Do I Have to Choose Between Nightlife and Adulthood?
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Do I Have to Choose Between Nightlife and Adulthood?

We're fearful of turning our back on clubland, so leaving it behind feels like conceding to old age, and accepting death.

This post ran originally on THUMP UK.

The morning after my last birthday party I woke with a different sort of hangover. After briefly opening them, pale September sunlight forced my eyes back shut, so I slid my hand blind across the bookshelf full of unread books next to my bed trying to locate my phone. It was nearly 3PM. The grey wealth of my new age hit me all at once. I was no longer eligible for "young person" discounts, no longer "doing well for my age," and crucially I was never going to be able to watch South Park ever again. I had turned 25.

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If you're of a certain age—anywhere north of 30—you're probably thinking: "25 isn't old, shut your mouth, you don't even remember Gatecrasher," or something, but I know I'm not alone in what I'm describing. There's a mid-twenties moment of complete, shuddering panic as you realize you are A) no longer a teenager and B) are going to die. Then comes the resentment of your current existence—a life that suddenly appears to be little more than a cloud of cigarette smoke, empty baggies, and toast-crumbs on duvet covers. Every not-yet-realized ambition you hold suddenly becomes an immediate priority.

You begin adding up the hours you've spent on massive nights out, and the slow, lingering, fruitless days that have followed them. You begin to imagine a parallel universe in which you'd never discovered drink, drugs, and Omar-S. You begin to imagine all the novels you'd have written, all the relationships you could have saved, all the people you could have been.

You'd assume that once I'd downed a pint of water and nipped to the shops for a bag of easy-peelers and a Boost bar I'd have gotten over myself, but far from it. In the months since I haven't been able to shake the idea that at some point in the approaching years something is going to have to give. That I'm going to be forced to choose between 5AM taxis to flats in Brockley and 8AM runs around Goose Green. It has produced a sort of existential dread, and one that I resent. After all, why should I reject Moodymann in favor of a poached eggs and trips to Homebase? Isn't it possible to lead a productive "adult life" and continue to cane it every weekend? I don't need to conform to some staid linear maturation. I'm going to live forever, aren't I?

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Seeking answers and validation I set about contacting other people a few years older than me, in order to ask how they navigated growing old in clubland. For the sake of their jobs, friends and families, everyone who contributed to this article has had their name changed for anonymity.

Photo via Flickr.

Abandoning nightlife isn't something we like to talk about. There's a romantic ideal that says "don't think about tomorrow" and most of us who party rely on this narrative pretty heavily in order to ignore the future. Yet the fact is truly carefree clubbing is a prestige of privilege. For the rest of us, proper hedonism is always going to be in a tussle with real life, and we all end up having to choose between the two at some point—whether that means deciding when to get a taxi home, or when to give up all together.

Ben was one of the first people to come forward when I asked for contributors on Twitter. Now in his 30s, having previously worked for years in music, he describes himself as someone who "suddenly, emphatically and irreconcilably" left the world of clubs and drugs behind. "I'd say the transition from 'pretend' to 'real' is one I'm familiar with," he told me over email.

Much of his decision was practical. "On a purely physical level, as someone in my 30s the comedowns are a non-negotiable by-product that makes these two worlds literally impossible to co-exist," he explained. "My job requires me to function at 7AM on a Monday morning. Non-negotiable." He also alluded to a more fundamental shift away from club culture—a chemical change that left him feeling incompatible with this world. "I last went out properly a few months ago to a festival I love, sincerely, surrounded by my favorite people and incredible music," Ben recalled. "I had a week off ahead of me and I took a lot of drugs—like, a lot, as if it were 3 years ago. But I couldn't get there. I was far too aware of myself. I had a good time, but it felt like a watershed. I'm done."

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There is a scientific edge to this. Things really do get less fun the more we do them, specifically pills. Professor Andy Parrott of Swansea University has written extensively about the long term effects of MDMA consumption, and how paradoxically the things we take to make us feel better often end up making us feel worse. He has found substantive empirical evidence for a chronic tolerance to MDMA, proving the efficacy of the drugs benefits lessen significantly over time. It's a model that can be applied to a night out—the first hit might send you flying but everything after that is just keeping you awake—or the entirety of your drug-taking career. Your first pill will likely always be a fond memory, but ten years later you risk them being little more jaw-breaking Smints.

