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Totally Tee

Edited version published: CLEO (January 2010)

Sometimes life can seem like one big, long hangover. Especially at this time of year, when celebratory champagne, beers around the barbeque and living it up large on New Year’s Eve are all in a day’s – not to mention night’s - drinking for most of us.

But a growing body of teetotalers in our midst is choosing not to indulge in that most acceptable of modern poisons: alcohol. They’re flying in the face of recent research showing that Australian women are big binge drinkers, knocking back, on average, eight standard drinks per session.

The problem drinker

Thirty-eight year old Fiona Avery started drinking when she was 14. “I hit it pretty hard, pretty quick. I was jumping out my window and drinking anything I could get my hands on: beer, bourbon, wine, you name it! I was really out there.”

“Getting up to a bit of mischief is all part of teenagehood,” she concedes. “But I was doing things that, had I been sober, I would never have done. I had so many one night stands! And it wasn’t necessarily because I was looking for sex; it was because I was drunk.”

Avery alienated her family and lost most of her friends through her out-of-control behaviour. “I was drawn to the darker side of life. It was really destructive; I was hurting a lot of people, and it was killing me, both spiritually and physically. Every day I wanted to die.”

A failed suicide attempt prompted her to go to Alcoholics Anonymous. “In the beginning it was a real challenge,” recalls Avery, who hasn’t touched a drop for nineteen years. “It was hard to comprehend how I was going to live my life without drinking.”

Social drinking

It’s when we’re out and about that we often feel obliged to get on board, says Lynne Magor-Blatch, a Canberra based psychologist who specialises in alcohol and drug issues.

“People seem to need an excuse not to drink. So if you’re the designated driver, that’s acceptable. But I’ve heard of people getting a can of beer or spirits and putting soft drink in it and nursing it all night, so that people think they’re drinking.”

“Being a non-drinker is about pushing your own boundaries and taking positive lifestyle risks,” says Magor-Blatch. “It’s about turning around some of those situations where there’s a stigma involved in staying sober, and saying its okay not to drink.”

The abstainer

Twenty-eight year old Shauna Breen is teetotal, but doesn’t let her healthy lifestyle get in the way of having a good time. “I’m very outgoing,” says Breen, a marketing specialist and former model moved to party central - Sydney’s Bondi Beach - from her native Ireland three years ago.

“I go out four nights a week; I love to dance and socialise. I think if you have to take substances to alter your personality in a social setting, then you’re probably not happy with the person you are.”

At the age of twelve, Breen took a pledge not to hit the booze until it was legal. And since then, she’s only tried it twice. Ever. The first time was on her 18th birthday, and she wasn’t impressed. ”I had a pretty average night,” she recalls. “I’ve definitely had more fun sober.”

The next time was just two years ago, when Breen was out at a city wine bar with friends, and drank on impulse. ”I don’t remember much! Apparently I refused to dance or socialise with people, and I cried a lot. My friends have told me I’m not allowed to drink again!”

Giving up the grog

If you’re thinking of going teetotal, it's useful to confidently let people know that you are reducing your drinking for reasons of health, weight, driving, and so on, advises Dr Sannibale of the National Drug and Alcohol Research Centre.

“If you do drink, the main message we send out is one of moderation” she says. “Regular low level consumption is generally less harmful than heavy 'binge' style drinking. Drinking water, eating food, and spacing your drinks are all part of sensible alcohol consumption.”

“AA has given me the tools I need to go into a social scene where people are drinking, and be comfortable with it, says Avery, who often downplays her teetotalism. “Normally, when someone offers me a drink, I’ll just say ‘No thanks, I don’t want a drink tonight.’ I’ll have diet coke. Sometimes I’ll have a coffee, or a non-alcoholic cocktail.”

Dating without drinking

Breen says being teetotal hasn’t affected her relationships, but it can make meeting the right man a challenge. “Sometimes someone new will want to take me to dinner and have a bottle of wine, but they don’t like drinking alone.”

“It’s as if they’re scared of making fools out of themselves. “But it means I’m a cheap date, so that’s a pro where men are concerned!”

Are there any downsides to not drinking? Breen thinks for a moment, then laughs. “I can’t use the ‘I was drunk’ excuse!”