Live Through This

Sober at a Party School

Being the only nondrinker doesn’t have to suck—here are some ways to make it better.

Collage by Beth

Collage by Beth

I was standing in the middle of a run-down student apartment at my first college party, feeling shy and self-conscious about how frumpy I looked in my blue hoodie, surrounded by upperclassmen awkwardly pumping beer from a keg into red plastic cups. A guy in the usual college uniform (gray hoodie, backwards ball cap, goatee) sidled up to me and asked, “So, why aren’t ya drinkin’?”

The answer was simple enough—“Well, I don’t drink”—but the reaction that followed was one I would come to dread. I’d been saying those words since I started being offered alcohol—around ninth grade—but college was the first time people seemed be bothered them. As soon as the words reached Backwards Cap’s ears, I could feel him judging me—there was a long pause, and he finally mustered a weak reassurance: “Well, that’s cool. Yeah. I really respect that!” His enthusiasm was transparently disingenuous, and he backed away moments later.

I never got used to my college classmates’ reactions to my decision not to drink, and they made me feel paranoid and isolated. Did they think I was a boring, uptight, unfun prude? Was I going to miss out on the “college experience”? I had dreamed of going to NYU or a liberal arts school like Mount Holyoke, but I couldn’t afford to make it happen, so I enrolled in the huge state university in my hometown that regularly topped every list of the nation’s biggest party schools, a status that students there repeated with pride. Keggers were a way of life, and it practically rained alcohol on the weekends. I didn’t mind that drinking was so prevalent, but I did mind that my choice not to drink made people regard me as an uptight buzzkill or a puritan weirdo. In reality, my backstory was a lot more complicated.

My family has a multigenerational history of alcoholism. I went to therapy to deal with it when I was 30, but as a kid I just desperately wanted to keep it hidden, and we couldn’t have afforded therapy, anyway. By age 10 I was plenty familiar with the inside of a bar, having spent many evenings sitting at my dad’s favorite watering hole, drinking Shirley Temples and eating pretzel sticks while the adults played darts.

I don’t remember how I first realized alcoholism was a problem in my family—because it was always present in my family life, it just seemed normal to me. My dad wasn’t home on weeknights because he went out drinking after work and didn’t return until after I was sleep. Sometimes in the summers I’d go weeks at a time seeing him only on the weekends, even though we lived in the same house. My parents had screaming fights about money all the time because he spent what he made on beer. Sometimes I’d get home from school and the phone would be disconnected because he hadn’t paid the bill. He was always irritable when he was home, and I walked on eggshells all the time, feeling like he was irritated with me, like everything was my fault for being annoying or existing or whatever I had done that day.

I don’t really talk about any of this with anyone. I didn’t even have the courage to tell my very best friend about my dad’s issues until I was 16. I was completely ashamed about it and desperately wanted my family to seem happy and normal, so I hid all evidence from everyone I knew, including our extended family. The other thing is that for a long time I blamed myself for my dad’s drinking. I thought it was my fault. As a kid, I felt like my mom was stuck as my sole caretaker and was clearly miserable and was only staying with my dad because of me. I thought I ruined her life by being born. My reasoning was that if I had just somehow been a better kid, I could make it all better. (My mom was sober but was raised in an alcoholic family, so it’s the only world she knows. When you’re an adult child of an alcoholic, dysfunction seems normal, and so it carries on.)

All I wanted as a kid was to get out of my parents’ house, but I couldn’t because I couldn’t take care of myself. My biggest fear as a child was that I would become my father. I’m probably the only child of the ’90s who was actually frightened by the drugs and alcohol unit in junior high health class—it wasn’t the dangers of booze that freaked me out, but the statistics, like how children of alcoholics are four times more likely to become addicts themselves. Those numbers made me feel doomed and terrified of who I might become. Did they mean that Icould become an alcoholic? That fear was what made me think it was probably better not to chance it at all—and so I didn’t.

In high school, no one cared that I didn’t drink. I hung out with a loose group of drama geeks and punk rockers—some of them drank, some didn’t, but our collective love of Minor Threat made it easier to explain, because I could just say I was straightedge. The response was usually “Oh. Cool.” It was considered expressly uncool to judge anyone for their choices. But in college, calling myself straightedge was no longer an easy shorthand—most people didn’t know what that was, and they definitely didn’t see it as rebellious or cool.

