But the evening defied her expectations: “It was probably the most fun I’d had on a night out,” she says, adding that she felt like she had unlimited energy to dance and talk to new people.
The sober night out was radically different to her usual experience. On a heavy night out, she’d often end up curled up with her head on her knees, waiting for her friends to call a taxi. The enjoyment she got from partying sober inspired a gradual switch to semi-permanent sobriety.
Abi’s initially fearful reaction to the thought of going clubbing without the social lubrication of alcohol is pretty relatable. I spent the summer of 2021 either drunk or hungover, and attempting a sober night out felt like an intimidatingly big deal. But being in the crowded, loud darkness of a club in a non-inebriated state was – strangely – one of the most exhilarating experiences I’ve had in a long time.
Abi and I aren’t the only lucid ones on the dance floor. According to a 2021 study by UCL, 91.5 percent of 18-29-year-olds who were drinking heavily a year ago have reported a decrease in their drinking. And the booming non-alcoholic drinks market reflects this gentle drift away from drinking – Fior Markets predicts that by 2028 the industry will be worth $1.7 trillion.
Abi. Photo: Supplied by interviewee
“I immediately just thought, wow, that isn’t for me,” says Ben, 24, from Wiltshire. He had his first sip of cider at a house party when he was 14 and hated the taste, but that hasn’t stopped him from clubbing – he’s obsessed with electronic and drum and bass music and has travelled to venues all over the UK as well as festivals in Belgium and Croatia.
At 18, he became his own designated driver, and goes to events around once a week. Going clubbing is all about finding a line up he actually likes the look of – “that’s the key incentive for me to go out,” he says.
The most surprising thing about Ben’s story is that he hasn’t experienced much peer pressure to drink. “People just accepted it,” he tells me. “Which was lucky, because, at that age, peer pressure can get to you.”
Shefali, 29, knows this all too well, when she experienced a high-pressure drinking culture when she began university. She’d go on nights out with her friends, and even after realising that she preferred to go clubbing without drinking, she found it hard to completely give up alcohol.
Ben. Photo: Supplied by interviewee
“If friends have seen you drink on occasion but you decide to go sober, they will ask you why you’re not drinking,” she says. “People find it difficult to understand that it doesn’t suit everyone.”
It’s something I know all too well. On my first post-lockdown night out in July 2020, I returned home to my parents’ house completely wasted and had to get my dad to guide me upstairs and put me to bed. It was my friend’s fault, I remember saying – “we were doing rounds and she can drink so much more than me!” He looked me in the eye and deadpanned: “The word ‘no’ does exist.”
Shefali. Photo: Supplied by interviewee
When it comes to drinking, it’s part of British culture to not be a spoilsport and join in. Shefali describes the difficult-to-deflect encouragement she received from peers: “Who’s going to be the last one standing with me, who’s going to help me finish the bottle?”
Now she’s older, she finds it easier to embrace her sobriety. “Being sober, I feel more in control of my night out,” she says. “I can shed enough inhibitions but still stay in my comfort zone. I can get away with being my goofy self without needing alcohol to do so.”
Ruby Warrington is the author of Sober Curious, a book about rethinking our relationship with alcohol, and the major benefits that can come from doing so. When it comes to peer pressure, she says, “The most empowered move is to positively own your choice.”
Warrington continues: “Stay connected to all the reasons you're choosing to party sober, and if anybody has a problem with this, remember you don't owe them an explanation or an apology. Treat it like an experiment – and expect to have fun!”
What other things might surprise those who are partying sober for the first time? “If you're used to drinking when you go clubbing, being in that environment when sober can be its own altered state. You may find you can feel the music more, and that you feel overall more connected to the people you're with. Waking up with all your memories intact and no hangover is also a win-win!”
Abi's tactic for a dry night out is to have a special drink that you reserve for those occasions; hers was Diet Coke: “I began to crave Diet Coke during lockdown when I didn’t have my usual post-work hit on a Friday night.” I’d would also recommend putting more effort into other areas of the night – like dressing up – to get you in the right mood.
But, as Ben puts it, needing to hit the bottle might be a sign you’re not actually enjoying yourself that much. “Just give it a try. It might open a doorway for you,” he says. “If you’re with the right people, there’s no reason at all that you can’t have fun sober.”