I never felt infantilized by my peers until I stopped drinking. But in a city where socializing usually goes down with a bottle of booze, dropping the sobriety bomb can be the ultimate buzzkill.
My sort-of birthday party at the start of last year was supposed to be quick. An after-work, pre-dinner drinks thing, hellos and goodbyes at 416 Snack Bar, after which I was going on a long winter vacation to Los Angeles, where I would celebrate my actual birthday, too far away from my Toronto friends. Instead, the bar filled up with people from various pockets of my life, with their long, tight hugs, frozen faces, and January jackets. Drinks were bought, introductions were made, hookups were instigated, bags were lost. I was outside in the black cold smoking hot-pink cigarettes, and inside accepting warm shots, and hours later, I was in a taxi going home, or possibly not home, wasted, wondering which friends I forgot to even talk to.
That was kind of rare at the time, and that was kind of…it. By now, it’s been almost a year since I had a sip of anything alcoholic (although I will ask to smell your wine at dinner). Despite an occasional night like that one, a night that slipped away, I was never among the most serious or consistent drinkers in any of my groups of friends. I still, of course, amassed the usual portfolio of drunk bullshit during my 20s: I’ve stepped outside to go to work, hung over, and fell over a rolling, empty whisky bottle I’d left on the porch, then fell again on a plastic ice cube tray out on the lawn. I’ve yelled at boyfriends and would-be ones on various frozen sidewalks without a coat on, I’ve played tag in empty parks while the sun came up, I’ve woken up on wooden floors, whatever. Working TIFF several years ago, I only saw two or three movies because I was going to every party until the bars closed instead, because why wouldn’t I? There are more stories like this, way more; there always are. And even now, at 31, having happily left my 20s and what that era included and emphasized, alcohol feels like an important part of living in downtown Toronto, which makes not drinking—no, not anything—sort of awkward.
I quit drinking for no particular reason. In Los Angeles, I slowed down and then just stopped. It was an easy call, and I didn’t think much about it, at least not in L.A., where hangovers are a little shamey, where everyone is tucked in by midnight, where driving on the freeway is a daily, sobriety-required psychic terror, and where you meet friends for juice, a hike, maybe dinner, but not for a drink. Two glasses of wine had also started to feel like more by the next day. I liked myself better stone-sober than after a single glass of Champagne, and I hated being a little bit drunk around someone who wasn’t. I resented giving up time and money (so much money!) to feel, ultimately, bad. I felt—I feel—like this expiring sphere of time around 30 is too important to my life’s trajectory to spend repeating the aimless (but really fun) lost nights and hungover days of my early and mid-20s. On its own, booze doesn’t matter much to me. I’ve always been able to have a bottle of vodka in the freezer and never drink it; I can barely differentiate between any two kinds of beer; I’ve gone a few months without drinking before, almost incidentally. I’ll probably drink again, maybe soon—whenever I feel like I can do it without compromising something else.
Quitting now, I thought, would be easier since a lot of my friends, contending with the various physical, personal, and professional demands of turning 30, abstain from something: meat, dairy, gluten, coffee, sex, sugar, Twitter. Still, back in Toronto, not drinking has almost been an affront to everyone. I have been asked out for drinks repeatedly by the same person, and when I re-remind her that I’ll go to the bar to hang out but won’t be drinking, I always get a disappointed “Boo!” or some other subtle girl-thing that makes me feel shitty and boring. Inquiring about this year’s birthday party, another friend asked me incredulously if I were “off Champagne, too?” as in, “What are we supposed to do, then?” I have been on dates where I’ve made men noticeably uncomfortable when I refuse a glass of wine, and I have bummed out many friends during “drinks,” because as a (non-addict, non-pregnant, non-religious, non-straight-edge) non-drinker, I’m violating the section of the social contract about how when we are young, single, and unencumbered we do this ritual of lubricating and intoxicating.
It’s all a little weird—especially considering how alcohol can run a straight line to those other toxins of choice, all that meat, dairy, gluten, coffee, sex, sugar, and Twitter—that not drinking is considered so outré. Until I started telling people that I don’t drink, I never felt infantilized by my peers. Whether their reaction—that this is something strange and almost secret—is disproportionate depends on whom you ask, but I’ve stopped asking, because it only makes my friends feel judged and uncomfortable. The only thing they say to me is, “No, no, it’s fine” and then also a lot of, “But why?”
On the whole, Toronto isn’t an especially drunk place. According to Statistics Canada’s 2010 Canadian Community Health Survey, the number of Torontonians over the age of 20 who exceeded Toronto Public Health’s “Low-Risk Alcohol Drinking Guidelines” (basically 10 drinks a week for women; 15 for men) was modest—23.1 per cent in 2010—and “relatively stable” between 2001 and 2010. In Ontario, excluding Toronto, the number of adults who exceed those recommendations goes up to 30 per cent. Still, the city’s core is, just like I thought, a locus of booziness.
