Sober: 23 Years and Counting
My full answer to a frequently asked question: ‘Why don’t you drink?’
Garrett Kincaid – April 26, 2023
“Do you want a drink?”
“No thanks,” I say.
“Oh, you’re not a beer guy? How about a cocktail or some wine?”
I say, “No thanks, water’s fine.”
“Surely I can get you something.”
“Actually, I don’t drink.”
“Oh, really? Why not?”
I’ve never been drunk. I’ve never been high. But apparently both are a great time, because whenever I tell people I’m sober, they ask: “Why?”
What I Say
In American high schools and colleges, frequent — even excessive — drinking is the norm. I'm 23 and a year out of college. Since I was a sophomore in high school, since age 14, I've been swimming up the stream of these social norms. You don’t see me crashing weddings, touring house parties, or hopping into happy hours to interview people about their affection for alcohol. But for some reason, everyone asks me to explain my aversion to it.
After a couple hundred iterations of this conversation, I’ve found the optimal answer. It’s specific enough to satisfy the question. It’s vague enough that there’s no obvious, obligatory follow-up. And it’s honest, without sounding haughty or self-righteous. I say, “It’s just never appealed to me.”
That answer has quite the success rate. Only the people who actually care about my reasoning will ask another question, and the rest can avoid grappling with a perspective that challenges their worldview. Most people don't care to hear the real reason why I don't drink. They aren't in the mood to get philosophical because they're headed to the bar for another round.
Most people don’t care, but for some reason, they still ask. My hunch? They ask because they want to dismiss my contrarian behavior with one of a few acceptable explanations:
- My uncle is an alcoholic, and I don’t want to risk it.
- I’m in a recovery program.
- According to my religion, drinking is a sin.
- I’m driving tonight.
These are acceptable reasons because they are matters of circumstance. Oh, his situation is different from mine. That’s why I drink and he doesn’t — ego intact, worldview unchallenged. But my real reason is not circumstantial; it’s idealogical. I choose not to drink. And let me tell you, that idea can really rock a drunk person.
With my older, less refined answers, I’d get to this part of the conversation too quickly, and it would shock people. They’d immediately get defensive. Their shoulders would curl, their elbows would bend, and their eyes would ask: Are you judging me? I’d be forced to retreat and put on my counselor’s scarf. “Drinking just isn’t right for me,” I’d say, “I don’t judge anyone else who does it.” They were never convinced. They’d stay distant and continue to look at me from an odd angle. I would want to scream: I don’t give a shit what you do! I didn’t even want to have this conversation! Go enjoy the party.
What I Think
There’s a reason I keep these conversations short. A casual, social setting is not the time or place to start quoting Kant’s Religion Within the Boundaries of Mere Reason or to share the origin story of my sobriety. What I say is a curated answer to avoid a deeper conversation, but what I think is much different. When people ask “Why don’t you drink?”, manifold thoughts spring to my mind.
There are practical reasons:
- Alcohol is expensive; water is free and an infinitely better use of my money.
- Why would I drink something that’s dehydrating?
- I don’t want a hangover because I value sleep, don’t enjoy vomiting, and take pleasure in productive Sunday mornings.
- How could I ever become more comfortable in my own skin if I were to use alcohol to cope with social situations?
- My self-confidence has come from navigating many moments of sober discomfort. Why would I deprive myself of those opportunities for growth?
- I’ll start drinking as soon as I decide I want to die sooner.
And there are philosophical reasons:
- Real pleasures add to your vitality rather than depress it.
- I should never leave my wellbeing in the hands of others if it is within my power to prevent that.
- When I get a rush of dopamine, I want it to be because I’m looking out over a fjord, not because I’m cross-eyed in a basement.
All these considered, there's one reason above all for why I don't drink or do drugs: mind-altering substances violate the sanctity of consciousness.
I define these substances as anything created for the purpose of fundamentally altering your perception of the world, which is a fair description of drugs and alcohol (as well as psychedelics and plant medicine). Substances artificially change your state of mind, by flooding your brain and body with chemicals. But you can naturally change your state of mind with experiences: writing, meditating, exercising, traveling, singing, reading, skiing, hiking, conversing, fornicating.
Substances change the way the world appears to you. Experiences change the way you see the world.
I believe that consciousness is a divine gift and a unique pleasure — something I should cherish and protect. Our gift: As humans, we are endowed with a capacity for reason and a level of self-awareness that make us free. And this is where Kant comes in:
The pure practical use of reason consists in the precepts of moral laws. They all lead, however, to the idea of the highest good possible in the world insofar as it is possible only through freedom: morality .
For Kant, our freedom comes from our natural, human reason. We are moral agents who can choose how to act, and we can use reason practically to determine what is right and wrong. In my sober state of mind, I am most free and most capable of adhering to my morality. Sober, my reason is intact and always active. Drunk, my reason would be inhibited, causing my freedom to falter and my morality to lapse.
My natural, sober state of mind is sacred. That's what I believe, which is why I have no desire to escape to a counterfeit form of consciousness. I want to protect my freedom and constantly pursue the highest moral good I can conceive. I want to dwell in my mind, explore it, and make it a pleasurable, comfortable place to be — without the aid of some substance.
Why I Never Started
The key to my sobriety is the fact that I never started drinking.
At 14, I hadn’t read Kant, and only in the past few years have I articulated my faith in the sanctity of consciousness. But at 14, I understood why my peers drank, and it didn’t appeal to me.
Horny teenage boys wanted to get with girls but couldn't talk to them. The boys were after "liquid courage" and "social lubricant," or more accurately, an excuse for saying dumb and embarrassing things. Whether they would admit it or not, my male high-school friends drank because it improved their chances of hooking up with girls.
Crazy enough, I was also a horny teenage boy. But, even at 14, I was convinced: only sober people can give consent.
Somehow we've let a twisted contradiction slip into our social culture. A sober person having sex with a drunk person? Appalling. Two drunk people having sex? Completely kosher.
These are the reasons I never started drinking:
- I didn't want to rely on alcohol as a social crutch. I wanted to be comfortable talking to anyone — sober.
- I wanted to get with girls, but I didn't want alcohol to be involved, because I wanted whatever we would do to be consensual — sober.
Maybe if I'd gone along with my high-school peers, I would have never wanted to abstain from alcohol. I wouldn't have realized what people use it for or how it affects them. But I did understand my peers' motives and insecurities, and that's why I never started drinking.
Why I've Stayed Sober
I’ve spent my life sober, and I love my life. I don’t treat that as a coincidence, which is why I've stayed sober: sobriety works for me.
My sobriety has brought me many opportunities, meaningful experiences, and a peace of mind that can't compare to any amount of fleeting pleasure. I've saved drunk people from dangerous situations. I've never regretted a sexual experience. I've accompanied a friend to his first AA meeting. I've never wasted a morning because of a hangover. No one has ever had to drive, walk, or carry me home. And a few months ago, I threw up for the first time since 2012 — because of a tough workout.
Spend one high-school party as the only sober person in the room, and you'll wonder why people enjoy being drunk. Stay sober at bars, clubs, and fraternity parties throughout college, and you'll be baffled by the inebriated incompetence of otherwise intelligent people. Run laps around the hungover people ordering bottomless mimosas at Sunday brunch; you'll want to abstain from alcohol.
- For most people, drinking and getting drunk are not the same thing. Yet, I equate them throughout this essay because they are effectively the same for me. I've never met anyone who drinks but has never been drunk. And I've decided that I never want to be drunk. Therefore, I don't drink alcohol at all.
- Immanuel Kant, Religion Within the Boundaries of Mere Reason (Cambridge Texts in the History of Philosophy)