Living the dry life

By Greg Dixon

It is the best description of a hangover in the English language. It can be found in Kingsley Amis' satirical novel Lucky Jim, and I will, quite shamelessly, quote it in full:

"Dixon was alive again. Consciousness was upon him before he could get out of the way; not for him the slow, gracious wandering from the halls of sleep, but a summary, forcible ejection. He lay sprawled, too wicked to move, spewed up like a broken spider-crab on the tarry shingle of the morning. The light did him harm, but not as much as looking at things did; he resolved, having done it once, never to move his eyeballs again. A dusty thudding in his head made the scene before him beat like a pulse. His mouth had been used as a latrine by some small creature of the night, and then as its mausoleum. During the night, too, he'd somehow been on a cross-country run and then been expertly beaten up by secret police. He felt bad."

It is no accident Amis could be this funny or precise about the unholy horrors of the morning after; he was, famously, a prodigious drinker. And while, of course, it's pure coincidence that Amis' Jim shares a surname with me, it is no mere chance that I, too, have had such a hangover.

It is, for many drinkers, inevitable that at some point (or many) the communal experience of boozy camaraderie is followed by the mutual misery of the morning after. Few drinkers will not have encountered the regret brought on by the hangover.

And it is almost always at this point that we are likely to share one more thing, a variation on the pained, self-pitying whimper "I'm never doing that again".

Yet few of us ever make good on those words, you only have to look at the numbers to see that. According to the Alcohol Advisory Council of New Zealand (Alac) 83 per cent of women and 88 per cent of men are happy to identify themselves as drinkers.

Nearly half the population reckons it's okay to get pissed, while around 785,000 adults drink regularly — often every day — and, with equal regularity, binge drink too.

We're guzzlers, indisputably. Indeed, a 2005 survey found on average every New Zealander over the age of 15 years consumed more than nine litres of pure alcohol in 2004. Only not every New Zealander did.

There are some of us, somewhere in the order of one-in-seven, who drink nothing at all, never have a hangover, never emit self-pitying whimpers. They are the sober minority — make that the sober, silent minority. Can you guess why?

"Firstly, I think it needs to be said that I am not a goody two-shoes," says John Banks, Mayor of Auckland, in his idiosyncratic staccato. "I am not what you'd loosely describe as a wowser."

Banks, a teetotaller for 40 years, makes this point, more or less, three times during our chat. It was clearly playing on his mind. And well it might. The drinking majority's first, most common assumption — or nasty suspicion, actually — about the non-drinking minority is that they are pious killjoys, dry wet blankets. And for that, says Alac's CEO Gerard Vaughan, non-drinkers can probably blame the temperance movement of the late 19th and early 20th centuries.

Widespread booziness was a feature of New Zealand life from the 1860s and by 1919 the forces of temperance had cajoled the government into national polls on prohibition. A first vote in April that year was actually won at home by those seeking prohibition. It was only the votes of the New Zealand Expeditionary Force, clearly thirsty and still to make their way back from the trenches of Europe, which swung the 51 per cent majority for continuance. In December, a second vote was held and we came within just 3363 votes of being a dry country.

"I think we, as a country, are [now] well passed the prohibition debate," Vaughan says. "But I do still think, for some people, there is a suspicion that someone who doesn't drink is someone who is going to try to convince you of the evils of alcohol, because that's part of our history."

The wowser slur is an obvious aspersion. But non-drinkers face a variety of tensions generated by the attitudes and behaviours of the drinking majority. We are, of course, awash in learned studies on our booziness. Yet understanding how the other half lives is less easy.

There has been remarkably little research into the experience of non-drinkers in New Zealand. However one study, done in the mid-1990s, appears to cover the bases — based on the experiences of the half a dozen teetotallers who talked to Canvas.

Dr Grant Paton-Simpson has worked in the alcohol and drug treatment sector, then in mental health. These days he owns a company providing database software to the likes of the Ministry of Health and district health boards.

But back in 1995 he was completing his PhD in sociology at the University of Auckland with a thesis with the rather provocative title "Underconsumption of alcohol as a form of deviance". There are, he says now, a lot of different theories of deviance, but he'll keep it simple for us — he means breaking norms.

"Norms are some kind of shared expectations. The idea is if you're in a group where it is just simply expected that you will drink, then that is the norm."

And not to conform to the norm is to be abnormal, to be a deviant — though only in a relative sense — and the consequences of that can range from subtle, non-verbal expressions of surprise through to life-changing repercussions.

"It really does depend on the circles [people mix in]," Paton-Simpson says. "Say, for example, you had a boss who was a pretty solid drinker and ... they take people out for drinks on Fridays. Well if you didn't fit in [by drinking] you'd probably never be part of the social circle and the social circle is where they're building trust with people. It could harm your career. In other contexts it could be the opposite if, say, someone drank more than the boss and disgraced themselves. But not participating in the way you're meant to may be seen as not being a team player, you won't be able to get other people on board with you, you may never be able to lead."

