Lessons in F*ckupreneurship: People Are Suspicious When You Don’t Drink

One of the most discussion-provoking sections of my last post was about alcohol. Specifically, the lack of consumption thereof, and the deleterious effects this may have had on my career in academia.

I thought this would be an ideal subject to tackle in my sporadic (perhaps only singular?) series on F*ckupreneurship, since what better way to be a fuckupreneur than to already have an immense disadvantage “out there”? If you really want to go for the full fuckupreneur jackpot, be a woman (with children!), be LGB or T (especially T), be a member of an underrepresented minority, and don’t drink. That will ensure you’ve fucked up even before you started!

All I’m going to do here is tell my own story, about how I came to give up alcohol and how that decision has made me feel ostracized in academia, and then leave the comments open for people to discuss reasons they think academic drinkers (aka most academics) look down upon those who don’t partake.

My story is mine. It’s not meant to be universal (for obvious reasons, see two paragraphs down).

When I arrived at UC-Irvine to begin my PhD in the Fall of 2005, I was just out of a three-year relationship, totally broken, and completely shellshocked to be moving from vibrant, walkable, diverse New York, where all of my friends were, to sterile, subdivided, homogenous Orange County, where the only people I knew were the second- and third-year cohort in my program, all of whom at the time regarded me with utmost suspicion, because during my campus visit I had expressed a disapproval of Los Angeles (since retracted!) and an interest in popular culture.

My two University-assigned roommates were a recent Emory graduate who liked to smoke her hookah in the living room, and a 100% bat-shit-fucking-nuts 22-year-old Rutgers grad who I would soon realize was a full-blown, non-functioning, unapologetic drug addict. “THIS WORLD is what’s FUCKED UP,” she’d whine to her parents when they confronted her about her disease. “I’m the SMART ONE, doing something to COPE.” Heroin, meth, pills—anything she could get her junkie hands on, she shoved up her ass, literally. Yes, she gave herself heroin enemas. HEROIN ENEMAS. I realize that you basically don’t need to read another word, or even look at the Internet for another second, once you’ve seen the phrase HEROIN ENEMAS, but I’m just getting started with my story.

Between the heroin enemas and the meth binges—sometimes involving cleaning off Roommate #2’s hookah-coal residue off the burners by soaking them in a noxious mixture of ammonia and bleach—things in my student-housing apartment in a sterile complex on a sterile hill up the street from a sterile campus in a sterile “community” were very weird, and I immediately fell in with a group of rowdy Historians (not the real discipline, to protect the innocent) whose favorite activity happened to be the same as my own: drinking.

Weekends (and a few weeknights) were spent roving from one house party full of hazy-eyed Comp Lit or Chem students to the next, college all over again except that everyone was of legal drinking age. In the meantime, I finagled a mini-fridge from my brother and kept a stash of beer and liquor in my room so that I wouldn’t have to brave whatever was going on in JunkieTopia to get my drink on.

While I found coursework harrowing but exhilarating, my social life had “improved” since my arrival, as I took up with one of the aforementioned Historians, the rowdiest of the bunch, the charismatic, jocular and intellectually imposing Bartholomew (obvi not his real name). He awoke each day at 6 to study, wrote seminar papers (and later journal articles) that were the envy of his department, had many other women equally (or more) interested in him…and he drank. He drank like I have never seen anyone drink before or since.

I had always been around drinkers, and I had even been around a few alcoholics, but in New York the worst thing you had to do was pour them into a cab and stuff a few twenties into their bra. Here it was different—because this guy was an intellectual role model for his peers (and, at first, me), and because the volume of alcohol he and his friends consumed was beyond anything I have ever seen. We’re talking thirty beers. We’re talking ordering four more pitchers of beer after it’s abundantly clear that he should have been cut off. And we’re talking drunken behavior that bordered on psychological abuse—never physical, which was good, because Bart outweighed me by about 100 pounds and very easily could have killed me.

But he was “hilarious,” and never once would anyone suggest that a 32-year-old with a child (oh, I forgot about that part) who drank like that was not hilarious. He was an alcoholic. But to the grad-student community, he was awesome. He is faculty in the Ivy League now.

