The Abstainer

In a hard-drinking town like YK, what’s it like to not partake in one of the city’s most popular pastimes?

by Sonja Koenig | artwork by Pearl Rachinsky

I grew up in a home without booze, aside from a dark and mysterious bottle of Drambuie that lurked suspiciously on our refrigerator door, which my father won in some kind of contest. It stayed there for years, cold and neglected, until finally one day, my mother, tired of constantly moving it every time she cleaned the fridge, dumped it down the sink.

My parents were abstainers.

My father, a diabetic, was told to stay away from alcohol. My mother, a social drinker at best, simply got out of the habit. And there was God. The Christian God reigned supreme in our household, and with Jesus in the house, booze was only in moderation, or out entirely.

I don’t remember my first drink. That seemingly mandatory ritual of youth, “the first time I got drunk,” never happened to me. It was probably one part evangelical hangover, one part not liking the taste of it and one part simply not caring. Circumstances happened in my early teens that forced me to grow up fast. The “first drunk” was among many teenage rites of passage to fall by the wayside.

As I grew older my reasons evolved. Maybe it was a fear of losing control, or fear of my own DNA. I’m convinced Bacchus – that Roman god of wine and intoxication – lurks in me somewhere. My mother is from a family of six and three are alcoholics.

When I arrived in the North, I was warned by friends that “If you don’t drink when you get here, you will by the time you leave, trust me.”

My first parties were interesting affairs. The looks on people’s faces when I told them I didn’t drink, you would swear I’d confessed to helping facilitate the holocaust.

“WHAHAAAAAT? You DON’T drink?? WHY?? What’s WRONG with you?”(… uhhhh, well, nothing … actually)

Then came the scramble to find something non-alcoholic for the guest who didn’t drink, at times yielding such great options as “we have tap water.” I once stood awkwardly in a kitchen while guests kind of “whispered” it around the room … “she doesn’t drink” … “she doesn’t drink” … “she doesn’t drink.”

Believe it or not, I am NOT the only one.

Natasha Bhogal, 35, has lived in Yellowknife for nearly five years, and now abstains. She has, however, gone through periods where she did drink, including not long after moving to Yellowknife. What she noticed was that people here drank A LOT. And one night standing outside a bar, it gave her a reality check.

“Here were people in positions of power, people old enough to know better, to know their limits, and they were getting EXCESSIVELY drunk. Like, I mean falling down drunk. I felt a deep sense of loss for those men and women, feeling like they must be filling some kind of hole.

So she re-evaluated the role of drinking in her life, began exploring certain spiritual philosophies and stopped drinking.

Bhogal says she’s constantly asked about her decision not to drink. “I simply say, ‘why DO you drink??’ To me, if you feel it’s a judgement on you because I don’t drink, maybe it’s a good time for you to look at your own habits and behaviours.”

She also says at parties she’s told “‘Come on, you’re depriving yourself,’ or ‘you’re not having fun,’ and I’m thinking, of course I’m having fun. I just don’t have a drink in my hand!”

But does she believe she lost the chance to build friendships through her decision? She says that’s one reason why people may be afraid to not drink, the feeling that “if you don’t go out and engage in this (drinking), then you won’t have any friends,” she says. “But then you realize that the people who want to get to know you will, whether you drink or not.”

Thirty-year-old Erin knows that feeling.

She asked that we not use her last name in this article because she wanted to speak openly about some very personal reasons for choosing to not drink.

She moved to Yellowknife in 2007 from Newfoundland, and has just returned to the city after some time in Vancouver. Two years ago she began the process of giving up drinking.

“For me, it was a conscious choice I made, based on who I was drunk,” she says. “It’s like when I was drunk, it was all my negative traits – magnified. I didn’t want people seeing me in that light. And I was tired of being worried or feeling guilty for what I might have done or said the night before.”

Her friends continued to invite her to go out, but eventually gave up because she kept saying no.

“It was really lonely at first because I didn’t know how to socialize without being drunk. And I didn’t trust myself to go out with my friends and not drink.”

