“Why aren’t you drinking?”
My former boss slurred those words as he looked across a table while he and my co-workers downed a pitcher of beer at a mandatory staff pizza party.
Drinkers ask that question. Not only is it off-putting and rude it’s ubiquitous.
I’ve never understood why that’s anyone’s business but my own; but it’s asked continually in the circles where I have worked: politics and journalism.
I don’t care if someone drinks around me. Why should they care if someone doesn’t drink around them?
Please note, I’m not talking about beer and burgers fellas or those who enjoy an occasional sip of wine. I’m talking about those who lack an on/off switch, who don’t know when is when.
My first exposure to alcoholism was my maternal grandfather. He started the day with a shot of whiskey before breakfast and couldn’t function without some amount of alcohol flowing through his veins.
My recollections of him are primarily as a sad drunk, always in a stupor in his red recliner, smoking Marlboros and playing solitaire. Did I ever see him fully sober? I don’t know.
Neither his wife nor three children drank alcohol. Growing up, my mother remembered hellacious arguments as Grandpa disappeared with his drinking buddies to spend money on booze rather than food or rent.
Addiction is a pernicious disease.
My mother, a registered nurse, was convinced a genetic predisposition for alcoholism lurked in our DNA. Recent scientific studies have since found there is a genetic component to substance abuse. So, maybe she was onto something 40 years ago.
Regardless, I chose not to start drinking. I’m 58 years old and have never tasted alcohol. That’s not a badge of honor or disgrace. It’s just a choice. Interesting enough, presidents Biden and Trump make the same claim about lifelong abstinence from alcohol. Both men also have a history of family substance abuse.
In school, I was hassled for not engaging in the hard-drinking lifestyle. I chose friends who didn’t care.
But it’s in the workforce that I’ve found the pressure to conform to a particular behavior the most extreme. When I was a young reporter, my abstinence from alcohol was mentioned as a detriment during a formal job-performance evaluation.
The boss said a good reporter has to be a drinker to really understand the world. It would be easy to mark this off as one bad boss among many good ones. But it’s a situation I keep encountering.
Years later, I found myself in another state sitting next to another boss, as I sipped my Diet Coke, and he slurred, “Is this some sort of religious thing, you know, that you don’t drink?”
No, it isn’t. But if it were, would it be any of your business?
By that time in my career, I was supervising people, some of whom had substance abuse problems.
During one out-of-state meeting, I saw one particular reporter’s hands shake and he’d shift uncomfortably in his chair. He’d then announce that he forgot something in his hotel room and disappear for a fix.
When I expressed concern, I was told, “He’s not an alcoholic – they go to meetings.” Not a compassionate way to deal with someone who is suffering – or a smart way to deal with a team member who is impaired.
The organization claimed it couldn’t afford an employee assistance program but hosted plenty of events with open bars. Alcoholism isn’t a matter of bad character. It’s a disease and should be treated as such.
But when I’d raise concerns to those above me about employees in my charge, it was dismissed with a wave of the hand as if to say, “You’re a teetotaler, what do you know about alcohol?”
Yeah, the problem is the folks who don’t drink – not the ones who can barely function. Privately, I guided one of my co-workers into a 12-step program.
At future work gatherings, he’d be sipping coffee while others were downing cocktails.
Inevitably, someone would ask, “Why aren’t you drinking?” He’d shift uncomfortably and try to come up with a response.
How about?: It’s none of your business.
• Scott Reeder, a staff writer for Illinois Times, can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.