Giving up Alcohol in Your Early Twenties: My Story
An honest account of breaking free from drinking culture and embracing sobriety as a student who never wanted the party to end
If you’d have told fresh-faced, eighteen year-old me that at twenty-two I would be writing an article for public consumption under this headline, I would have laughed in your face and taken a big swig of my G&T at such a ludicrous suggestion. And yet, here I am, having felt inclined to put pen to paper on this subject for months, the reasons leading up to which I will discuss below.
It seems to me as if there is a subtle stirring amongst our generation. A stirring that seeks to emerge from the seemingly unavoidable “drinking culture” that a vast majority of us are sucked into, often without realising it. Chances are that if you’re reading this, you must have at least a subtle curiosity about life on the other side of that £4 bottle of rosé. If that is the case, then welcome. I’m so glad you’re here.
I could examine this topic from five hundred different angles. The very nature of drinking culture feeds off countless influences; the social, the psychological, the biological. But I’ll save all these topics for a later date. I feel oddly selfish saying this, but for now I am going to write about myself. I’m doing so in the hope that my story may resonate with some of you in the sense that it doesn’t necessarily take a catastrophic breakdown to be the catalyst for change, and that ditching the booze isn't just a new year's resolution for middle-aged mums.
In actual fact, it may simply be a small sense of unease that rears its head the morning after a fabulous night. It may be that hangover headache that lasted a few hours too long, that venture a bit too deep into your overdraft, the one too many drunk texts from the night before. And yet despite it all, I found myself getting drawn back into alcohol’s sticky grasp over and over again, without ever really considering the alternative. Sound familiar?
It seemed as though the very moment I set foot in my university halls of residence at eighteen, alcohol was both metaphorically and physically being shoved in my face from all angles. As someone who had never even mixed her own drink, I found myself conjuring up all sorts of abhorrent concoctions with people I barely knew, desperately trying to keep up with the pace of this frenzied new lifestyle.
Time went by, and this way of life became the norm for not only myself, but almost every other university student I knew. It seemed as if choosing not to drink was a one-way ticket to being rendered a nobody, which was a terrifying prospect in a time when we were all so desperate to make friends.
I became lost in the chaos of it all; something which initially had all seemed so new and exciting. Pre-drinks that lasted for hours on end; pounding the streets of the city's student suburb screeching the lyrics to "Come on Eileen"; post-club trips to the local kebab shop with your equally hammered housemates… It’s not hard to see why these little rituals, socially binding in many ways, became so addictive. Somehow, I think it never really is about the alcohol itself, it’s about the appeal of spontaneity in such a structured modern world.
Admittedly, drinking did give me some wonderful highs (as illustrated by my somewhat cringe-worthy Instagram feed). But hand-in-hand with these came truly terrible, humiliating and scary lows (partly illustrated by my questionable Snapchat stories). For me, these came primarily in the form of health scares. I could sense that my liver had well and truly had enough, yet I wasn’t prepared to accept it until it was almost too late. Earth-shattering migraines, hours of intense nausea, extreme dehydration and shocking memory loss were worryingly normalised, if not celebrated. It truly felt like the more “off your face” you were, the more of a legend you became. This continued for the best part of four years of my student life, until the lows began to alarmingly outweigh the highs.
The Last Straw
Sat in my friend's front room watching Gavin and Stacey, I suddenly felt a surge of panic.
It was New Year’s Day 2019. We had just finished a stereotypical hangover breakfast, and were now rooted in front of the television under blankets, groggily trying to piece together the night before. Having already been awake for a good few hours, I felt sure that my hangover was being cured by the second. I was enjoying the prospect of a whole day recovering chilling with my friend, as you do after a particularly heavy one. You all know the drill.
I suddenly felt an urge of panic. My heart rate sped up, and clamminess soon followed. Worryingly out of breath, I lurched up off the sofa and hastily mumbled that I was going upstairs to lie down. Once upstairs, the sensations intensified, and thoughts raced through my head. Is this because of the red bull in all those jaeger bombs? Have I given myself alcohol poisoning? These thoughts were fuel to the fire, and I felt worse by the second. My skin, now grey, rendered me almost unrecognisable in the mirror, and I was struggling to breathe. Unlike any hangover symptom I had ever experienced before, I distinctly remember thinking: “I’m going to have to call an ambulance. I feel like I’m dying”.
I am almost certain that what I experienced was my first panic attack. Alcohol-induced or not, I cannot be sure. But boy, was it a slap in the face. Whilst thankfully those sensations subsided, I was terrified of something similar (or worse) happening again. It was like shining a spotlight on the drunken and hungover experiences that my brain had tried to push into the “don’t do this again” drawer, but until then, had failed. The journeys home from nights out on the tube which I would spend hysterically crying to the point where strangers would offer me water (yes, Londoners actually talking to one another, that’s how you know it was bad); the sharp chest pains I experienced after my graduation ball (sponsored by prosecco, of course) that led me to make an emergency doctor’s appointment the following morning; the time my friend and I were mistaken for homeless people outside Farringdon station… To name but a few. There these memories lay, all exposed for the humiliating and anxiety-provoking situations that they were.
“I’m never drinking again”, I had joked with my friends, countless times before.
But this time, that was it. I’d well and truly had enough.
The decision was gently made. As soon as the thought of going sober entered my head, I felt a sense of relief that I struggle to describe even today. The best way I can articulate it is that it felt like my body and mind were giving a sign of genuine, long-anticipated relief.
Gently Does It
As you can see, my decision to give up drinking was essentially a result of a series of rather unfortunate events. Saying that, I count myself lucky in that I never suffered the true burden of addiction like so many, and that my sobriety was a choice rather than a necessity. However, it is a choice that I have not yet looked back from.
If my experiences have resonated with you even in the tiniest of ways, please join me on this literary journey that I’m about to embark on (fuelled by coffee, of course). In my upcoming articles, I have much to explore with you all, including the trials and tribulations of my first year alcohol-free. This piece has been but a small introduction into a plethora of issues that I feel young people like myself really need to hear.
How can we navigate sobriety as a twenty-something student or young professional whilst maintaining our social life? How can we trust our instincts and decide when enough is enough? Can we truly harness that natural inner confidence on sober nights out? Can mocktails be our new companion on the dating scene?
I would like to build on the words of my friend, mindset coach and speaker Africa Brooke in that sobriety is indeed rebellious, and can actually render you a somebody in a society that glorifies alcohol in telling us otherwise. Through discussing my experiences of sobriety on mental health, socialising and dating in my early twenties, I hope to demonstrate that none of these things need to be put on hold in exchange for a sober life. I want to articulate that above all, being young, fun and sober is not only possible, but may be one of the best decisions you ever make.