When actor Stephen McGann recently tweeted about his frustration with people who pressurised others to drink alcohol, he received an outpouring of support on social media.
“Many people talked to me about the agonies they go through during Christmas. If you don’t drink, for health or addiction reasons, then imagine how hard it is to be pressured into drinking,” says the Call the Midwife actor.
McGann, who is 55, gave up alcohol 18 years ago after training for a charity trek. “I grew up in the North in that beer culture, where you would sit in the pub and get a bladder-full. Now I don’t get hangovers and I enjoy being the designated driver.
“One friend really got wound up by me not drinking. Am not sure he’s ever got over it. Now I get bloody-minded and indignant if people try to push a drink on me. Booze is so deeply ingrained in our culture. Recently I was at a do where a waiter put a glass of wine in my hand before I’d even said hello. Imagine if I was a recovering alcoholic? People would never try to get a vegetarian to eat meat.”
‘As soon as the British get the off switch, they drink’
Author Matt Haig, 43, who has written about his struggles with depression in his bestselling book, Reasons to Stay Alive, describes himself as a part-time teetotaller.
“I love drinking, but if I drink too much then it can trigger anxiety and then depression, so I have massive patches of not drinking. Sometimes it’s just easier not to go out, as I get too tempted.
“Even if others don’t pressurise me, you feel a silent pressure. It’s a bit like being a vegan, it gets other people’s backs up because they feel guilty or judged.”
Haig notes British society’s obsession with drinking. “As soon as we get that off switch we drink. Go to Gatwick and you’ll see people drinking at 08:00. It’s changing, young people are drinking less, but I’ll never be that Mediterranean person who can have one glass of wine.”
His tips for being a non-drinker include ordering a virgin Bloody Mary, “it feels hedonistic”, going to a restaurant rather than a bar or pub, doing exercise to replace that space where you “let off steam”, and saying to those who try to foist drinks on you: “I don’t drink.”
“People think there must be a reason and don’t question it. It’s about not feeling guilty, and not doing things out of obligation. The trouble with being a man is that we literally can’t think of anywhere to meet that isn’t a pub.”
‘I tell them I’m a loose canon if I drink’
Catherine Gray, author of The Unexpected Joy of Being Sober Journal, recalls how when she used to drink she was one of the “meanest drink pushers”.
“If somebody wasn’t drinking I didn’t want them there. But it was to do with my issues rather than them. It’s the heaviest drinkers who call you no fun. They want an accomplice.”
Gray, 38, gave up alcohol five years ago. “I couldn’t moderate. But then I hardly know anyone who can moderate, it’s hard.”
Now when people try to encourage her to drink she makes a joke of it. “Nobody wants to hear you go on about the health risks. I tell them I’m a loose canon. I make a joke out of it. Never be apologetic, people will leap on that.”
Yet despite the fact that alcohol is deeply embedded in our social lives, the culture is changing. Recent figures from a study by the University of London showed that almost a third of young people don’t drink at all.
Even so, young people, particularly those with mental health issues, still struggle with alcohol.
Jennifer Griffin, psychotherapist and general manager of Turn2me – an online charitable mental health website for young people, says many of those they help find social occasions that revolve around drinking difficult.
“Alcohol is linked to anxiety and depression. Yet socialising is how young people develop a connection to their peers. If they choose not to socialise because they will be exposed to alcohol, then they might alienate themselves and suffer from loneliness.
“The [buying a] round system is also an issue, it’s lovely and generous, but it’s difficult to resist.”
Griffin suggests working out a strategy in advance, and prioritising your own needs.
As awareness of the health risks grow, not drinking, or cutting back on drinking, is becoming increasingly common. Everyone is in agreement. If someone says no to a drink, don’t ask twice.