15 Things I Drank in My Year of Not Drinking

A Cup of Coffee, First Thing in the Morning, with Toothpaste Taste

Tasting notes: A secret new year nestled in its own space at the end of November. Laughter from nowhere.

A Can of “The Bitter Housewife” Bitters and Soda

Tasting notes: Bracing, aggressively present. Sister said it reminded her of the inside of her mouth after vomiting. Woefully drinkable herbaceous liquid that dries the mouth as it is consumed.

Celestial Seasonings Sleepytime Tea

Tasting notes: Knowing that little sleepy bear your whole life, letting him in your mind like a mental Teddy. The tasting begins when you hold it in your hands, pull the bag from the wax paper inside the cardboard box with that soft crinkle sound, smell the mint and the chamomile and the cold ceramic of the collectible figurines from the 90’s. This tea is an utterly American variety. It is manufactured by a cult and no other brand can ever capture the original flavor profile.

A Single Can of Non-Alcoholic, Sparkling White Wine

I crack this open, and the first sip gives me wine mom.

It places memories of not just any wine mom, but a specific one, on my tongue. I taste how it felt when my ex-mother-in-law kept filling my glass at a dinner out with my partner’s relatives until I could not see. It comes on strong, like threading the needle of being blind drunk, but not letting on, being friendly, polite, personable with her family that swam like the ghosts of the drowned in front of my eyes, like in a ‘hey, the station isn’t coming in right,’ kind of situation with all fuzz and blurred figures, but the voices of the actors or news anchors or whoever you’re trying to watch still coming in crisp. When I told my partner I had gotten very drunk, all I got was a Really? I couldn’t tell at all. I was a kind of drunk I only get when I forget to go at my own pace and instead follow whoever I’m with. How drunk was the woman pouring?

What does it taste like to know that I can in fact not have a drink for a year, in spite of my ex-mother-in-law’s best efforts to shape me in her image, to make her drinking the new normal, enabling herself by encouraging my drinking and her kid’s? Spite tastes like seeing candy-pink flamingos stuck into a fresh-cut suburban lawn, recognizing a facade of well-being that could have anything hiding behind it. White wine does not stain lips or teeth like its red sister. It still causes the same internal effects. The psychic handprints she laid on her child left no visible marks.

Tasting Notes: Creates a temporal illusion. You will think time is supposed to slow down or speed up in the way a lazy summer afternoon with friends and full plastic wine glasses might. But it will not in fact slow down or blur past you, because there is no alcohol to do that work, so the whole effect will just be that your brain becomes like an after-image, dragged after your body and responsibilities and ego and wherewithal saying wait, we were going to relax, weren’t we? This brain is like a slinky, pulled by the gravity of the fact that it is you, now, not a poison you have administered to yourself, that has to choose to slow down and that is too hard for now. The tartness builds. The sweetness does not linger.

Diet Pepsi, Bottled, Sold From Vending Machines in Side-of-the-Road Stops

Tasting notes: Not crashing the car. Grinding teeth. Supposedly Catholic talk radio rattling off the URL for a website that grants religious exemption for vaccines. Plastic nestling into its forever home in the earth. Lingering low notes reminiscent of limited choices.

A Single Can of Lemon La Croix Outdoors at a Brewery

It’s a very Halloween-y, gothy birthday celebration at a brewery, just a few days before the October fundraiser officially launches. I ask if they have Diet Coke. They do not. They just have regular, which tastes worse than anything. I don’t like the viscosity of the sugar in Coke.

While talking to a tipsy straight woman who I would consider a friendly acquaintance but one I’m pretty darn fond of, she says you should go as Guy Fieri for Halloween. I laugh. Maybe. I pull this suggestion back out later on in the party. I stand within a circle of queers around the fire pit. Someone I’ve just met says, well they just put that on you, didn’t they? It was artful, the way this friendly queer didn’t want to invalidate me, in case I was excited about being Guy Fieri, but was at the ready to offer sympathy in case this was distressing. A social contagion takes hold in the group. We become obligated to go around the circle and each in turn affirm that we had heard that Guy Fieri is “actually a pretty good guy.” He is known for officiating gay weddings, you know.

