What It's Really Like to Stay Sober in College
When you think about the stereotypical American college experience, perhaps you envision a kegger full of wildly drunken frat bros who are celebrating despite accumulating crippling student debt. For many, binge-drinking is integral to the college experience, and movies like Animal House have reinforced that idea. I certainly embraced it when I was in college—I fluctuated between being desperately drunk and painfully hungover, the human embodiment of a cry for help. And for the most part, nobody batted an eye at my behavior. Everyone was messy, and booze felt like a requirement to socialize. Parties were fueled by alcohol, blacking out was considered cool—or at least funny—and getting wasted all the time seemed like a normal part of the college experience.
This isn’t purely anecdotal—most American college students drink. According to the National Institutes of Health, 60 percent of 18-to-22-year-old college students said they consumed alcohol in the past month, and almost two out of three of those who drank said they engaged in binge drinking. Alcohol is so central to the college experience that deciding not to drink can be a radical act—it means coming to terms with the downside of drinking culture in one way or another.
Worldwide trends suggest drinking among young people is on the decline. A 2014 Australian study found that teen alcohol consumption in the country “reached its lowest point since the early 1960s, having declined steadily since the mid-2000s.” And a study from the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration found that between 2002 and 2013, the percentage of Americans between the ages of 12 and 20 who drank or binge-drank sharply declined. Beyond the stats, there is evidence that the sober lifestyle is catching on: nightclubs where no one drinks, non-alcoholic spirits, even bars that don't sell booze.
The kids helping fuel this trend aren't all addicts. Some seem naturally disinclined to drink, like Alexander, a current college junior. "I find alcohol existentially terrifying,” he told me over the phone. (To allow my interviewees free rein to speak honestly about their experiences with alcohol, I am referring to them by their first names only.) “People enjoy it, because it it turns them into a different person. But I've always had issues with whether I like being who I am.” He mostly avoids the many campus parties with “copious amounts of alcohol” and organizes a weekly board game night on Fridays, a dry event that’s “marketed as an option for people who don't want to go drinking every Friday.”
For a lot of students—excited by their newfound freedom, nervous about being surrounded by strangers, and stressed by being on their own for the first time—alcohol isn't terrifying, but alluring. Phoebe, a sophomore, told me she quit because she went way too hard with her drinking during her freshman year. “I was binge-drinking a lot, and obviously not doing my homework and things that I should’ve been doing. Instead I was pouring myself a gin and tonic nightly to cope with the stress,” she explained to me over the phone.
Elena, a 2016 graduate, told me that when she first got to college, “everyone thought I was the life of the party but I was fucking miserable.” She said she started drinking in high school to cope with the death of her brother, whose body she discovered. By the second semester of her freshman year, she started going out every night. “Our main goal was to blackout. You didn't make it unless you were the drunkest, YOLO,” she told me. Her grades fell, and she moved back home to attend community college. “My family kind of accepted it because everybody was like, 'Oh well that's your age. You're almost 21. You'll grow out of it eventually.' There was no growing out of it when it was just literally me drinking Four Lokos alone in my bedroom.”
Especially in college, where excessive drinking is so normalized, the line between partying and life-threatening addiction can be blurry. “I’m terrified alcohol would take my life away,” Jonah Beleckis wrote in an op-ed when he was a senior at the University of Wisconsin–Madison, which is a notorious party school. “Addiction is in my blood. It etches a death threat in my mirror every Friday night, warning me what might come.” The anxiety of “if I get started am I going to be able to control it?” prevented him from participating in UW-Madison’s drinking culture, Beleckis told me over the phone. “At first I was really mad and judgmental at people who drank,” he said. “This thing ruins families, it ruins lives, how could you celebrate it so much? It took a process of growth for me to be able to say, ‘I care about this person but it’s OK that they want to go out and drink.’”
The decision not to drink can be difficult. Phoebe only stopped drinking after her parents threatened to stop paying for her schooling this summer. But especially when everyone around you is still binge-drinking, transitioning to being alcohol-free can be complicated. Not drinking hasn’t stopped Phoebe from going to parties, but it has changed her social life. “It’s hard because I’ll hang out with my friends and they’ll be drinking, or I’ll go to a party with a friend, and people are chugging those cheap beers, awful cheap boxed wine as well, and I just have to tell myself, ‘Alcohol doesn’t taste good,’” she said. “But genuinely, it’s so great waking up in the morning—knowing going to bed that when I wake up in the morning I’m actually going to be able to function and knowing that I am safer and I’m not going to put myself in dangerous situations.”
Beleckis is at the point where he's comfortable going to parties without drinking. “People are so generous,” he said. “If we’re at a bar and [a friend is] gonna go up and get another drink, they’re always like, ‘Hey do you want a water?’ ‘Hey do you want a soda?’ People checking on me makes it easier.”
Students who struggle with alcohol and can't find a way to escape it can see their academic careers become derailed. Erin, a 33-year-old current college student, has been sober since 2014. But when she went to initially college directly after high school, she drank to her detriment. “There was a lot of drinking, there was definitely a lot of drugs, there was a lot of Adderall happening, smoking and that kind of thing,” she told me. “I was dealing with depression and just a ton of teen angst, going to class and doing my homework was the absolute last thing on my list of things to do.”
She dropped out when she was 21, and her drinking progressed in the years after that. But after Erin got sober, she made the decision to finish her degree. “I was in a total panic when I began taking my first class, but I ended up doing really well,” she said. “It’s just kind of mind-blowing. It’s like a 180 from what my life was like before... School can be really isolating, but there’s so many people around you that feel the same way and just sharing what you’re feeling can be so liberating for you and so many other people."
After two stints in rehab, Elena graduated in 2016, and is currently pursuing her masters in social work. “College kids should know you don't have to live up to the hype or the stereotype of what a college kid is supposed to be like,” she said. “Not everybody in college binge-drinks or gets fucked up all the time.”
Beleckis agreed. “Alcoholism is so normalized, but I know that there are so many people out there who made similar decisions to me,” he said. “Finding those people and knowing your own limits is so important."
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