Let me make something clear: I really, really wasn’t interested in judging or condemning anyone who drank (most people did). It wasn’t my business what other people were doing with their own bodies. But I wanted that same acceptance to be extended to what I chose to do with mine, and it usually wasn’t. Acquaintances and random people at college parties insisted I was being overdramatic. More than a few people had confidently told me that my fear of becoming an alcoholic was silly, while others argued that sobriety would tank my social life.

But none of that happened. I gradually got more comfortable with being one of the few non-drinkers at any given party by completely owning my choice, and making it clear that I just wanted to have fun like anyone else. By my sophomore year of college, I had gotten to know enough people who knew I didn’t drink, so the questions slowly tapered off. I had fun college adventures just like everyone else! I still went to parties and bars, stayed up all night camping, and saw a million bands play shows—I just did all of it sober.

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32 Comments

  • Joyce October 7th, 2013 7:32 PM

    i remember when my roommate in my first year of college asked me if i drink alcohol and i said no and she was so surprised. she really thought i was a drinker. she didn’t ask why but i would love to tell her that i just don’t like the taste of alcohol.

    i also remember zac efron’s character in Liberal Arts telling Josh radnor that ‘alcohol is for suckers’. lol. love this article!

  • kendallbc October 7th, 2013 7:40 PM

    Thank you so so so so much for writing this article. As a non-drinker, not by choice but by medical necessity, I greatly appreciated you sharing the idea that it is OKAY to not drink. I am in college right now as well so a lot of the experiences you describe very much resonate with my own. Thanks again for sharing this. Being sober doesn’t mean you aren’t fun!

  • saramarit October 7th, 2013 7:41 PM

    When I decided to stop drinking it never occured to me that other peoples reactions would be such a big issue. I learned quickly to never say “I don’t drink” and have to deal with the awkward conversation that follows that. Some people have rejected my company on the basis that I won’t get drunk with them which sucks and makes me feel like the dullest dud on the planet but I think you’re probably right about it being a good filter for people you don’t want in your life anyway.

    • Nova4694 October 7th, 2013 8:47 PM

      Same all day man. I’ve seriously lost entire groups of friends over it.

  • pla2011 October 7th, 2013 7:44 PM

    My situation isn’t quite the same as this (I’m about to turn 21 but I’m also about to start a medication that will prevent me from drinking alcohol) but I still found this article interesting and helpful! Thanks!

  • Nova4694 October 7th, 2013 7:45 PM

    I can’t even express how grateful I am that this article exists; it’s like we’ve lived the same life. The advice and experience you’ve shared through this piece made me feel a lot less afraid to start college next year. Thank you so much. My mother’s alcoholism has given me many of the same opinions and experiences you described in the article, but the thing is, I DO judge people for drinking, simply because I’ve seen it do so much harm and so little good. How did you become so open minded?

  • Marjainez October 7th, 2013 7:50 PM

    love the collage!!
    x

  • inl October 7th, 2013 7:50 PM

    I’m growing up, as a teen, fearing that if I even touch alcohol, I will turn into an exact replica of any or almost all of my family members, including extended family. This post hit home. I don’t even know what to say. All I can think of is one, simple, completely hackneyed word: WOW

  • SparksLefty October 7th, 2013 7:51 PM

    Can I just say that THIS is everything to me this has been my life. I am also a straitedge girl of multigeneration alcoholics/ drug addicts. As soon as I was aware of the prevalence of addiction and what it was I made the decision to remain sober. I’m so happy that its finally coming to light that things like depression and addiction are mental illnesses that people are genetically predispositioned to have. Addiction and depression are usually always hereditary. That is not to say that with that knowledge and practice people can overcome such as Erica herself did. And congrats to her for that!
    I’m 19 right now and I do not feel comfortable with drinking or smoking at this point or anytime in the near future but I would like to think that someday I will be mentally and emotionally stable enough to learn to drink or smoke pot in a healthy way, in moderation. I’ve dealt with having people people freak out over my sobriety since I was 13 and lately its been harder than ever and I know that it will just get worse as I get into my twenties. The awkward response of, “Oh uh really? Wow. Uh, well that’s cool. Good for you. I totally respect that… *…and walks away slugging drink and taking multiple drags from pipe…*” really resonated with me. But also so many people just seem so offended and threatened by my sobriety. It really hurt for awhile and has been increasingly hard to deal with.
    My honest advice to young sober people: Lie. I know that this isn’t the most moral thing to do and I know that a lot of people will disagree with me here, but I’m just being totally honest here

