I've never had a drink in my whole life

Because of a family history, I've never touched a drop. And then there was a toast and we raised our glasses ...

Published February 15, 2012 1:00AM (EST)

                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                       (Zach Trenholm/Salon)
(Zach Trenholm/Salon)

Dear Cary,

I've read your column often, and I think you can help me since you yourself have dealt with the consequences of addiction.

I really don't know who else to turn to with this particular problem since most self-help books don't deal with people who don't drink.

I am in my mid-20s. In a nutshell, I was raised as an only child in a single-parent home with an alcoholic mother, who self-medicated with wine to deal with depression.

I know she loved me more than anything, and she sacrificed a lot to try to give me a good life, but as a kid, I felt as if I was battling her alcoholism for her. I would constantly find single-serving wine bottles stuffed between couch cushions, and it was an almost nightly occurrence for her to drink herself to sleep, leaving the house a mess and me to throw away the empty bottles and rinse out the glasses she would leave next to the couch. After she would go to bed, it was usually a coin flip whether or not she would rise from her sleep to stalk around the house staring blindly at everything and shouting incoherently. More than once she, thoroughly drunk, thought I was a burglar and tried to attack me. The first time this happened I was 11, and in her mind she had gone back in time and thought I was going to steal her baby (me). She nearly strangled me.

What made my childhood much easier was the fact that I had grandparents nearby who did not seem to struggle with alcoholism or poverty or depression. They were good people who seemed to rise above all the stupidity we are capable of. In fact they helped my mother make ends meet on a few occasions, and they always seemed to come to the rescue when we were in a jam. I felt more often than not that my grandparents were like my real parents, and my mother was like some big crazy sister who loved me a lot but was still trying to figure things out.

And from a young age, the lesson they kept quietly teaching me was that alcoholism was a demon in our family. It ran in our blood, and had ruined cousins, uncles and sisters. And the best way to avoid this fate was not to start at all.

And for my part I promised myself that I would never drink, or smoke, or do drugs.

And I never did.

A lot of people may not believe me, but I have never so much as sipped a beer, or taken a drag from a cigarette. And there is my problem. Everyone who knows me knows that I don't drink, and I feel like I've put myself in this box where I will never drink.

This was fine for my early 20s, and in some ways I felt superior for not having blown hundreds of dollars at the bars, or woken up with hangovers, or been so drunk I couldn't remember what happened to me. I have always been in control of my life, and that is something I take pride in.

But I also feel like there is this whole side to life that I may be missing out on, and that maybe I should relax these rules I've created for myself. I feel that a lot of people can't relate to the fact I don't drink, and I also would sometimes really like to be able to have a beer with my friends and be their equal, and not this always-sober outsider. A few weeks ago at a champagne brunch with friendly strangers who didn't know I don't drink, the waiter poured me a glass of champagne, and when they toasted I held it up and looked at it for a long time before I realized my wife was staring at me.

What to do?

Dear What to Do,

Testing yourself for alcoholism is like testing yourself for flammability. You're probably not. But what if you are?

"Given the fact that alcohol-dependence seems highly heritable," why take the risk?

Why not instead ask what needs alcohol might satisfy, and then find other ways to satisfy those same needs? Why not seek safe, life-enhancing alternatives to drinking? Why not read Abraham Maslow and design your life around the quest for peak experiences?

We raise our glasses and drink ceremonially to sanctify some event or passage. We all drink from the same bottle. By imbibing the same drink, we are joined; it is a kind of sacrament. You can mime the gestures but something pulls you to fully engage. Of course it does. This is not just about getting a little champagne in your mouth. It is a powerful ritual.

My suggestion is to find even better ways, more direct, honest and compelling ways to have this same ritual bonding and expression of shared esteem and purpose. I suggest you make this a lifelong pursuit. Make it a way of undoing for good the perhaps multigenerational history of alcoholism in your family.

This way, if those who dispute the role of genes in alcoholism are correct, and behavioral factors are more important, then you will still be doing something to eradicate certain behaviors that were leading to case after case of alcoholism. You will be finding something that members of your family have a particular need for, and satisfying that need.

Look for something that seems cool but not too cool, something you've always wanted to do, something you're drawn to, that's maybe a little outside your normal range but not totally kooky and weird.

For instance, it may be possible to participate in the ecstatic communality of a sweat lodge. I don't know. Maybe a sweat lodge would be too weird for you. I don't know how much facial hair you have, or what your body mass index is. I'm just saying, identify the underlying principle and then find something that suits your social tastes.

That there are things wrong in the world, that there are things so awful in this world that knowledge of them drives us to want to blot them out of consciousness. Read today's piece by Noam Chomsky, for instance, for a reminder of how thinly "normal American life" veils our history of brutal atrocities.

How are you supposed to think about these things and not feel as though you are going mad? How are you supposed to have a conscience and not feel trapped by history? How are you to take all this in, as a young person? How to reconcile knowledge of evil done in one's name with the innocent desire to believe in one's country, to identify with one's countrymen, to feel strong and patriotic and confident about the future?

These, too, are legitimate questions. So, my friend, I urge you to take seriously the genetic and environmental risk factors for alcoholism, and actively seek ways to have ecstatic experiences in this insane world without killing yourself. Adopt adaptive behaviors that don't make things worse.

By Cary Tennis

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