I still remember my first pretend-drink. I was at a bar and the waitress came around to take our orders. My companions ordered beers, glasses of wine. “I’ll have a club soda,” I said. Everyone turned and stared at me. “You’re not drinking?” someone asked. My face reddened. “Oh, I, uh, I’m painting my hovercraft later so I want to stay in top shape.” It was a lie, of course, the first of many lies; my hovercraft doesn’t need painting!
When my club soda arrived, it looked so cool and clear in the glass – the sparkling bubbles, the clinking ice, the bobbing slice of lemon that the waitress had considerately inserted into what was essentially a two-dollar glass of water. I suddenly realized that I could pretend this innocuous drink was a double vodka and tonic.
Next thing I knew, I was ordering another pretend-drink and then another and another. As the night wore on, my voice grew more loud, my gestures more broad, my clothes more off. Multiple club sodas later, I was pretend-drunk. Plus I really had to pee.
The same thing happened at a cocktail party a week later. There I was, cocktail-less, dreading the probing questions from my peers when they realized I didn’t drink anymore, the confused looks, the poorly veiled sneers. Not drinking makes you some kind of freak, even though choosing not to drink is just like choosing not to eat meat, except without the smugness. Alcohol, though, is so deeply ingrained in our culture that anyone who doesn’t partake risks becoming a social-drinking reject, a Perrier pariah, an orange juice outcast. I felt like running home with my cocktail between my legs. Which is not easy, by the way.
Instead, I pretended. I pretended I was drunk. Passing off my ginger ale as high-octane, I staggered about the party, making inappropriate comments about colleagues and telling an off-colour joke about the rabbi and the paper shredder. And while it made me fit in socially, I felt such shame the next morning when I was pretend-hungover, tripping over the empty San Pellegrino bottles, clearly recalling that I had ended the night dancing with awkward white-man moves to Ke$ha! Where are you when I need you, blackouts! But I could remember every single detail because I was so… so… lucid!
Each time I went out, I would tell myself I wasn’t going to have a pretend-drink, but each time, rather than confess that I don’t drink anymore and face the pity and sad judgement, I would inevitably proceed to tie a pretend-one on. I became a heavy fake-drinker at every social occasion, deeply aware that no one trusts a sober person, except to drive them home.
Before I knew it, I was pretend-drinking every day. Sometimes I’d have a pretend-drink in the morning just as a little eye-open-wider, the hair of the dog that licked me. I started showing up for work pretend-drunk, although I was able to carry out my functions as I always had, which was pretty terrible in the first place, so I completely fooled everyone.
My control of drinking was out of control. After one straight bender, I woke up in the morning to find The Stranger in my bed, the novel spread open to page 92, wantonly dog-eared and sloppily bookmarked. “Oh no,” I cried in shame, “I’ve been reading Camus again! In French!”
I hit soft-rock bottom the day I got pretend-drunk in front of my kids and realized I was pretend-slurring my words. “Oh my God,” I said, “I sound like Foster Brooks at a Dean Martin roast.” My kids looked at me with sadness and disappointment in their eyes and said, “Who the hell’s Foster Brooks?” I felt terrible. And old.
That’s when I decided to stop the lies and come clean about being clean.
Hi. My name is Ross and I’m a non-alcoholic. Now, who wants some tea?