Teetotalitarianism. My housemate at university coined the term to describe me not long after we met during freshers week. Our hall’s first trip to the Students’ Union began (and ended) at the bar, where I ordered a nice orange J2O while everyone else went for cider, beer and a cider/beer/blackcurrant juice mix which seemed to serve as the official drink of university. Less than twelve hours into university life and I was already marked out as different, and all without jumping fully clothed into a fountain.
Teetotalitarian was a special callsign because I was special. I was just about the only person anyone knew who didn’t have a ‘normal’ reason for not drinking alcohol. An avowed agnostic, I had no religious objections to booze. Nor did I have any medical reasons to avoid booze. And I wasn’t a recovering alcoholic. No, put simply I just didn’t like the taste of alcohol. I still don’t. And that seems to blow people’s minds.
Being someone who doesn’t drink because they don’t like the taste is surprisingly difficult. Not drinking alcohol isn’t hard in itself. But for me being a non-drinker has been a nuisance since I was old enough to be expected to drink. Put simply, Britain has a problem with drinking – it can’t cope with people who don’t want to. The bafflement and confusion people display when you tell them you don’t drink because you don’t like the taste never seems to get any less potent. Nor do the reactions ever seem to vary much. A clear majority of people react in the same way, following the five step program.
Step 1: Disbelief.
How is it possible? How can a young, healthy, non-religious person not drink alcohol? People simply won’t believe me. To be honest if I’m sure I’m not going to meet a person again I often lie why they see me and my Appletise, and say I am on antibiotics or am driving. Alas, there was no way I could persuade my university friends that I had a three year course of antibiotics to complete, so I spent those three years (and the one year master’s after it) getting steadily more bored of people’s shocked expressions in bars, pubs, clubs and picnics.
Step 2: Have you tried…?
Step 2 is really more like step 1a, a continuation of the disbelief. I suppose when I was 18 this made more sense as a response – maybe I was one of those sheltered rural types who had simply never had alcohol around them (people who assume this tend to have no idea what rural areas are like, i.e. often so boring teenagers drink just to have something to do). But I still get this today and I want to be very clear on this – I have tried it. All of it. Yes I have tried your real ale, your fine wines and your sugar-soaked alcopops where “you can’t taste the alcohol” (I can, and all the sickly sweet aspartame in the world can’t hide it). Heck, I’ve tried things most people haven’t, strong absinthes, vile smelling advocaats, weird Greek liquors and that one time I accidentally licked a marker pen. None of it tastes like anything other than a horrible burning sensation which evolves into a coughing fit.
Step 3: I bet I can find something you like…
A strange mix of altruism and arrogance, everyone thinks they can find something I might like. You don’t get this with class A drugs use – “I know a lovely combination of heroin and crystal meth that I bet you’ll love!”. The real ale fans think all I need is some exotically named microbrew only available to those who have climbed up the mountain on which the brewery is located. The wine fans think I need to try ever more expensive French champagne. Everyone else thinks I need to go for the aforementioned alcopops or a cocktail of similar sugariness. None of them accept it’s the alcohol itself which I have a problem with.
Step 4: I didn’t like alcohol either the first time I tried it.
Tip: substitute “alcohol” for olives, chili sauce, oysters or rotting shark meat. If you tried any of these delicacies and didn’t like it the first time, how likely are you to have it again? I know people who drink, have done for years, and still don’t like the taste. Now imagine you have someone telling you they’ve persisted with eating rotting shark meat (buried in the ground and dug up, proper Icelandic style) even though it makes them feel sick. See my point?
Step 5: Acceptance, of sorts.
Eventually people give in. It can be grudging, it can be with a hint of disbelief, it can be tinged with a weird sense of admiration. I find the latter the strangest. I don’t get any admiration for my strong dislike of baked potatoes, my loathing for custard or the way I so expertly avoid gazpacho. But find alcohol yucky and you’re some kind of subversive folk hero, the unsozzled exception, the girl everyone erroneously thinks will be the sensible one on a night out, oblivious to the fact that telling drunk people to jump in fountains and lapdance each other is hilarious no matter how pissed you are.
It would be nice not to have to keep going through this five step process. It would be great if people would just accept what I say without wanting a full explanation. Then I could finally ditch my meeting-new-people pre-emptive strategy of a hastily delivered “I don’t drink, but I’m not one of those people who disapprove of others doing it so please go ahead and have a drink. I’m ok with that. I’ll just have this virgin cocktail and we can have a nice chat and, my goodness, look at that fountain…”.