I only dated Bartholomew for three months, non-exclusively, but after we called it quits, I lost the taste for booze completely. The UC-Irvine world is small, however, and so I kept seeing him everywhere…until I got so disgusted with both his behavior and the enabling (and similar behavior!) by other grad students that I just stopped socializing altogether.

My new distaste for alcohol coincided with meeting the guy who is now my husband, who also happens not to drink. The early stages of our relationship had a giddiness and real-ness I hadn’t experienced since high school, when I was similarly straight-edge-esque and got my first real boyfriend completely sober. Call me weird, but I think that one of the reasons our relationship weathered so much of my job-market bullshit is that it was based on a true connection that we made as our real selves.

Because that’s the thing about alcohol. Once you’ve been sober in a roomful of drunkies, you realize that while you may like all of these people, you might not like all of their drunk selves (while some of their drunk selves may actually be more pleasant than their real selves—it’s hard to keep track!!!).

My point is, whether you think of it as alcohol intensifying sometimes-dormant personality traits you already have, or inventing traits you otherwise lack, a lot of people aren’t themselves when they drink, and they’re not that easy to be around unless one is also drunk. And I don’t like being drunk anymore—because I can’t drink without thinking of the pain that Bartholomew caused me, and also because something about my brain chemistry as a decrepit 36-year-old makes it so that I get so debilitatingly hungover from one glass of wine that I crawl around on the floor sobbing for 36 straight hours. And also, because the behavior patterns that I was getting into in graduate school–drinking alone, drinking at every social occasion, drinking, for the first time in my life, until I vomited–were dangerous. So I quit, and the result in graduate school was immediate designation as “no fun.” This has largely continued apace after graduation, and gets worse the more “prestigious” the scholars I find myself hanging with are.

Yes, as an academic non-drinker, what I usually got from colleagues was either disappointment or outright scorn. Here are a few reasons I think this might be the case (helped along by the many conversations I’ve had about this on Twitter with my postacademic Twerple, @pankisseskafka in case you’re not sated from all this Schuman):

Reasons Not Drinking Might Cost You the Job, or Tenure, or Any Friends

 Your colleagues assume one of the following:

  1. If you don’t drink, you’re pregnant. The worst. Forget the job, forget tenure—obviously you’re not a Serious Scholar if you’re interested in, as Sarah Kendzior’s colleagues once said, “having a litter.”
  2. If you don’t drink, you’re a recovering alcoholic. This means that you could fall off the wagon ANY TIME and start becoming an unreliable, raging lush…er, like all of your colleagues, so that’s bullshit. What it really is is this: if you have had the courage to admit you’re sick and need help, that is a sign of weakness. Anyone in academia who admits weakness EVEN FOR A SECOND will be crushed.
  3. If you don’t drink, you’re religious. RED FLAG. Because we all know that in all cases, religious=conservative=not Marxist=Tom Friedman-style neoconservative=AYN RAND! GEORGE W. BUSH! DONALD RUMSFELD! RONALD MOTHERFUCKING REAGAN! Nooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooo.
    1. EXCEPTION: are you South Asian, Middle Eastern, or otherwise acceptably “brown”? You may be MUSLIM, which = diversity hire, which = jackpot..who will then be excluded from all department functions and regarded with suspicion by the radical Marxists who hired you.
  4. If you don’t drink, you are silently judging people who do. Project much, alkies? If you enjoy a glass or three of wine with dinner, I am most certainly not judging you. But if you are a 45-year-old father of two who thinks it’s an acceptable form of scholarship to go out and get plastered with your grad students and bum cigarettes off of them, I am judging you, because you are fucking pathetic. Go home. Be a goddamned adult. Or, alternatively, retaliate against me for my luck at not suffering from addiction (which is just as much my fault as my luck at having a lot of grey hairs or stumpy legs), by insisting that I’m not “collegial” enough.

And now, PKK Universe, the floor is yours. Other reasons academics (or people in other jobs) regard non-drinkers with suspicion?