  • SparksLefty October 7th, 2013 8:00 PM

    Whoops. Ran outta room.
    Continued…
    The easiest way that I’ve found to deal with this in social situations and with the least amount of negative side effects is just to say, “I have dealt with substance abuse at a very young age and I have been sober for 1,2,5 etc. years.” If people press you on details just say, ” I’m not really comfortable talking about it but thank you for your interest. *smile*”
    And then, BAM. It shuts people down, you are still cool, you can still hang, people stop nagging you about it and all your being sober problems are solved. And its not even really a lie since I have dealt with substance abuse… Just via my parents. And of course I do tell my close friends, boyfriend, people I can trust the trust the truth.
    Being sober is hard. But really only in relation to other people and our drug obsessed society. Its more annoying than anything else.

  • TamponAngel October 7th, 2013 8:21 PM

    wow thank you so much for posting this. I come from a family of alcoholics as well so i’m terrified by not only alcohol but drugs too. i live in an affluent wonder bread white community and i often feel really detached from everyone because i don’t drink and also have no desire to drink. it makes me so happy to know that there are people like me out there. i’m a super open minded person but just not when it comes to drinking because it has literally ruined the lives of people very close to me. i can never talk to anyone about it either because it makes me look paranoid and a buzzkill when i’m totally not!
    thank you thank you thank you for writing this. you have no idea how much this means to me and how much less alone i feel.

  • apistolairy October 7th, 2013 8:45 PM

    Thanks for posting this!

    I’m always the sober one at parties, just because I don’t like drinking – alcohol acts a depressant for me – and a lot of people are just so uncomfortable by it.

    Like you said, I’ve come to realize it’s more about them than me, but it’s still really annoying. Especially when they can’t let it go and try shoving drinks in my hand, pestering me for an explanation or teasing me for being “uptight.”

    I’ve started to tell people that I’m the designated driver or just refuse the offer with an “I’m driving” which I’ve found to be very effective. Most of the time I am actually the designated driver but I use the excuse even when I’m not. It avoids any scenes and generally has people leaving me alone and not trying to convince me to drink because they think I’m just being shy or something, which is pretty stupid.

    http://apistolwritingletters.blogspot.com/

  • Emmie October 7th, 2013 9:16 PM

    I’m a moderate drinker, but not the one getting wasted at every party. Last year, my friend and I invented a German alter ego for me (my boyfriend at the time was Austrian so I mastered the accent) and I have many people convinced my name is Nina and I am an exchange student from Berlin ;) It’s really interesting to see how people treat me differently when they think I’m studying abroad!

  • buhbuhbeth October 7th, 2013 9:26 PM

    This is what I needed to read! I don’t drink and I’ll be going to college next year, so I’ve been so worried about what others will think.

    This is amazing!

  • Harley October 7th, 2013 10:25 PM

    I don’t drink either and people think I am so weird for it! I am in my first year if college and it is a dry campus, so any weird alcohol related stuff happens off campus. It’s funny to see people’s reactions when they didn’t realize it was a dry campus, they should have researched the school more!

    • Emmie October 8th, 2013 10:26 AM

      my school has a “dry” campus too, but it really makes no difference in terms of how much or how often people drank. In my opinion it made people do more dangerous and stupid things because they were afraid of getting caught. I wish the US had a different, less bingey relationship with alcohol.