Perhaps for some of us—like Ben—the same goes for clubland. Something that, over time, turns from something positive and enriching into something draining. Taking a double dose can simply increase the negative effects.

Photo via Flickr.

All things considered though, and bear with me here because there's a "radical thought" incoming, enjoying dance music doesn't have to involve narcotics. What we often mistake for a connection between drugs and nightclubs is in fact a connection between drugs and young people. Deciding that you're too old for the comedowns doesn't have to mean you're too old to go to a club, or too old for music.

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For my sins, I've always been a bit skeptical of "sober-ravers." It's probably just a form of self-loathing that I'm not capable of such restraint, but I just can't see myself at the front of an Eats Everything crowd, with a pair of neon sunglasses on, simply vibing off the energy. The thought of becoming the sort of person who piously drones on about "not needing it to have a good time," while dancing like a kid's TV presenter, makes me shudder.

That said, perhaps sober-clubbing doesn't have to involve a complete identity shift, complete with 9AM trips to "coffee raves." It's an unappealing alternative maybe, but a sustainable one, and one that works for a lot of people. Dan—33, in full-time employment and living with his girlfriend—explained to me that giving up on intoxicants has allowed him to continue his relationship with nightlife into his thirties. "Not being sober, pre-mid-twenties, seems like a different time—formative, but a time-and-place situation," he elaborated. "The key for me has been an intrinsic passion for the music. I can separate a night of listening to music from being a social outing with company and booze."

Admirable as it is, Dan's experience touches on the key complication of going sober, or of attempting to preserve your nightlife into adulthood at all. If you are fortunate enough to power through a night out on your love of the music alone then that's fantastic, but it's unlikely you will take many of your friends with you. This realization was hugely important to Finn—a 31 year old manager at a property startup in New York—who has found his relationship with the music at odds with his friends. "The same time that my friends started choosing wine and cheese bars over six pingers and a regrettable shag with a stranger, I started to realise how much I loved the music," he explains. "There was some realization in my late twenties that lots of the people I used to go out with just didn't actually like it that much, basically seeing it as an opportunity to try to pull, take loads of drugs, or take drugs and then pull."

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As a result of this divide, the number of big nights Finn gets in has dwindled significantly. "Disappointingly I would say I do go out less than I used to," he told me. "Not taking drugs and not having mates who want to go out means you sometimes have to go solo, and on a cold February night in New York that's not always that appealing!"

Photo via Flickr.

What we want then is moderation, if such a thing exists. We want to discover a sweet-spot that will allow us to treat big nights like passing interests, to come and go as we please without leaving anything of ourselves behind. But is that even possible?

Of the people I spoke to, only a couple claimed to have a completely no-strings attached relationship with nightlife, drink and drugs. "For me it was as easy as balancing a pint with friends or some wine over dinner," proclaimed Kate, aged 32 and working full-time. "I was able to study, get and hold down a good job and go out clubbing at the weekend, as well as leading a busy life away from raving." Which is great for her, but obviously if that was the case for everyone we'd be eating pingers for breakfast.

The most regular response sat somewhere between sober raving and giving up on nightlife completely, in a grey-area probably best labelled "everything in moderation, including moderation." Stuart—a home-owning single 33 year old who works in marketing—probably best embodies this. "House every weekend really isn't a sustainable way of life any more. These days, it's more like house every month, or at a stretch, every other weekend," he admits.

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As Stuart sees it, his time in clubland isn't coming to an end anytime soon and realistically neither is his relationship with recreational drugs. As such he's established a loose set of principles to keep himself in check. "Adapting your game means you can eke out quite a few more years of your clubbing career," he elaborated. "Picking your nights and swerving the sesh definitely helps. Also, trade in the pingers for an occasional dab—it's easier to regulate and you'll sleep much better."

