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Teetotaling and the pressure to drink: Worse abroad than in America?

By Mark HayAugust 5, 2015

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The Nakhachivani mountain-herb vodkas Mark Hay

For a few hours, my stay in Nakhchivan was an easy romp of hospitality and discovery. I went to the autonomous republic, once an independent kingdom and now an exclave of Azerbaijan surrounded by hostile Armenian and Iranian territory, to understand life in a state of isolation and perpetual military paranoia. Eager to show me the resiliency of the once war-torn region, my hosts shepherded me from replanted forests to lemon orchards and proffered me with Ordabad eggs (greasy mounds of honey omelet) and blocks of local salt, supposedly a folk panacea. 
 

The Nakhchivani countryside
The Nakhchivani countryside / Mark Hay


Sitting at the dinner table with my hosts, I noticed a man step out of a back room, grinning ear-to-ear, with a long bottle of clear liquid in his hands. Immediately, my heart sank. 

This, he explained, was liquor distilled from miraculous local mountain herbs. By sharing it with me, he was offering me a chance to connect to his culture, to develop a deeper level of friendship with those around me. I was touched by the gesture of hospitality. But I could not accept the bottle.  
 

A spread of Nakhchivani hospitality
A spread of Nakhchivani hospitality / Mark Hay

I am a teetotaler. I avoid alcohol like the plague. 

Many assume I don’t drink because I’m an alcoholic, but that’s not the case. While alcoholism does run in a few branches of my family (and it’s best not to tempt epigenetics), I mainly avoid booze because I don’t see any value in it. As a practitioner of a religious tradition that stresses a clear-headed dissection of the world, intoxication feels meaningless at best, counterproductive at worst, to me. And as someone who never forced his palate to acculturate to the taste of alcohol, most boozy drinks honestly taste like an overpriced tincture of gasoline and cat urine to me. 
 

Many assume I don’t drink because I’m an alcoholic, but that’s not the case. I mainly avoid booze because I don’t see any value in it


The fact that I feel the knee-jerk compulsion to explain that should tell you something about the ubiquity of drinking in American culture. Even if you’re not one to get blackout plastered every weekend, it’s impossible to deny the liberal use of libations in community building. It’s common enough that those who reject a friendly drink seem to owe their hosts an explanation. For me, that’s a mild annoyance. But imagine how troubling the constant offers and quizzical eyebrows can be for someone struggling with alcoholism, yet determined to maintain a vibrant social life. 

Teetotaling isn’t easy in America. But it’s even harder elsewhere, where alcohol isn’t part of, but the core component in many social exchanges. Wander the earth enough and you’ll find many cultures where deals must be sealed with a drink, or where refusing the hospitable shot of vodka offered to you as a guest is taken as a huge affront. If you want to make friends on the steppe, I once scribbled in my journal while in Kharkhorin, Mongolia, bring Chinggis Vodka

Culture is malleable and accepting in many ways. And most hosts will accept (sometimes begrudgingly) a legitimate medical complaint as an excuse not to partake in alcohol. But if, like me, you really have no excuse save for a deep philosophical resistance to fermentation, sometimes you’re just screwed. Principles that matter deeply to me transform into an ethereal slap in the face, stunting or souring new friendships and denying me access deeper into worlds I yearn to explore. I start feeling insensitive, cruel and finicky just for honoring my own beliefs.
 

That’s the pain of teetotaling: No matter what you do, stick to your guns or go with the flow, you feel bad. You never get to fully connect or swim freely in the bulk of the world’s social life


Sometimes, if I say little enough with the right inflection, my hosts assume I’m a pious ascetic. Other times, the tremor in my hands, the result of a neurological disorder, convinces them that I’m weak. But hiding behind the projection of faith or frailty prevents me from engaging honestly and deeply with the people I meet. It locks me into a shallow, uncomfortable space. 

Sometimes, against my better angels, I choke down the shot and smile. But that feels foul, too.  

That’s the pain of teetotaling: No matter what you do, stick to your guns or go with the flow, you feel bad. You never get to fully connect or swim freely in the bulk of the world’s social life. 

Most people, when confronted with whining like mine, brush it off saying it’s easy to avoid alcohol if you really want to. They don’t realize how inescapable drink is when you’re trying to be a social human, or how many times you have to face offers and inquisitions in your everyday life. They don’t see how much of the world is closed off (or at least hidden behind a veil of anxiety) to teetotalers. It’s a supreme annoyance. And ironically it makes me wish I had a drink.