  • Monica B October 7th, 2013 10:30 PM

    Very interesting and very helpful for a girl who doesn’t smoke weed in a culture of friends who smoke weed multiple times a day. It’s a different substance with different implications, but the stigma is still pretty similar. The worst is when acquaintances ask why I don’t smoke anymore – especially because it’s such a social thing (“let’s have a smoke sesh!”), people are really dumbfounded when a cool awesome person such as myself LOL doesn’t want to smoke weed. “It’s just so chill!” My answer used to be along the lines of “cuz it makes me hate myself” but people react so awkwardly to that so now I make up something about how one time I swear I saw a unicorn while very stoned and no one believed me so I’m boycotting it on principle. Or because donuts taste so good when high that it’s not fair when you’re sober.

  • FlaG October 7th, 2013 11:50 PM

    I admire your convictions, Erica! Your article was well written and you have made your points very clearly. I’ll always remember a book my mother passed me where it said ‘you don’t owe anybody and explanation for your choices or behaviours’, and I’m glad to see other people know this too!

  • elliecp October 8th, 2013 5:15 AM

    I personally do drink, but I think it’s fantastic to decide not to. There’s no need to get drunk as you only forget the night you had <3

    http://roseandvintage.blogspot.com/

  • Lillypod October 8th, 2013 5:28 AM

    yessssss this is so good, and so on point.
    I’m the opposite of your situation, I have parents who dealt with alcohol in a very cool and responsible way. I grew up partly in France and they have a pretty mellow way of thinking about it. So its never been a big deal for me. …a lot of my friends drink occasionally and there all such lightweights, its kind of embarrassing! 1 drink and they’re all giggly. I’m like…a dead-weight. i’ve never even got tipsy.

  • iamrachii October 8th, 2013 7:06 AM

    I wish I’d had this article growing up! I’m in my last year of Uni now but you described my high school experience (UK teenagers and their underage drinking), minus the history of alcoholism part. I identify as straight edge, and I think I was the only one in my friend circle who did, and it’s gotten to the point where that reputation precedes me, people have said things like “wow I wish I could do that” or occasionally “wow you’re ruining your life!” I get treated like a child and growing up my friends never invited me to hang out with them if they were going to be drinking, even though it didn’t bother me at all. I don’t go to many bars or clubs or parties so I’m never really around drunk people anymore, and I have a couple of good sxe role models who back up my feelings (see: Davey Havok & Chris Motionless), so no regrets!

  • artobsessed October 8th, 2013 9:33 AM

    you sound like such an awesome person!

  • Maryse89 October 8th, 2013 10:05 AM

    great article, and I would like to add that it’s important, as the drinking friends of a sober person, to take them seriously when they tell you about behavior/people that makes them uncomfortable at parties

    my example: I was part of a kind of heavy drinking friend group in college, but we had one friend who was sober for reasons of principal. once some new guys we didn’t know too well got invited to one of our parties, and they kept on pulling dick moves like trying to pour alcohol in her drink when she wasn’t looking

    she told us later about it, and we made sure they were never invited back. it’s important for everybody to look out for everybody in these types of situations!

  • steph.anie11 October 8th, 2013 10:23 AM

    I can relate to this in many ways. Thanks for writing it.

  • GlitterKitty October 8th, 2013 3:42 PM

    Thank you so much for this. Drinking freaks me out a bit and it just seems so unnecessary and stupid to me. Well, the party binge drinking kind does. I don’t drink and I don’t want to. Thanks for showing me that my decision is perfectly fine.

  • wallflower152 October 8th, 2013 6:05 PM

    Great article and collage! I agree with all the points made in this article. I’m not a huge drinker, I’ll get drunk maybe once every 3 or 4 months if that much. But there was a period my first year of college when I’d drink every weekend pretty much. It’s not as glamorous as it can seem when people tell their stories of their drunken nights. Haha I wish I was inventive enough to make up stories about myself to random drunk people I’d never meet again! One time my friend was seeing double and then it went away I guess cuz she asked this guy what happened to his “twin” and we convinced her that the “twin” died and she cried haha sounds mean but she still thinks it’s funny/can’t believe how gullible she was. A thing I like to do if I’m the only sober one is be the official party photographer. It lets you be social w/o having to drink. Or be the designated driver and take everyone out to McD’s or something. : )

  • kelsey October 8th, 2013 9:01 PM

    This was great, thanks!
    I have cool friends who don’t care if I drink or not – I can’t imagine how hard it would be to be pressured to do so. Yikes.
    And when people I don’t know offer me stuff – weed especially – I just smile and say no thanks and, nine times out of ten, I can literally see them being thankful that they don’t have to share.

