Written by Helen Zaltzman


Teetotal… like, totally?

As Alcohol Awareness Week gets underway, four teetotallers who are not pregnant; who haven’t gone to rehab; and who are definitely not on antibiotics offer their respective perspectives on sobriety.

Helen Zaltzman doesn’t understand why people won’t just let her not drink in peace.

I’m not a drinker and this is a problem.

It’s not MY problem. I’m fine with it. I barely pay it any attention and don’t shove it in anyone’s face. Other people, however, seem to have a big problem with it.

Throughout my life, people have reacted on a scale ranging from mystification to downright annoyance. It’s odd to have to talk about the absence of something, but I’ve constantly had to defend my temperance. Don’t want a drink? There are only two reasons that drink-offerers will find acceptable: 1. you’re pregnant; 2. you’re a recovering alcoholic.

Even if you don’t offer either, they will assume at least one to be the case. This is because they absolutely cannot countenance reason 3: you simply don’t want one, which is the humdrum truth in my case. I’m just not bothered; I have never been bothered. It’s not for want of opportunity: I’m currently over 18 and with disposable income, but even before that was the case, booze was always freely available in my parents’ house…

Hang on. I’ve just realised that my parents were this liberal with their drinks cabinet not because I was so trustworthy, but as BAIT. They were probably desperate for me to behave like a normal teenager and less like a preternaturally middle-aged sadsack. “The Total Square gene must have come from your side,” they hissed at each other behind my back.

I also don’t smoke, but so far nobody has reacted to this news by trying to shove a lit cigarette into my mouth. I really can’t understand why my non-drinking matters to other people at all – yet it does, to the point where they seem positively offended. Perhaps they worry about a sober spy in their midst, noting down everything that’s said and storing it for future reference. They needn’t worry; I’ve usually snuck home from a party or bar before things get too sloppy (and because I need to type up and file my notes by the 9pm deadline).

Drinkers: you should actually be happy about my abstinence. It means there’s all the more booze for you! Rounds are cheaper. You can rest assured there’s someone staying alert who can make sure you get home and don’t leave your wallet and coat at the pub.

Yet I wonder if it all boils down to a notion deep in the bedrock of British culture: drinking is socially acceptable, therefore not drinking is socially unacceptable.

hz face

In fact, I’m not completely teetotal; I had a glass of wine last week, and it’s possible I’ll have another at Christmas, or a whisky when I’ve got a cold in January; or I might forget completely until a glass of champagne is thrust into my hand at a wedding next May.

Frankly, however, I’d always rather have another cup of tea. Oh, I can really knock back the tea. Not wishing to brag, but when it comes to tea, I can drink you under the table. I’ll be on my second pot before you’re even halfway down your first cup.

Helen Zaltzman

Helen Zaltzman is a boring square at http://helenzaltzman.com

Three years on the wagon has proved both interesting and profitable for Ruth Bratt, who may sometimes look as though she’s drinking a G&T.

I’m a huge disappointment to my dad. Not just because I’m not a lawyer, but because I no longer drink alcohol (although my dad is “officially” a teetotaller – signed up aged three months to the Little Blue Ribboners by his Methodist grandmother – the certificate hangs in the wine cupboard…).

Don’t get me wrong. I love alcohol. I’ve paralysed myself with tequila, fallen off chairs and drunk champagne in a hot tub with brilliant friends to mend a horribly broken heart.

But when I hit 30, booze stopped loving me. Hangovers became unbearable and REALLY long.

It just didn’t seem worth it anymore. So three years ago, encouraged by my fella who barely drinks either (which REALLY helps!), I (mostly) stopped drinking.

I’d tried before. When I was in a particularly toxic relationship and he insisted I was fat and needed to detox (irony anyone?), we did the Carol Vorderman diet, and gave up everything fun.

I got skinny and sad, and had to slowly wean myself back onto the booze and off him (hence the hot tub).

I also tried and failed to give it up for Lent. The time limit made it harder somehow. But without an end date I haven’t found it too bad at all.

A strict no booze policy was in force for the first six months. Then I allowed myself one glass of red and was amazingly able to leave it there.

I do miss wine, especially with a fancy meal, but then I will have one glass (maybe two) of really expensive stuff. Wine remains the best thing to drink with food.

I’d say in the last year, I’ve had half a bottle of wine and three gin and tonics. That used to be an amuse-bouche to an all-night-bender.

My social life has really changed. I used to think I liked parties. I don’t.

Going to the pub is ok, but what is there to drink? I have been known to hide a Costa cuppa in my sleeve in establishments which don’t include tea in their list of brews.

So, fewer parties, and fewer pubs, partly because me not drinking can make others feel uncomfortable.

I love seeing other people drinking (though drunkenness and journeying home after last orders on London’s public transport spans the tedious to true ordeal spectrum) but when I say “no” to a drink in a social situation it’s often construed as a judgment on drinking per se.

People try and talk you round and question why you’ve given up. Sometimes I’ll get a drink and just hold it all night. It’s less awkward. Also, a glass of tonic looks EXACTLY the same as a gin and tonic, so no-one will ever know.

I have noticed a change in my bank balance since giving up the booze. I haven’t noticed much change in my health, but that may be because I’ve replaced alcohol with cake.

I miss having vices. The only thing that gives me a buzz is being on stage.

b&w idil spotlight (1)

I miss some of the crazy fun. But I like remembering whole evenings and not masking my insecurity with shots.