I heard his name while I was listening to Sherry Shriner’s “Sherry Talk Radio” — the raw recordings from the conspiracy theorist’s broadcasts. I put them on for research — or trying to understand a person I’d lost to conspiracy. I listen while I make coffee in the mornings, picking up on nuggets and distinctions that were important to her destructive world-building (The Queen of England is a lizard person, for example, but Princess Diana was not, Harry is not). At one point, she suggests the listener take their kids on a trip to deposit orgone, a substance that fights aliens or reptiles or leftists or whatever. She says it can be a family affair. She brings up Guy Fieri, tells the parents of soon-to-be orgone-chucking children to look up some destinations from Diners, Drive-in’s and Dives and take the kids there. I wonder if she knew he does gay weddings.

I look up at the planes and the lines behind them in the sky. Conspiracy theorists say some of these are “chem trails,” some kind of mind-controlling toxins dropped onto us. The person I lost hasn’t used a microwave in years, even though she was the one who taught me how in the first place. Don’t stand in front of the microwave. That was as cautious as we got back then, while I stared into its glowing recesses, over-nuking my oatmeal into a solid puck before kindergarten. Now, the pandemic has deepened her resolve. She won’t get vaccinated, is afflicted with an obsession with bodily purity. A broken clock is right twice a day, and the conspiracy theorists are right to not be complacent, are right that people are held against their will, that the world is toxic, is dying, that there are wealthy people controlling everything. But they are wrong about so much more. Their reality ends where their complicity begins.

I don’t get to finish the La Croix. A bee chases me around the fire. They always come for me and never anyone else if I’m around. They are relentless. I drop the can while running away.

I remember when I used to drink and watch Absolutely Fabulous with my conspiracy theorist, wine or vodka splashed into water forming a bridge between us that just isn’t there anymore. Edie used to say on the screen, It’s ‘La Cwah,’ sweetie.

Tasting notes: sober, empty, fizzing liquid, a memory of a flavor.

Two Coffees, from Two Different Rest Stops, One McDonald’s, One Tim Hortons, Both Weak

Tasting notes: Night air. Drivers’ eyes at rest stops bore holes through your skin and muscle and bone. The summer night breeze whistles through these new orifices. Exhaust carries through your innards. A small child references you to an exhausted parent while you wash your hands, Girls’ room? This the girls’ bathroom? The parent eventually strains out: People look different ways! This coffee has middle notes of an elevator starting to move. The floor falls away for a hot second, your stomach lurches. Wasn’t McDonald’s coffee always standardized? What happened? Is the coffee bad or do I have Covid? When you get to your destination, it will become clear that the coffee was only weak, a small disappointment in the grand scheme of things that could go wrong, are going wrong.

Can After Can of Spindrift Sparkling Water

Are you sure? They don’t press much after that. It’s there if I want it, my dad reassures me, and then points to the way he’s stocked half of a shelf in his fridge with different flavors of Spindrift in anticipation of my visit. He first tried them at my place. I crack one open, pink lemonade, and watch the pale fuschia juice glitter its way into a glass. August magic.

Birthday martinis! My stepmother is excited, waving her hands in the air. My dad gets out heavy cream from the refrigerator, whipped cream, cake flavored vodka. I watch him shake heavy cream and vodka together. Shake shake shake. He pours the frothing, ever-so-off-white mixture into two martini glasses. It coats the sides and slides back down. The glasses look dirty after that. He splits the rest of a can of whipped cream between the glasses. It sputters even more of a mess onto their milky edges. He places three individual sprinkles on each. I sip from the Spindrift like it’s a shield.

Out on the back porch, we play Apples to Apples, selected by my sister. (It’s her birthday.) Mya the dog lolls in the grass and eyes the cake. At one point in the game, it is my turn to ask everyone else to submit cards for my judgement. Each card has two options for the person who is “it” to choose from.

Mine are ‘Feminine’ and ‘Shiny’ and I make a joke only my sister will get, oh, the two genders.

My dad looks up from his beer. I sip at the new bubbles of my second can.

What’s that? he asks. What’s shiny? Tell me. I tell him it’s nothing, just a joke. No, he insists, what gender is shiny? I make a face, laugh, he does not laugh. No, dad, it was a joke. People make this joke about there being only two genders. Shiny is not a gender I know of, a lie I tell to simplify the conversation, because of course your gender could be shiny, but listen, you can tell I am still trying to explain the joke here. Okay, he says. His eyes narrow. He doesn’t quite believe me. He says, okay, but I need to keep up.