  • ScarlettRed October 11th, 2013 6:22 AM

    (Sorry long post… 1/2)

    How I wish Rookie was around a few years ago… But it has been amazing in the way it voices REAL life and breaks down those “this is what normal is” barriers…

    My experience is sort of the opposite, but some things overlap. My Dad is a bit phobic about alcohol (he did have an alcoholic uncle). He is a bit eccentric, sort of this loud, polite, principled, “moral” type of character. We weren’t even allowed alcohol in our house (wine gifts were accepted but quickly given away, dinner guests were awkwardly told they couldn’t bring drinks over for themselves, my family never held large gatherings outside extended family and weren’t hugely social).

    This also meant I could never consider hosting a typical teenage party past about 16, where alcohol was expected as a natural part…

    Growing up, I wasn’t exposed AT ALL to alcohol, so for me it was sort of like this foreign thing I knew nothing about and alongside the health arguments my Dad made I didn’t see drinking as a big priority. I think it’s important to point out that not drinking or perhaps being a bit naive about types of alcohol etc. wasn’t really a deliberate CHOICE at that age, it was kind of just a natural progression given my upbringing.

  • ScarlettRed October 11th, 2013 6:24 AM

    (2/3)

    I had friends who would sneak alcohol to parties, and I sort of got by in high school just drinking water and not joining in. People asked me “why” sometimes but didn’t seem bothered… But by 18 (the legal drinking age in AUS) some friends’ perceptions of me shifted from just, “that’s cool you don’t drink, we aren’t bothered” to like a sort of, “well you’re an ADULT now, why aren’t you acting like it… Why don’t you break away from your parents…” One “friend” even told me: “you NEEED to drink or people will think something’s wrong with you. You just appear to be bored when we go out clubbing. Do you even HAVE FUN?” This really fed my insecurities about being found out as this “outsider” from a weird family, or thought of in a way I didn’t see myself (like frigid, or mousy, or dull).

    But I worked at a restaurant and did drinks shifts at the bar which got me familiar with different alcohol. I ditched the circle of friends from high school that consistently belittled my non-drinking self and who had decided they “knew” all that I was. And I decided I’d have a social drink (just not binging) to join in at parties from then on.

    I also realised the amazing-ness of Emma Watson and found comfort in the fact she felt like the odd one out clubbing too (like it wasn’t her scene). And realised that sometimes I LIKE clubbing too, I just didn’t like the people I used to go with. I have found that people do notice when you don’t drink at all, but NEVER notice how much you have drunk if you have one drink in your hand…

    (Wait… A bit more)…

  • ScarlettRed October 11th, 2013 6:25 AM

    (3/3)

    It’s irritating how people typecast others so they are easier to understand. I think that it can be hard to for people to break past some impressions though, or even ASK what you think instead of just assuming… I hope people start to accept just how multifaceted others are… And also how they can change and grow.

    It would solve SO many problems…

  • Bethany October 11th, 2013 2:29 PM

    This article is beyond perfect for me! I’m currently in my freshers week at uni and I can’t drink cos of the medication I’m on and, oh my goodness, I have been feeling soo awkward about it!!So yay Rookie you mind reader you! ^o^xox

  • sagwa October 27th, 2013 12:03 AM

    Oh my god. I actually want to hug you right now. And cry at the same time. I swear we have such similar lives. My dad and most of my extended family members are struggling with alcoholism and I’ve seen it destroy people’s lives. My mom is sober, but grew up in a family of alcoholics as well. As much as I try to be open minded and ‘whatever’ about people around me drinking/smoking, it sometimes really freaks me out. I’m trying to be openminded, but with the negative view of substances I’ve had for my whole life, it’s difficult. Thank you thank you for this post. I just hope to find people who are just as chill as you are next year in college!!