And when pressures came, the “what’s WRONG with you?” or “you’re being a loser,” she retreated and began to isolate. “I just couldn’t handle those kind of comments,” she says. “And to say, ‘because I don’t want to’ wasn’t good enough for people.”

Erin says the reactions aren’t always bad. Some friends did support her and were very impressed with her decision.

But I agree with her about the pressure people can put on you wanting reasons why you don’t want alcohol. The only people in my experience “allowed” to not drink are alcoholics, pregnant women, designated drivers or people with health issues.

Tim Asta says that’s part of the problem, that “whatever the majority is doing is accepted as right.” Asta, 23, has lived in Yellowknife for a few months and only drinks on very special occasions.

It’s a decision he made mostly for health reasons. “It’s like for so many activities, it’s assumed alcohol is going to be involved,” he says.

Asta says people actually tell him he’s boring “and I’m thinking, it’s boring because you don’t know what to talk about if you’re not drinking. It’s like, if we don’t drink, what do we do?”

He once invited a group over to his house and didn’t serve any alcohol. He remembers everyone sat and looked at each other blankly. “It was like friends became strangers,” he says.

And for those who decide not to drink at a party simply because it’s their choice, it can be open season for the “drink pusher.”

I was once harassed so badly at a wedding I finally ordered a gin and tonic to shut the pusher up. And then there was the house party where the host insisted on offering me wine over and over and over again. And it’s like, “no really, I haven’t changed my mind since you were here five minutes ago.”

Now, to be fair, this doesn’t happen all the time, but in my experience, it happens way too often. And I have no problem with people who drink. Unlike my parents, I do keep alcohol in my home and if company is coming to a dinner party, I will go out and buy some. I cook with wine. And I will toast the happy couple or ring in the New Year with a drink. But I was sick and tired of feeling like I was heading into battle just about every time I went out.

Erin understands.

“I was that person,” she says of the drink pusher at the party. “I used to encourage others to drink, and I did it because I was uncomfortable sober … so no one else could be either.” For her, drinking came from insecurity, because she wasn’t comfortable with herself, “so if others were drinking, it meant they were feeling just like me.”

A few years ago, I was so fed up I decided to develop “a strategy” to cope with my non-drinking. Really, it was more a strategy to help others deal with my non-drinking, especially in hard-drinking YK. I called it the “show drink.” I would order an alcoholic drink, or accept a glass of wine, or a drink offered by the party’s host. Then, I would walk around with it all night, sip from it now and again, carry it with me, cradle it, try to look cool and then abandon it on a table somewhere or behind a plant later in the evening.

One thing all of the non-drinkers in this story agree on is there aren’t enough social options in the city which don’t involve alcohol. Asta says he once decided to join a sports league, only to realize everyone was going to get drunk and THEN play the game. Plus, in Yellowknife, the definition of “camping” can be getting drunk in the woods.

Bhogal has, however, carved out a remarkably busy and successful social life in Yellowknife. Ultimately, she’s had to learn to socialize in a different way. It doesn’t mean not socializing with drinkers and she actually socializes with a group some might consider a “partying crowd.”

“But I had to understand what drinking added to my life, and what other things could add that same value,” she says, adding she got involved in theatre and joined the French Association where “there is some drinking, but not too much judgement.”

And Bhogal is also trying to turn what can be considered “abnormal” into something positive. If she gets attitude from bartenders she turns it into a game. “You need to be challenged dude,” she says. “Up your ante. Make me something. No one else at this event is getting the special treatment!”

During the GNWT Health Minister’s recent addictions forum, one of the things talked about was a lack of a positive or celebratory culture around not drinking. Perhaps there’s one very small way, at no cost to the taxpayer, to start this process. If people say no to a glass of wine or a beer at a party, stop offering. And have something non-alcoholic available. Stop asking questions, making judgements and needing explanations. Maybe, for some people, not drinking is simply a lifestyle choice that doesn’t need to be explained or justified to anyone.

“I have no problem if people drink,” says Erin. “I don’t care, but until people are tolerant of each other’s choices, on both sides, this is always going to be a point of contention.”

And for that example of tolerance, I turn to my late father. After all, he won that bottle of Drambuie in a wine-making contest.

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