My sister and I will whisper and delight in this later, how earnest it is that he has assigned himself the task of ‘keeping up.’ After watching my dad drink a blue cocktail made from cake vodka and curacao and after witnessing ‘birthday martinis’ which are not in fact dirty martinis served to you on your birthday, I ask, what happened? How did they all go completely feral with cocktails?

She tells me about their weekly quarantine happy hour, when he would try a new drink each week, and how he and his wife had eventually started creating drinks of their own, including the blue one named after my stepsister, her creation.

My sister tells me about the time he served her a water glass of heavy cream and vodka.

I laugh into my Spindrift.

Tasting notes: This one is real, like a hallucination. You can feel it, see it, and it leaves very little evidence of its passing through your body. Lingers barely on the tip of the tongue, with high notes of bright genders named like quarks.

Just. Tonic. Water.

Tasting Notes: The cackling of the skeleton from The Last Unicorn, pouring wine into the hollow in his jaw, screaming, But I remembeeeeer!

Fake Gin, Monday Brand Specifically, Made into a Gin and Tonic

Tasting notes: A disturbing lack of burn, but a tingling sense that limes are more fun than they’re letting on.

Non-Alcoholic Beer

Tasting notes: Turns out, beer is bread soda! Refreshing in the summer. Really, truly, nothing like it. Tends to be turned down by people who identify as “sober” with a wary look. Fair. Even non-alcoholic PBR tastes a lot like its alcoholic counterpart, except it is actually better.

Three French Presses of Coffee, Often Daily

It takes less than a month for a rattling pebble to come loose in my brain. This is not dissimilar to something that happened to me in the eighth grade. Among body stuff and bisexual discovery, while staying with my grandma because my mom decided that taking care of both me and my little sister while my dad was deployed was too much, I began to hear a rattling.

I heard it for the first time in the upstairs bathroom, after cranking her old Buffalo taps shut. I moved. I rattled. Was it something inside me? I clutched at my organs, my stomach, my hips. Whenever I moved, I heard a little jangle of something hard, pinging around. Was I dying? At school, the rattling followed me up staircases and down halls. I swiveled my head, perked my ears, tried to locate it.

One night, I took off my chunky black shoe and inspected the worn sole. On the underside, there was a flapping hole in the rubber. I reached inside and extracted a pebble like I might remove a lost tampon. How weird to discover the source of my months-long anxiety was just a stone lodged in an extension of my body.

Three French presses of coffee will make you impossibly alert. With fingers jittery from caffeine, I locate another stone. Before the end of December, I pull it out, hold it in my hand, let out a sigh that lasts for days. It was a little pebble of not-cisness. Alcohol had helped me ignore the rattling. Even though I heard it, I could quell the anxiety. Like the pebble in my shoe, I know what it is the moment I pull it out. All the rattling memories fall into place. My shoulders relax.

Over a cup of the French press coffee, I tell my therapist. She yells, Me, too! and talks about wanting a motorcycle and a penis from a very young age. I nod along. I tell my girlfriend on the couch and she holds me, then my sister just before we watch the X-Files episode about a gender-swapping alien. DID YOU PICK THIS EPISODE ON PURPOSE!?

Tasting Notes: Bitter with penetrating oils. Greasy like something that might coat the edges of the little cysts left when you extract truths that have been nestled into crevasses, hardened with years of detritus and hoarded dust.

A Sip of My Girlfriend’s Beer

Tasting notes: Shockingly, not great, and does nothing to distract from being bothered by a bee that eventually lands in my dad’s cup. He scoops it onto the ground, He’ll leave us alone now. He’s drunk. The bee gets up and flies into a sign. Yep, there he goes.

Cold Brew and Too Much Flavored Almond Creamer

Tasting notes: Conspiratorial laughter. My girlfriend telling me she loves that I’m trashy. Minty kisses. Not being afraid of yourself. Cackling, syrup, and sometimes, a slight mineral oil chemical burn sensation on the tongue. (I would know. I had a mineral oil chemical burn scar on my right butt cheek for a long time.) It’s not not not unpleasant.

