Bristol, England — I never went to a party in high school. This wasn’t because I didn’t have any friends, I did, but my idea of a good time involved watching movies, having sleepovers, or reading. Not exactly first-choice-for-a-party-invite material. I wasn’t exactly shy or quiet, but compared to the cool kids I never felt like I had much to share on Monday mornings as everyone rehashed the weekend’s adventures for all to overhear. My friends and I hung out at the mall, went out to dinner, attended concerts, normal stuff really.
My best friend’s mom was one of those people who thought it was better that her kids drink under her roof where she could keep a watchful eye. She would buy us coolers and we’d sit in my friend’s room drinking, talking, listening to music. But beyond that and the odd underage cocktail at a restaurant, I wasn’t really interested in drinking.
Perhaps it’s because alcoholism ran in my family and I saw the damage it could do or maybe I was simply too scared to get in trouble. Whatever the reason, I felt like an outsider as kids bragged about getting wasted on the weekend. I’d kind of smile and nod, knowing I had to in order to fit in. I needed an escape as badly as these kids. I was just as bored. But I found it in different ways: reading books set in faraway places, writing poetry, having the-meaning-of-life conversations with my friends. And, yes, I was quite judgemental if not also slightly jealous. Even my closest friends had other friends they partied with. I was always everyone’s serious friend. I felt older than my years and lonelier, too.
The prevailing high school culture set out a rigid set of activities you could do in order to be cool: drink, do drugs, have sex. I wasn’t doing any of those other things and it wasn’t always for a lack of trying. Some of it just didn’t feel like me. Other times, it was because no one asked. I often felt that I was on the outside looking in. Watching other kids play high school. Luckily as I got older I found my people. People who had a drink every now and again, but whose main goal every weekend wasn’t to drink into obliteration. I would soon find out they weren’t the norm either.
As a young adult, it got more and more awkward answering why I wasn’t drinking when I was in a club or bar. One New Year’s Eve, my best friend and I were going to hang out with some of her other friends. We agreed beforehand that we wouldn’t drink. We weren’t legal yet and I just wanted to have fun without alcohol. My friend gave in the second her older friends offered her a drink. I called my mom to pick me up because I felt uncomfortable. I didn’t understand why alcohol was necessary for other people to have a good time.
I guess I was “sober curious” before the moniker existed. This movement, predicated on the idea of being mindful about why you want to have a drink, felt like a sigh of relief when it went mainstream a few years ago. I’ve marched to the beat of my own drum from an early age so as much as I wanted to fit in, I also wanted to be true to myself. Drinking when I wanted to, not because I felt pressured to felt like the right thing for me. I felt vindicated when this movement became more visible and other people were questioning their relationship to alcohol while also unpacking its role in society.
I look back at my younger self and I wish she was more comfortable being the weird one. I’m so happy for the youth today because drinking culture isn’t what it used to. They seem more sensible and willing to buck trends in favor of doing what they want. In the United Kingdom, 23% of adults aged 18-24 are choosing to abstain from drinking altogether. Initiatives like Dry January are helping question the role of alcohol in everyday life and with the rise in low and no-alcohol alternatives that are just as tasty people have more options than ever before. Options I wish were available to me when I was younger. It would have saved me a lot of self-doubts if I could have ordered a non-alcoholic gin and tonic with no one batting an eye or if the culture itself didn’t make it so that I felt I had to justify every time I didn't drink. If I could have just been accepted for who I was.
Young people are toying with the idea of sobriety for a myriad of reasons. We may want to get healthier or spend less money. The great thing is that the culture has shifted so much that people no longer need to justify their decisions. I think that’s something to cheers about.