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.

If you decide you don’t want to drink and are worried about or anticipating some strange situations, here are some tips and warnings, and a few ways I’ve handled it that might work for you, too.

People might think you’re judging them.
Some people will take it personally that you’re not doing keg stands, or they’ll apologize repeatedly for having a beer in your presence, even if you don’t notice or care. In my experience, the worst offenders were the guys who’d continually pour me beers—going as far as putting the drinks in my hand—despite the fact that I’d already politely declined. I realized very quickly that a person’s reaction to my not drinking said a hell of a lot more about them than it did about me. The upside of these experiences is that I developed a pretty decent people filter. If someone couldn’t get over the fact I was drinking a Sprite, I realized they were probably just projecting their own discomfort onto me, which made it easy to ignore them. I had plenty of close friends who drank—I just stuck to the ones who didn’t judge me.

You don’t always have to explain yourself.
By far the most annoying part of being sober was continually explaining myself to new acquaintances when they asked, “WHY don’t you drink?” Sometimes I told the truth, which was a downer in a party atmosphere or TMI for a stranger. For a while, I lied. I’d fabricate what was wrong with me, from the innocuous stomach bug to telling people I was pregnant. It finally occurred to me I could just turn down the beverage without explanation, or say, “I’ve got a drink, but thanks!” Most people are too focused on flirting with the object of their desire or getting the DJ to play their favorite song to notice how much alcohol you’re not drinking anyway, so don’t feel the need to explain.

You can be playful with drunk people.
Being the only sober person can actually be really entertaining. When I was bored at parties, I amused myself by making up outlandish lies about my life—I once convinced a bunch of drunk underclassmen that my family was in the Mafia by cribbing from the plot of The Godfather. If you’re going to be a fabulist, just don’t be mean about it. It’s one thing to tell obviously invented stories about yourself, and it’s another to callously taunt someone too compromised to notice.

Those wild, drunken nights might not have been as wild as your friends thought they were.
I did sometimes feel left out as a non-drinker, but strangely this feeling didn’t hit me until after a hangout was over, when I heard stories about my friends’ hilarious antics at some bar or party. But after I got my inner sadsack to stop whimpering, “WHYYY do I miss EVVVERYTHING?” I realized that I had actually witnessed a lot of these capers unfold, I just remembered them differently because I was sober! For every epic story about dancing all night or getting into a fight on the street, I remembered dancing a little bit between long stretches of boredom and being really frightened someone would get seriously injured or arrested. My friends recalled their drunk antics through the gorgeously art-directed slo-mo lens of drunkenness, while I saw it in fluorescently lit real time. Drinking made people remember things as much more mythic than they’d actually been, and so they indulge in a little hyperbole after the fact.

You’ll (almost) never be that girl screaming into her phone or yelling at her friends and crying at the end of the night.
One upside to sobriety: There’s a lot less unnecessary conflict. Which isn’t to say that arguments never come up—just that there are fewer of them and they’re easier to navigate without beer goggles.

It won’t hurt your dating life.
I didn’t have alcohol to grease the wheels of social interaction, but it turned out that the guys I liked didn’t care. During my senior year of high school, I went out with a guy a few times who got very tipsy at a party he’d invited me to. He spent most of the night apologizing for getting drunk (see point 1 about people thinking you are judging them). I later found out from a mutual friend that he didn’t like me and thought getting drunk would make me lose interest in him. He could have just told me and saved the drinking for a better reason.

You probably won’t spend as much when you go out.
Thanks to a couple of sips from insistent classmates one time, I knew that cheap beer tasted pretty gross, and the better stuff could cost $5 a pint or more, which adds up. I was completely broke in college, so it was nice to avoid the stress of finding enough money to go to the bar on top of all my other expenses. (Water is free, y’all! But be nice and tip the bartender for that water.) Plus, I always had money for my favorite foods instead.

You can think clearly in a crisis.
My senior year, a good friend got REALLY DRUNK. She puked in my car and then lost consciousness while she continued throwing up, so I knew she needed more than just a good night’s sleep. I drove her to the hospital, and when the nurses wouldn’t let me see her I waited alone in the ER until dawn, when they came out to tell me they’d pumped her stomach. Most nights of drinking won’t end this way, of course, but it was terrifying, and I’ve never been happier to be sober and able to drive.

You can always change your mind.
You can always decide that you DO want to drink. People change—I did! In my mid-20s I started having the occasional glass of wine with dinner. My original attitude about alcohol led me to stay away from it altogether, because I thought it was an effective way for people to avoid painful feelings and escape their insecurities, but in my adult life, I never saw those red Solo cups or kegs anymore. The social pressure to binge drink had dissipated; my friends would have a couple of drinks and that was it. Having at last seen a spectrum of drinking habits, I realized that healthy moderation is possible, and that having one drink is actually nice once in a while. It wasn’t always easy going against the grain, but I’m glad I stuck to my convictions about choosing not to drink during my high school and college years; otherwise I don’t think I could be this sane about drinking now. ♦

* Some names have been changed.

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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!!