But for some of those who have taken the pledge, the price of not saying no might be higher still.

For John Banks, it took witnessing tragedy to quit drinking. His mother Kitty, an alcoholic, was sentenced to two years' imprisonment for performing back-street abortions in the mid-1960s. Within a decade of her release, she was dead, aged 50.

In Paul Goldsmith's 1997 biography of the former National minister, Banks describes coming home to find his mother, not long out of prison, back on the grog.

"Every inch of her frail body craved alcohol. She would cut off the crust [from a loaf of bread] and pour the meths down through the bread ... she would then mix it with very cheap sherry as a concoction. I saw her slowly but surely dying before my eyes with alcohol."

Banks himself, who in the late 1960s was a salesman for pharmaceutical company Pfizer, was at the time a "legendary" drinker, according to Goldsmith's book. But at the age of 20, he stopped for all time.

"It was," he says 40 years on, "a very easy decision". He concedes he was aware of pressure to drink in his 20s, though this did not shake his resolve. "I put down the last glass and never worried about it again. A lot of people ask me 'do you ever crave for a drink?' Well, no more than I crave for a cigarette. You just don't think about it."

Jazz singer and teacher Caitlin Smith, who gave up some nine months ago, also found the drinking of those around her too much. "There is nothing more sobering, man, than being around alcoholics. It really is destroying."

However her decision to become almost teetotal — she allows herself the occasional very-low-alcohol beer — was as much about her own consumption as that of those around her.

"I don't become a nicer person when I drink, that's the thing. I think I'm really stimulating and really witty, but I actually can be really bitchy and I definitely know for a fact that I become really morose."

Many drinkers will assume that non-drinkers are non-drinkers because of experiences similar to Banks and Smith. Indeed, Jim McCulloch, a 38-year-old Waiheke Islander who gave up four years ago, says he's sure people assume he's either an alcoholic or has one in the family. In fact it's nothing of the sort. In his case it was an illness that led to the change. He contracted a virus which found its way to his heart and liver before bringing on Bell's Palsy. Doctors weren't sure what the virus was but a naturopath recommended, among other things, that he give up alcohol for the duration.

McCulloch, who owns a small media company, had previously knocked off drinking for a month each year, but this time he decided to box on with the big dry after his health recovered, and damn the consequences.

"I really don't care what people think. I really don't think you could do something like this if you cared what people thought. You do it for yourself because you feel good and it improves your life."

Indeed it can be that simple: if it doesn't feel good, don't do it. Megan Bedford, a 29-year-old features editor at Fashion Quarterly magazine, gave away drinking for no other reason than she had had enough of it.

As a teenager in Hamilton she did "go pretty hard". But when she moved to Auckland at 17, to a new school and new friends, she gave it away. "I just thought I've had enough of this and I don't like feeling out of control. It only takes one or two and I feel like it's not me any more. I never really found a need to start again."

There are also those too who don't drink for the simple reason they don't like the taste. And then, of course, there is God. Noah may be the first person in the Bible to get sloshed and regret it but he certainly isn't the last. The Good Book is soaked in alcohol. "Wine is a mocker and beer a brawler," says Proverbs 20:1, "whoever is led astray by them is not wise". Unless of course you're Irish Catholic (well, by reputation).

Other denominations, particularly the newer brands, tend to take a very different line, which was why when Warrior and Kiwis centre Jerome Ropati became a born-again Christian at 18, he became a born-again non-drinker too. You'd imagine being a teetotalling sports pro — particularly in the NRL — might be doing it hard.

But Ropati, now 24, is not the lone non-drinker at the Warriors (there are a couple of others including Manu Vatuvei, who drinks only kava during the season) which possibly explains why, even if he doesn't really condone drinking, his teammates condone his abstinence.

"When they do get a bit tipsy or go overboard, then that's pretty much my exit. But they're just real respectful of my decision not to. We get along well without having a drink."

Caleb Carnie, also a Christian, is perhaps a rarer breed. The Herald designer is a second generation non-drinker — and also married to a teetotaller. Carnie, 26, says his father took the pledge as a young man after being raised in a family of "abusive, rowdy, kind of rough drinkers". His father's values were passed on to Carnie and his four siblings, though some of his brothers and sisters now drink.

"Maybe it's because I'm the eldest, but I never felt it was necessary to prove anything. I just couldn't be bothered with it."

Bothered or not, as far as some drinkers are concerned it may not matter why non-drinkers gave up, or decided never to drink at all. A wowser's a wowser, mate.

Labelled. Queried. Joked about. Interrogated and stereotyped. These, according to Paton-Simpson's research, are the burdens of the teetotaller.

