to engage in meaningful conversation becomes useless. If you doubt this, just go to any function, abstain from drinking for the first two hours, and then try to talk to anyone about anything remotely interesting. You will feel quite lonely.

There is another aspect. If I overstay my welcome, I tend to hear stories from people about topics I really never wanted to know about in the first place. It is actually sad to see people you generally respect behave like fools, or plain drunks. I remember a telling episode when I first arrived at these shores as a young associate in one of the country’s best known law firms: I sat down with a group of colleagues at a function. I was sober as usual but my colleagues had been drinking profusely. Within 15 minutes I was staggered to hear the full sexual stories of half of them in a level of detail I would have never dared ask.

Entertaining customers also became a problem later in corporate life. On a few occasions my law partners decided that the best way to court current and prospective clients was to host wine tasting sessions. Just imagine what it must be like for a teetotaller to go through 3 hours of discourse on the merits of many variations of a product you have no interest in. Or to hear complete bores tasting some wine over a business lunch discussing the merits of a particular winery over another in the most excruciating detail.

This experience, however, is not restricted to business exchanges. At a social level, the issue is more serious. Because you don’t drink, and everyone around you knows and remembers that, mates and colleagues are unlikely to include in their social outings somebody who doesn’t drink. Before migrating here a long time ago, I had never imagined that the main purpose of a social gathering could possibly be the consumption of alcohol. The concept was inconceivable. Binge drinking meant, literally, nothing to me. Alcohol became the most divisive issue for me in my new surroundings. The cultural shock was at first funny, but then it turned out to be a social problem. It was difficult to integrate at many levels because one of people’s key sources of entertainment was of no interest to me.

Nothing of what I write here is meant to be trivial. I often wonder whether Australians are actually aware that in many parts of the world their level of alcohol consumption would simply be regarded as socially unacceptable. The spectacles of hordes of people "off their faces" on a Friday night shocks many migrants and tourists who visit us.

While observing mass alcohol consumption at all levels of society, however, my biggest shock was that there was not a single campaign run by any government to quell it. Despite the enormous social cost imposed by alcohol (which is so well documented in terms of health figures, crime rates, domestic abuse and the like which are not covered in this piece) I felt there was nothing which reminded Australians not just about the effects of alcohol but what they were doing to themselves. All I heard during the Howard Years was that "if you drink and drive you are a bloody idiot". However, I always wondered, why there was not a single campaign promoting the obvious: "Just don’t drink, for goodness’ sake"?

I often get the impression that I am living in a gigantic brewery. For that is at present, whether people like it or not, what we are. Alcohol statistics are dramatic. Consumption is glamourised. To hear, or read, that "after this or that I felt like a drink," is such a common expression that it confirms people have lost sight of the implicit admission behind it.

The recent efforts of the Rudd Government to start tackling adolescent binge drinking should be the tip of the iceberg of a concerted campaign to teach Australians that alcohol and having a good time are two separate concepts altogether. Our young kids don’t learn about alcohol from television. They see it at home, so pretending that young generations will avoid the fate of the older ones by simply tackling the former and not the latter is a delusion. The problem is that this may be an extremely unpopular cause to tackle politically, not to mention the lost income in revenue, political donations and sponsorship generated by the Brewery Dollar.

I am sceptical that the campaign, although a very positive step, will be effective. Until we examine, as a society, the reasons why alcohol rules almost every aspect of social life (from sporting events to business functions), in Australia, the damage to ourselves will go on. And I will continue going home early.

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