According to Toronto Public Health*, both Midtown-Danforth-East York and Parkdale-Downtown and Waterfront have “significant” rates of high-risk drinking, at 35 and 32 per cent, respectively. If you mapped Torontonians’ alcohol use, it’d look like a photo negative of the last mayoral election’s voting map: a dark centre, fading lighter and lighter towards the suburbs. Of Toronto’s 19-to-39 year-olds, 29.9 per cent are high-risk drinkers. These rates increase with income and education, and are highest among white and Canadian-born Torontonians. (I wonder if the nanny-state laws around alcohol in Ontario—no bottomless mimosas at brunch, no designated “happy hours,” no booze in corner stores—have encouraged a more desperate or, maybe, dependent attitude towards alcohol here.) While it seems like a new bar opens on Ossington or Dundas every week, a representative from the Alcohol and Gaming Commission of Ontario told me that the number of liquor licences issued in Toronto has remained mostly steady—around 4,000—for several years; for every new spot that opens, a bar in the Entertainment District, or wherever else, might close.
The drinking culture in “my” Toronto—downtown, objectively somewhere on the hipster-slash-yuppie continuum, if we’re being real about it—is pervasive. Here, few people drive, and despite everything wrong with the TTC and Toronto cab fares, it’s easy not to. It is so cold for so much of the year that huddling up in a bar is an obvious and regular social choice. We don’t have immediate access to mountains or lakes—I guess we do have a lake, but not one I’d swim in—that would encourage Vancouver-esque outdoorsiness. There is little cultural emphasis placed on health: In the winter and surrounding months, there is less access to fresh stuff anyway, and our food trends skew towards cured meats, tacos, and burgers, along with attendant trends in upscale, or old-timey, but consistently booze-heavy cocktails.
I’m always around people who drink, between grad-student friends who discuss their dissertations in grubby bars, baby-stressed parents who kill a bottle or two of wine every night, freelance creatives who drink like it’s part of the job, and super-high-functioning, super-high-earning mid-30s exec-y, lawyer-y friends, who probably hit it the hardest of everyone. While booze might be unreasonably important to all of them, at least compared to other people in the city, it also engenders sociability and bonding and being with people to do something together, even if that something is getting trashed. So while I hate bars—I’ve always hated bars—I’ll still go to them for parties and trivia nights and to meet up before going somewhere else, because if I want to maintain some semblance of the social life I’ve known in Toronto, I kind of have to. I am, however, now less inclined to participate in certain kinds of fun without alcohol, like getting up at karaoke instead of singing along quietly, or pretending that I know what’s going on at a Jays game and hollering “BASEBALL” periodically. (That’s what you do, right?) It’s true that I get up at six in the morning and feel good almost all of the time and rarely have to apologize to anyone, but I’m also more likely to leave a party early and less likely to dance. I can’t imagine kissing a total stranger without a glass of something first, and I haven’t experienced the fairy-lit flow of drunken, all-night, friend-infused revelry in a year. A year! I don’t know yet if it’s a fair trade. I don’t know yet where “pleasure” originates for me.
Though I’m in a minority, I’m certainly not the only abstainer. My bestie doesn’t really drink, although she lives in Paris and doesn’t count. My friend David emailed me about how high-school parties quelled his urge to drink, even now: “At every single party I ever went to, by the midway point someone would be doubled over in the nearest washroom, and someone else would be patting their back and telling them it was okay. I knew I didn’t want that—I didn’t want to have to drink to have fun.” And, of course, sober people in recovery programs, pregnant women, religious abstainers, and the especially health conscious are always among us, always making their own way at all these parties, shows, openings, weddings, birthdays, movie nights, and nightcaps. The principle of drinking is that you need it to feel a certain way, and the problem of drinking is that you need it to feel a certain way, so when you don’t drink, how do you feel?
Over dinner a few weeks ago, my friend told me, lager in hand, that he was planning to spend this month doing “Dryuary,” which is what it sounds like, and which will probably be a good month for me to go out with fewer exhortations to drink as everyone around me tries to atone for December’s excess. I’ve been seeking balance by abstaining, trying to find a way to the middle ground through a kind of Zen-ish extremism, while a lot of my friends, in particular the booziest ones, will take a difficult month off (maybe) to join the regular abstainers and then get back to it. Drinking, for better or worse, is usually what we do together, right now, especially before work, babies, husbands, wives, and life pull us further apart. Maybe for a little bit, for just this month, we can try to do something else in Toronto (even in the cold, and despite our social traditions) that might let us feel that same, certain way without ending up in a quiet, speeding taxi, wasted and wondering where it’s actually going.
Next Page: We get five local bartenders to whip up some tasty—and booze-free—cocktails
CORRECTION, JAN. 15, 2013: The original version of this article—as it appeared here and in the Jan. 10, 2013 print edition of The Grid—mistakenly attributed these findings to StatsCanada. While StatsCanada compiled the raw data referenced here, the analysis of and conclusions drawn from it were conducted by Toronto Public Health.