Stuart added one interesting detail about his clubland career. When I asked how his relationship with nightlife had changed over the years, he described it in terms of peaks and troughs. "I had a long stretch of not going out much from about 2010 to 2014 when I was settled down, cohabiting with my then-girlfriend," he remembered. "I got really bored. We got into the routine of going to the pub on a Friday night and then getting a curry or Chinese takeaway and watching the X-Factor. I used to look at line-ups and think "why aren't I at this?" a lot."

Maybe then, as opposed to cutting ties indefinitely, we instead need fallow periods, breaks away from the weekenders in order to get our heads straight. Stuart continues, "I think my early 30s has probably been my favorite time to be going out—I think there's a bit of a tendency to get terribly jaded with going to clubs during your mid to late 20s. But I've found that having more 'heavy' stuff to deal with in life actually gives the whole enterprise of going out and getting on it renewed meaning."

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While collecting insights for this article I was contacted by Sara. She's turning 53 this year, has two children—14 and 17—with a previous partner and runs a small print management business from home. Alongside her husband she has been on three trips to Ibiza in the last couple of years, and goes clubbing between once and three times a month all over London—from Phonox, to Ministry, to Fire. Sara is more than twice my age, and she goes out more than I do. "I'm really happy with the level of partying I do, and we even have parties at home too in between the clubbing out," she tells me. "Our friends wonder where we get the energy but for us it is almost a necessity. I love to mingle and talk to people, and clubbing is perfect for that."

I ask Sara, does she think it's possible to enjoy both an productive adult life and continue to go out clubbing—including class A's, which she describes as having "always been a part of [her] clubbing experience?"

"Having a productive adult life is actually an advantage," she replies. "Having children, adult responsibilities and a full time job grounds me. I know that the weekend has to come to an end, and that I can't just carry on and on. It enriches my life and I'll carry on as long as I feel comfortable doing it."

Photo via Flickr.

Sara's experience—while edging dangerously close to "inspirational story goes viral on Facebook" territory—does offer a vision for a nighttime future past 30. It proves that for some people nightclubs can remain positive places; that it's possible to grow with the experience and not just find yourself emptily trying to recreate the magic of what-once-was. It's a semblance of hope that if you are in this for the right reasons then it won't be a struggle. That there are new things to experience and that you will find a way to carry on because the alternative is too boring.

What's become clear though is that this is a conversation about drink and drugs as much as it is about club culture. It's worth noting that most DJs seem to fall into two distinct categories. There are those whose careers are simply long, unending benders, punctuated by brief stops at the Mixmag Lab or naps on Croatian beaches, and there are others who drink green tea behind the decks and practice Theravada Buddhism. It makes sense, partying can be a cycle—a dangerous one if you're not careful—and if we don't face that reality at some point, we risk being forced to address it against our will, somewhere north of 40, in a K-hole, at Reading Festival 2034.

Trouble is, confessing to not wanting to go out and get fucked is almost like admitting defeat in some way. Speak to anyone who tried giving up booze this January, and they'll likely tell you how many of their friends told them to "shut the fuck up and buy a drink" every single time it came up. We're fearful of turning our back on clubland—it's a playground of the young, so leaving it behind feels like conceding to old age, and accepting death. There can be no life after nightlife. Only, as painful as it is to admit, if you try and make the past last beyond its natural lifespan it will turn bad and cold. At first drugs are going to make you feel good, but then they are going to make you feel shitty. Like all good fruit, memories rot.

The range of experiences exhibited by people who contributed to this article is totally varied. Some had to turn their back on clubland altogether, some still go in as hard as they ever did, and the rest seem to be making it up as they go along. Yet they all touched on the same essential questions: why am I doing this, and how long can I keep doing it for? If the answer to the first question is "pills" then the answer to the second question is probably "not for long," but if the prize at stake is something more than that, then getting old doesn't have to spell the end.

Whether it means swapping Carl Cox for Brian Cox, or gurning your gums red into your late-sixties at eternal installments of the BangFace Weekender—better to hold on to what's real and be at peace with letting the rest go.

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