They may also face embarrassment, guilt, feelings of awkwardness, rudeness — and exclusion. Typical hosting habits, for example, mean plenty of wine and beer at dos, but for a teetotaller every party can mean orange juice or nothing, says Paton-Simpson.

"I like the [story] where someone at a party asked for a non-alcoholic drink, and the host said 'you'll have to go over to the bloody kids' table, there is some lemonade over there'. This little, low table with kids,' cups ... talk about symbolic overload."

Drinkers' reactions to non-drinkers are a complex mix of stereotype, assumption, projection, guilt and social context, and may not (in fact probably don't) have much to do with the particular non-drinker who's on the receiving end.

"It doesn't require anything active from the deviant," Paton-Simpson says. "You [the drinker] are on guard. I might think I don't trust this person, I can't be open with this person."

McCulloch says he's certainly aware his abstinence may intimidate drinkers. "You may be highlighting how much they drink because you're out and they're tipping up the wine and you're not."

However, neither he nor any of the others Canvas spoke to say they have faced any kind of aggression. McCulloch says one negative is he's probably not invited out as often as he used to be. But there's another thing too: "I find it difficult to dance [sober]," he says, then laughs.

Both Bedford and Smith say they've found no downsides at all. "It's so associative," says Smith. "You'd think you'd need to get pissed in order to have wild, passionate sex ... hell no! That's the really interesting thing, we've used alcohol as this self-imposed crutch for all sorts of stuff. One of the most important things, I guess, is going out and having a good time. That's the funniest thing, when you are with non-drinkers I can almost guarantee that we would actually be having a better time than the people who end up ... staggering around."

Indeed Smith says she's found non-drinkers are really encouraging. "The times I've thought 'f**k it, I could really murder a glass of wine', it's the drinkers who go 'No you're not! I'm not going to be the enabler!"'

The most common reported downside is the constant requirement for teetotallers to explain themselves. Paton-Simpson says non-drinkers are analogous to the vegetarians who find themselves regularly queried about why it is they don't eat meat.

Carnie says he finds that if he's straight-up about it, people are respectful. "They just ask why. Some people don't, some people do, some people roll their eyes. It's interesting." But it can also be, he says, rather tedious.

The little white lie is a very handy thing. To avoid the tedium of explanation, or the possibly of real or imagined disapproval, non-drinkers sometimes develop a strategy to avoid what can be, depending on the context, a degree of social embarrassment.

Alac's Vaughan says he's seen Australian research picking up that young people at parties would sometimes say they were driving, even when they hadn't brought a car, in order to avoid drinking.

"They looked for an acceptable way, because it's not acceptable to say 'I don't feel like drinking' or 'I don't want to drink'."

As a fashion writer, Bedford frequently finds herself at industry social events. "Fashion is an alcoholic's dream. The amount of free piss that you get when you work in fashion is insane." And to not drink it is to have to explain.

Which is why Bedford has developed a phrase for the non-drinking job. "I've never [invented a story] but I could imagine that could be handy when you're in a group of people you don't know and you're not going to see them again. I just generally say 'I'm not drinking' which means different things to different people."

But should it really be necessary to explain, to deflect or to lie? Indeed the interrogations, stereotypes, embarrassment, guilt, feelings of awkwardness, rudeness or exclusion the teetotaller can or does experience suggest that, as a society, we not only have a problem with the drink but with non-drinking as well.

Alac, as part of its ongoing campaign to educate us on sensible drinking, regularly runs high-profile print and television campaigns emphasising the negative effects of the misuse of alcohol. But has it considered that a campaign to normalise non-drinking might be just as valuable because we need to understand that not drinking is okay or maybe even socially desirable?

"I think as a country we've cranked up the understanding about the harm from alcohol — and that wasn't well understood by New Zealanders. But what I think people are asking now is what we need to do differently ... I entirely agree with you." It may take shifting the norm only a little to make non-drinking as socially acceptable as drinking, well at least in some contexts.

And it may not take much, depending on the social group. Carnie says he and colleagues recently began heading to a local pub on Thursdays. The first week he ordered a ginger beer, which generated a bit of comment by the drinkers. The following week another colleague ordered a ginger beer too, and the week after that there were three drinking ginger beer. "So sometimes I find that because I've maybe taken the trouble to make a decision about it that other people feel more comfortable to make that decision as well."

Not only does not drinking re-position you in a group and perhaps open the choice of not drinking to others but not drinking at a venue like a pub has another, equally important, social significance — and one drinkers might like to keep in mind next time they encounter a teetotaller.

"Not drinking alcohol changes [the social context] from 'I'm going to have a beer with you guys' to 'I'm coming to spend time with you guys'," says Carnie. "I'm saying 'I'm coming because I want to talk to you, to hang out with you', not just because we happen to be having a beer."

Now how hard can it be to raise a nice glass of orange juice to that?

- NZ Herald

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