University and Sobriety: An Introvert’s Account
It’s difficult to discuss university and the lifestyle that comes with it without mentioning alcohol. From the pub crawls and sticky dance floors, to £1 vodka shots during Freshers week, university can feel like a lonely place if you’re more familiar with lemonade than liquor. We spoke to Alice Porter -a final year student at the University of Manchester- to discuss her journey to sobriety and the hurdles that came with it …
“Most pre-drinks during my first year of university began with a few questions, “What are you studying?”, “Where are you from?” and “What are you drinking?” No matter how much the Students Union’s once-a-month movie nights try to suggest otherwise, drinking is a huge part of university, and a part that I really struggled with.
Not long before I started my first year at university, alcohol started to make me really unwell, despite never having a problem with it before. And I don’t mean a hangover that can be cured by a full English-unwell. I mean being violently sick and feeling the effects for at least a few days after a drunken night. This began in the December before I left for university and during the next 8 months, things only got worse, meaning that even after only a couple of drinks, I would become really ill.
But starting university, this wasn’t enough to throw me off drinking completely. I still drank through my Fresher’s week, granted, I didn’t go out every night, but enough for no one to question it. I carried on drinking and going out regularly for the first two months of university, despite feeling the effects of it mentally and physically.
(Side note: the doctors didn’t and still don’t know what causes my alcohol-induced sickness. I think it might all be tied in with my anxiety as well as some physical health issues I’ve dealt with, but I’ll probably never know for sure.)
Anyway, after these two months of desperately trying to fit in to this alcohol-obsessed world of students, my mental health worsened significantly, as did my physical health, as I was now becoming really unwell after only one drink. I got some counselling but I still didn’t take the obvious and necessary step of giving up drinking. I’d only known my university friends for two months, that was enough time for them to abandon me if I gave up the only thing that united everyone we knew, I thought.
Instead, I ended up going home more often, because I felt like that was the only option, other than dropping out, which I considered many times throughout my university experience.
My first year, in summary, was spent going home at least every other weekend without admitting to myself that the university drinking lifestyle wasn’t for me, making other excuses instead, because I couldn’t deal with the shame, the isolation and the explanations.
Because the explanations are the worst part. “What are you drinking?” “Oh, I’m not. It’s just lemonade.” “What, why? Are you ok? Do you want some of mine? You don’t drink, what why? That’s so weird!” These are the reactions I am often met with, and the worst part is, no one wants to hear the explanations. Nothing lowers the mood of a night out quite like someone talking about how ill drinking makes them.
I spent my summer at home and despite all of this, I wasn’t dreading going back to university. I had some really good friends there, I liked my course and I was moving out of halls and into a house. I was really optimistic!
But upon arriving back to the student area and saying goodbye to my family, I had a breakdown. My anxiety was suddenly at the worst it had ever been: I couldn’t eat or sleep and I was crying and having panic attacks all the time. After a week of this, I finally realised that I couldn’t do another year of pretending to be someone that I wasn’t and wasting my time doing things that I didn’t enjoy. So I didn’t.
“Relaxing and being by myself and with my friends in a non-drinking environment is what I like doing. I’m a true introvert”
My best friend from home who studies in Liverpool came to see me at the end of this week from hell and we made the decision to move in together and get a flat of our own in Liverpool for our final year of university (for context: I go to university in Manchester and my family home is around 40 minutes out of Liverpool, so too far to commute).
Yes, this was a year away from where I was at at the time but knowing that I was going to be living with someone who knew what I was going through and respected my decision not to drink alcohol was such a relief, even if moving out of my university city was a weird decision to others.
To get me through the rest of the year, I finally made the decision to stop drinking. I explained to my friends what I had been going through and I pretty much stopped going out altogether, because I wasn’t in a position with my mental health to go out sober at that point.
I’m fortunate enough to live fairly close to home, so I went home most weekends and spent time with my boyfriend, family and friends. When I was at university during the week I got into a routine of spending time with my university friends during the day, and sometimes into the evenings, and having super relaxing nights, going to bed early (ear plugs were necessary) and binge-watching Netflix series (Jane The Virgin saved my life, or at least my degree).
And you know what, I had a really good year, even if I didn’t spend it in the way that most of my peers did and even if this does sound dull and boring to most people. Relaxing and being by myself and with my friends in a non-drinking environment is what I like doing. I’m a true introvert.
Of course, there were really difficult times and of course, it would have been better if I realized in first year that the student lifestyle wasn’t for me, but I made it work and I didn’t drop out and it wasn’t bad at all.
It’s now the beginning of my third year and I’ve moved into my new flat in Liverpool with my best friend. We’ve spent time and money decorating it, we’re both clean-freaks so there’s going to be no mouldy dishes anywhere and the only thing we have planned for Fresher’s week together is binge-watching Glee
But the good thing is, I’m now at a point where I am comfortable if we were to go out, ok more to the pub than a club, but I can enjoy the latter if I’m with people I know, even completely sober.
I want to tell you that not drinking alcohol at university is easy, but it isn’t and telling you that isn’t helpful. Because then you might just fall into the same trap I did, and although I’m in a great position now, I could have been in this position last year if I was honest with myself earlier.
So that’s what you need to do: be honest with yourself, with your flatmates, with your family and everyone close to you. If you don’t want to drink but are still comfortable going out, tell your new flatmates and friends that from the get-go. If you don’t want to drink orgo out, explain that to them and suggest other things that you can do together, like exploring your new city, going out for brunch and checking out the events your Students Union is holding (the movie nights are actually fun, even if I made a dig at them earlier).
And if you aren’t enjoying living within that student drinking culture, remember you don’t have to, you can move home if that’s convenient for you (and moving home is not giving up or being defeated, it’s a decision just like all other accommodation choices are). Otherwise, you could live on your own, or with non-students. Or you can find other students who don’t drink (societies that don’t revolve around drinking are a great one for this) and live with them!
But whatever you do, just remember that you don’t owe anyone an explanation for your choices, whatever your reason for not drinking is. And anyone who demands one or resents you for not giving them one is not somebody who should be in your life, so think of it as a method of weeding out the bad eggs.
Not drinking alcohol at university is hard. But like all difficult moments in life, it has taught me so much about myself; it’s showed me who my friends are (and I have a lot of really great ones), it’s helped me be confident in doing my own thing and it’s made me love my time alone. Maybe, it’s even taught me how to love and respect myself.”
Alice Porter is a final year English Literature student at the University of Manchester. She blogs about her student experiences along with lots of other thoughts and musings at wordsbyalice.com. She also writes about fashion and shares her outfits, film photography and her cat on Instagram @alicemayporter.