I am almost 22 years old, about to graduate college, and I have never had a drink in my life. That fact of my life is often met with great misunderstanding and even skepticism. When I tell someone that I abstain from alcohol, it is often met with responses such as “you have had alcohol, you just don’t like it” or, before I turned 21, “that is just because you aren’t 21, and you will drink eventually.” However, these statements are both false. I made a deeply important personal decision ten years ago to never try alcohol, and I have never even remotely considered wavering from that decision.
Growing up, I could see the harm that alcohol and drugs have on lives. Addiction runs deep in my family, particularly on my dad’s side. I have even lost a family member due to an alcoholism-related suicide. With how strongly alcoholism runs in my family’s gene pool and the fact that I struggle to control myself around food (most times I cannot even wear t-shirts I get at Vanderbilt events because they do not have one big enough for me), I view it as possible, maybe even likely, that alcohol would destroy my life if I ever gave it the tiniest opening to do so. In middle school, no one took me seriously when I said I would never drink, but I knew I never would.
So many people don’t understand the concerns of non-drinkers. While this is not quite the case in Nashville (nor would it be applicable to me anymore), when I was 19, I was interning in Washington, D.C. and tried to go out for dinner on a weekend night. It seemed that every restaurant more expensive than fast-casual and less expensive than fine dining somehow called itself a “bar” and would not let me in for dinner, even at 6 p.m. I guarantee that the bouncer didn’t believe me when I said I was just wanting to eat dinner (and dismissively told me to go to the train station to find a restaurant I could eat in), but non-drinkers have almost come to expect that people will not understand us.
Now, in Nashville, most places where one could plausibly be going for dinner allow all ages to enter, but I still do not always feel understood when I’m not drinking. Being an Eagles fan, I went to a sports bar in Nashville that has come to be viewed as an Eagles’ bar to watch the Super Bowl. I watched the game sitting at the bar, eating food and drinking Diet Coke. Multiple times, people made comments to me about the fact that I wasn’t drinking, telling me that it was smart or that I was saving money. While those are compliments and were meant well, they do echo an unfortunate reality for non-drinkers–some of us do not want to stand out because we are drinking water or soda instead of alcohol. I wish that people would not be so surprised, almost not knowing how to react, at the idea of an adult (who is not a recovering alcoholic) totally abstaining from alcohol.
I know that my college experience has been very different than most because of my decision not to drink (or do drugs). I have never been to a Greek tailgate or party, for instance. I am actually an extrovert, but I have no interest in a wild party, so that puts me in a difficult situation sometimes. My passions tend to be going to sports games–you can find me in our football, basketball, or baseball stadiums whenever the Commodores are home-, watching sports on television, and being involved in politics (I go to several political conferences each year). I have met countless great friends through sports and politics, but the reality is that even those activities are generally associated with drinking in our culture. I would love to be able to go to a tailgate, eat way too much food, and hang out with my friends before a game, but tailgates seem to have become all about alcohol.
Tailgates are far from the only thing that has come to mean drinking in our society. It seems that every holiday or event is simply viewed as an excuse to drink. Sometimes, it almost seems like there is a necessity to drink to fit in. Why should Rites of Spring be inherently associated with alcohol? Why should the expected way to get to know your colleagues or even a date better be “going out for drinks”? Why should the 4th of July and New Year’s simply be excuses to party? Frankly, why should the word ‘party’ even relate to alcohol or drugs? Why can’t the biggest vices at parties be pizza and cake again? Why should “going to the beach” over Spring Break imply heavy drinking? There is so much more to do at any beach town.
Over my break, I went on a cruise with family, and on the boat, there were several hundred students on break from various colleges (mostly UNC-Charlotte). Most had no interest in enjoying what the boat had to offer other than alcohol or seeing any of the ports of call beyond their bars. I even heard anecdotes of behavior so rowdy that the ship threatened to pull some of their unlimited alcohol packages. When I was watching a basketball game with my family at a ship bar, a couple students started asking me why I wasn’t drinking, and I truly felt uncomfortable in telling the truth, so I said that I wasn’t drinking because I was with my family to avoid having to explain that I don’t drink.
Sometimes, I feel comfortable around drinking, but other times I do not–and it may not even be rational. I am very uncomfortable in a party setting, as it seems very out of control and like something bad could happen any second. Almost every time I have been in such a situation, I have quietly left. On the other hand, I feel perfectly fine in a bar or restaurant when most people are drinking (except for being a little self-conscious about not drinking myself). Nor does it bother me if a friend or a family member is having a drink while eating dinner or watching a game.
While I do feel that society would be better off if alcohol did not exist, I am rational enough to understand that alcohol will always be around, and I do not judge people who choose to drink responsibly. As an evangelical Christian, heavy drinking is against my religious views (not to mention that it clearly destroys so many lives), but I am not writing this piece to say that no one should drink. If someone candidly asked me my opinion, I would advise against heavy drinking and likely encourage total abstinence from alcohol and drugs, as it has worked for me. With that said, most of my friends drink at least some alcohol, and as long as we have things in common and enjoy spending time together, that does not impact our friendship as long as they respect my sobriety.
Ultimately, I know I have made the right choice for my life in choosing to not drink. Not only does alcohol make people do things they regret and is an expensive habit, but I think the chance is at least 50/50 that I would be struggling with addiction instead of about to graduate college if I had been a “normal” kid in my high school and at Vanderbilt and abused alcohol and drugs. I do worry about how people will view me, and I am self-conscious about it. Maybe not drinking is even one of the reasons why I am still single. But, I know that it was a decision I had to make to prevent my life from going down the path I have seen too many lives of people I care about go down.