Unlike the era portrayed in AMC's Mad Men, alcohol consumption during work hours is taboo in today's modern world. But after work hours, it's common to see professionals get together for a drink or two at the local watering hole.
No thanks, I say. I'm not a teetotaler, but I rarely drink.
Before I turned 21 (legal drinking age in the US) my reason for avoiding alcohol was simple: I thought my mom would kill me if I ever came home drunk. But something happened when I was 19 that made an indelible impression on my attitude towards alcohol consumption.
In the Shadow of a Doctor
I thought I wanted to be a doctor when I was in college. One summer I had the chance to shadow specialists in cardiology, oncology, orthopedics, and pediatrics to see what a week in their life was like.
One morning, a cardiologist and I made patient rounds. I watched and listened as he worked. Most of the patients in his care were older, but one patient was much younger. He was in his forties, obese, had severe diabetes and a bad heart. And judging by the purple hue of his leg, he was not going to have it for too long. The cardiologist confirmed my suspicion.
With the check-up complete, the cardiologist turned to leave the room, but the patient grabbed my arm and asked me to stay for a few minutes. He had tears in eyes so I stayed back. He looked at me and then told me his story, which went something like…
"When I was young, I looked just like you. I was tall, athletic, and I thought I was indestructible! I drank, got drunk a lot, and I always felt fine a few days later. And so I drank, and drank, and drank. Then the day came when I couldn't live without drinking. As I got older, I gained weight, became sick, had a heart attack, and now I'm going to lose my leg! And for what? Nothing!! I lost my wife, my kids, my family because of alcohol."
Although the words seem like cautionary prose from a bad made-for-TV movie, it was real. It was a moving moment. And then he said…
"Look kid, promise me one thing. Don't get drunk. It's not worth it. Just look at me! Look at what I've become! I know I'm not going to live long, so learn from my mistakes. Just promise me you won't get drunk. It's just not worth it."
He had a determined look in his eyes. I made a promise, he thanked me, and I went on my way. But I was unable to shake the imagine of him lying in bed telling me his story and the promise I made. That moment was the most memorable and thought provoking episode from that entire experience.
As life went on, I kept my word. Whenever I was offered alcohol, my mind would bring up the image of the patient (I have a good memory), and I would respectfully refuse.
But the workplace doesn't look too kindly upon those who don't drink after hours. I don't like these antiquated social customs, but if I have to carry a drink to fit in, so be it. I just sip or dilute while everyone else does as they please. I know I don't need alcohol to have a good time to help me unwind after a stressful day; I rely on my hobbies for that. Plus my mind stays sharp. And besides, I've seen how much "fun" people have when they are hungover, so it's a win-win in my book!
I made my promise over a decade ago. And despite the social pressures to drink, I'm proud to say I have never been drunk.