I do miss the ease of accepting a drink and joining in, but then on the rare occasions I do drink anything, two glasses of wine and I am happily and completely drunk. And generally wake up without the hangover.

Now I just need to work out how to crack the cake habit…

Ruth Bratt

Ruth is an actor, improviser, comedian, writer, and half of double act Trodd En Bratt.

Tee-totaller Hannah Dolan, isn’t averse to booze – in the right place.

Hello, I’m Hannah. It’s nice to meet you, but let’s get one thing straight: I am a socially awkward tee-totaller. If this encounter was face-to-face and in the evening, chances are that neither of us would be enjoying ourselves.

I decided that alcohol wasn’t really for me when I was about 17, just before I left home for university. There wasn’t any huge drama that led to my decision. I may have thrown up in a pint glass, snogged strangers and pissed myself but who hasn’t?

Back then, I got drunk very fast and sobered up just as quickly, which meant keeping me at a decent level cost A LOT. Also when I went out dancing I REALLY went out dancing and didn’t want to be distracted by pesky bar visits – and if I wasn’t dancing, I tended to just fall asleep. So one day I made the no-booze-please decision and stuck to it… more or less.

Occasionally I had a drink because I knew it would make me sleepy and that I’d have to excuse myself from whatever get-together I didn’t want to be at and go home. That was before I realised I could leave whenever I want or – even better – didn’t have to go in the first place.

To be honest, bars, pubs and clubs are out of the question if you want a chat. My hearing’s screwed after years of being a photographer at music festivals and stupidly not wearing ear-plugs during the first summer of doing that. Put me somewhere noisy and I’m probably making all the wrong facial expressions to go along with what you’re saying. Sorry.


Also, though I love my friends, I much prefer them when they’re sober: there are fewer dramas and they usually haven’t just spilt something down themselves.

13 years on and I’ve got a rather handy excuse to carry on with no booze and save the money and embarrassment: my husband doesn’t drink. SCORE

The only time I do have a bit of booze is when it’s in a pudding. I LOVE A BOOZY PUDDING.

Hannah Dolan
Hannah Dolan is getting better at making eye contact but only just. She likes biscuits and knitwear, even in summer, and quietly sings to herself if she forgets where she is.

Sobriety has made a princess of Eleanor Tiernan and she would like you to validate her heroic journey (*sniffs*).

I quit drinking on the same day that Ireland entered the IMF bailout programme to rescue our finances. The life of excess we’d both been living couldn’t last. Six years later, we’ve both been through a recovery process. Ireland’s was supervised by bureaucrats. Thankfully, mine was not. Why did I stop? Too many days lost to hangovers. Peace of mind was a distant memory. Alcohol had made me bitter: able to dismiss other people’s achievements with a mere grimace. I agonised over tiny decisions like what to eat for dinner. Plastic bags had more emotional core strength than I had. Sleep was elusive. I wanted to cry all the time but my eyeballs were too dry for tears. I medicated the feelings with extreme cleaning. Was I scrubbing my house or scrubbing my soul?

Stopping drinking wasn’t possible until I took it seriously. I made a plan. Don’t go to pubs. Don’t give up every bad habit at once i.e. smoke as many cigarettes as you need to. Find a pal that doesn’t drink and hang out with them. Spend your alcohol allowance on luxurious things (shortbread and lingerie were my treats). And if you’re anything like me you’ll need to talk to a professional about your feelings*.

Reality did not kick in immediately. Can it really be just me who has to do this? I smugly reasoned that I was merely catching onto a new yoga-like trend ahead of everyone else. Six years on my friends still haven’t joined my buzz. Turns out it was just me that couldn’t handle her booze.

The plus side? No hangovers. Much less anxiety. When I make promises I usually keep them, even to myself. And if I can’t I don’t torment myself for it. Freedom to leave social situations the moment I get bored. The return of deep, deep sleep. A more grounded perspective on life.

The downside? Romance is more awkward. Missed nights out with friends (though I find you get better quality catch-ups during the day).

Sobriety has made a princess out of me. C’est vraiment incroyable to this former projectile vomiter that I was ever capable of the alcohol-fuelled party life. Urinating in the street? How uncouth! My poor wee tummy, formerly stuffed with kebabs and stout, I now pamper with organic soups and salads. She thanks me by not cramping every day.

The biggest mistake I made in not drinking was discussing it with others. People either never listened well enough to validate my heroic journey (*sniffs*) or I’d get cornered by a poor soul torturing themselves with the “Am I an alcoholic?” question and wanting to know why I gave up drinking. These won’t be satisfied until you give an answer they can use to justify drinking a while longer. If you’re a lightweight like me, this won’t sit well. I find it’s best to whisper something obtuse like “I can’t drink because I’m a spy”. It’s selfish to be less than frank, especially considering that I was in the same position myself (and may be again, who knows?), but I figure that the best way to help someone who is struggling with alcohol is to be kindly and gently amazing. Jealousy is a strong motivator.

Eleanor Tiernan

*to be sung operatically

Eleanor Tiernan

Eleanor Tiernan is a stand up, writer, actress, sister and introvert. Almost no street smarts whatsoever. Avoids the bandwagon if possible. @eleanortiernan

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Written by Helen Zaltzman

Helen Zaltzman is the female 50% of the comedy podcast Answer Me This