Diet Dr. Pepper Cream Soda Flavor and Also Diet Dr. Pepper Cherry Flavor

I know what’s coming. Fundraiser. A time to fill my veins with as much caffeine as possible, and in the preamble, I need to stock up on supplies for all nighters because they tend to strike without notice. I’d seen an ad on Autostraddle, of all places, for new flavors of Diet Dr. Pepper. Marvelously targeted ads advertise the one thing I always want, a brown-colored diet pop with vanilla flavoring. You know the movie theater soda machines where you can mix your own flavor? They report the data back to the company. Maybe this WAS made just for me and people I share a customer profile with, all of us pulsing in a server somewhere together, longing for the same vanilla flavor. I’d gotten a pack of each, the cream soda and the cherry Diet Dr. Pepper last time I’d been to the store — and I am back for more. I rattle my red Target cart down the aisles and drag containers of the recyclable, aluminum cans into my cart, four maybe five 12 packs.

I stack them on the checkout belt. An unmasked woman turns toward me, pointing at the Diet Dr. Pepper, the cherry ones. Have you had those yet. They’re sooo good.

I have! I love the cherry. Have you had the cream soda one?

Not yet.

It’s good. I mean. It’s gross, but in a good way.

She looks like she wants to back up a step. It’s not an unfamiliar look. With masks now, sometimes I get nervous looks from women on the street, forcing me to call out to them, making sure my voice carries high and light like some kind of Mrs. Doubtfire impersonator Oh hellooooo! so that whoever she is, she knows she can relax.

The woman at the checkout has nowhere to go while the red-vested employee keeps scanning her items. I keep babbling: It’s gross but I like it.

Her body starts pulling away from me at the corners, she stares at the exit. She gets her receipt. Her voice comes out flatter than old soda. Have fun with that.

I call after her, I will!

Tasting Notes: A grubby triumph like sweat stuck between your teeth. Bitter prune notes of memory. A mouthfeel of chemically enhanced free will that is only real sometimes. High notes trumpet the arrival of the future.


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Nicole Hall

Nicole Hall is Autostraddle's A+ and Fundraising Director, and has been fundraising and working in the arts and nonprofit sector for over a decade. They write nonfiction as well as aggressively gay and sometimes spooky fiction. They live in Pittsburgh with their partner, Sadie. They are also a gardener, project queer, witchy/wizardly human and BFF to a lovely senior rescue dog. You can find them on Twitter and Instagram as @nknhall.

Nicole has written 72 articles for us.

38 Comments

  1. Ah, as a non-drinker I love this whole concept, I want to do my own! So good.

    The Celestial Seasonings revelation has rocked my world, as a big tea drinker, and only days after I found out about the Oneida sex cult! But above all things,

    “It was a little pebble of not-cisness. Alcohol had helped me ignore the rattling. Even though I heard it, I could quell the anxiety. Like the pebble in my shoe, I know what it is the moment I pull it out. All the rattling memories fall into place. My shoulders relax.”

    God, that anxiety. My first two years of sobriety were awful, trying desperately to avoid the rattle without my one shield. My fancy soft drinks tasted like society mothers trying too hard. It was Covid, rather than caffeine, that ultimately let me identify the stone — I drank plenty of coffee, but used that caffeinated rattle to hide the deeper one, feebly sliding down the list of lesser addictions until I was left facing myself.

    I kinda want to make one of these for pre-gender awakening and one after. Life tastes good now. And I put angostura bitters in everything!!

  2. As much as I love this essay (Nicole, it is so good), I also love the way the other AS writers often pile on, particularly to these more personal articles, to affirm and celebrate one another and the work. It gives me many feelings!

  3. Stained teeth. When I gave up drinking–mostly red wine–I looked forward to white teeth. It never happened. Too much coffee maybe, or permanent stains deep into the enamel. I’m sure my dentist could do something about it, but… vanity. I tried my first NA beer a few months ago. I really loved the flavor and learned what I truly miss about beer is the flavor, not the alcohol. But like you mention, Drinking NA seems like a slippery slope. Plus I think I’m allergic to hops. Might help explain those crushing hangovers I always had. Congrats on one year. Not sure if it’s a struggle for you, but I find each one gets easier until it’s not even an issue.

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