‘Hey, why aren’t you drinking tonight?’
It’s the usual story for a Saturday night- out the back of my friend’s house, lingering around the haphazardly constructed beer pong table and the leaking esky. I have to think of an excuse that doesn’t make me sound like the lemonade-toting six year old that I probably look like to the rest of the party.
‘I’m sorry, I’m driving everyone home.’
The friend nods sympathetically, before adding: ‘Maybe next time?’
Yeah, maybe next time.
Confession: I’ve never been drunk before. I’m usually game for one or two shots, and have been on the tamer side of tipsy a few times, but have never arrived at the catalyst where vision goes fuzzy and memory starts to fail. I’ve watched my friends blackout time and time again; have held their hair as they vomit down toilets, guided them into taxis and stopped them from calling their exes at 2.30am. I never ever judge, and I have my reasons; I have a family history of drinking and health problems, hate the taste, and am a neurotic, protective perfectionist with first aid training that couldn’t live with themselves if (on the rare occasion) something went wrong. I actively choose not to excessively drink – but I can’t help but feel like I’m a bit of a cultural and social abnormality in doing so.
So much of Australian culture intertwines with the concept of drunkenness. Arguably, this can be traced right back to our colonial-perspective ‘origins’ as a prison colony, with British settlers carrying their heavy drinking practices across the seas. Our per head consumption of alcohol sat at about 14 litres a person for almost a century until the Great Depression, until it re-peaked at 12 litres in recent years. This has been due mostly to a spike in binge drinking over the past two decades, with more people of all ages taking ‘casual drinks’ to dangerous (and often violent) extremes. Consequently, drinking heavily has become something of a social rite of passage. Starting young, you have plenty of years to build up resistance/hit your peak – weekend parties, GT ball afters, Rottnest Leavers and virtually every 18th involved at least one poorly paced teenager blacking out.
This ‘drunk larrikin’ is a stereotype that our nation is essentially proud of, and it’s a stereotype that I feel like I don’t belong to. The jury is still out as to whether this makes me any less Australian, and in the grand scheme of things, not enjoying drinking is a complete first world problem. However the weird sense of guilt that accompanies every declined drink begs to differ. It’s a mixture of social anxiety and hyperawareness – am I fundamentally fucking over Australia’s essence by staying sober? Are all of my friends secretly judging me for downing my seventh Diet Coke? Can they see through every excuse – every “I’m driving”, “I’m on antibiotics” or “I’m allergic” that I shouldn’t have to make up, but that Australia’s all-encompassing booze culture pressures me into?
Of course, this stereotype isn’t just contained within Australia. It seems everyone in the world equates ‘Australia’ with ‘drunkard kangaroo-riders and emu-huggers.’ The perfect example is an Australian backpacker, who was recently denied accommodation in Scotland, of all places – simply because of the widespread perpetuation of this niche part of Australian culture, and our reputation of continually recreating the stereotype overseas. The landlord of the 400 pound-a-month flat the backpacker wished to rent rejected her deposit, simply stating that Australians “were drunks and racists”. It’s the same in America, where I’m currently interning and where the drinking age is infamously 21, not 18. I legally can’t buy a drink out (a fakey didn’t even cross my mind), yet every single work colleague has boxed me into the ‘Crocodile Dundee/Khe Sahn/drunk bogan’ stereotype. Fuck, Australians can’t even travel to another continent without some of our piss-up legacy following us? It seems that my personality is destined to be constantly defined by parts of my hometown culture that I’ve chosen to not associate with. I feel like the Last Unicorn of sobriety – the only Australian in the world who hasn’t ever been plastered.
One of the positives of not drinking heavily, however, is simply observing. Every drunk person has a personality that erupts out of them when they have one too many; criers, dancers, drunk-diallers, philosophers. Everyone has a duality to them which is insanely fun to document, and even more hilarious to re-watch in the hangover-tinged hours of the next morning. Who knows – maybe I’ll eventually cave, get absolutely wrecked and find out what I’ve been missing out on. Until then, I’m somewhat happy to stay arguably ‘un-Australian’ and, un-judgementally, alcohol free.
Words by Bridget Rumball