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Sober in St Andrews: Students Reflect on an Alcohol-free Social Life

The start of university brings with it newfound independence and freedom, and with it, a fresh set of personal predicaments. Not only does the newly crowned ‘fresher’ have to grapple with being away from family and friends –– often for the first time –– but the dawn of a new social life. And then there is the question of how to deal with a central component of it: alcohol.

On the three streets of St Andrews, alcohol is often associated with being social altogether: creating an inextricable link between ‘going out’ and drinking. Whether it’s before a night out at the Vic, the Student Union, or the gamut of other events on campus, there is probably a discussion of a ‘pregame’ and how to most efficiently catch a buzz on the cheap. And this isn’t just St Andrews-centric. It is a universal experience to college campuses and universities across the UK –– even the U.S., where drinking carries the added thrill of rule-breaking.

Not drinking alcohol in college is often seen as taboo. As Paulina Nieto, a third year student who chooses not to drink puts it: “people want stories”. Nieto has no religious or familial reasons for being sober. She does not drink simply because she has never felt inclined to –– which is shocking to many people. “People assume that either I had a horrible relationship with alcohol and I stopped. Or that I never began [drinking] because of some sort of family situation”, she says. “But I'm lucky to say that's not the case”.

“I don’t have a relationship with alcohol because I’ve never drank”, she says.

When Nieto shares her apathy towards alcohol with others, “it's almost a disappointment”, she says. “No one can fathom being 16 years old and turning down the drink you’re offered at your first basement party”.

Nieto, however, has never felt forced to drink alcohol at university. “There’s zero social pressure here”, she says. But that doesn’t mean she doesn't occasionally feel excluded: “It’s like everyone is in on a little secret that I’m not”, she says.

“[But] as long as this cup is filled”, she says, pointing to her pint of Coca-Cola –– “no one cares what’s in it”, chiming in that she can: “tell you the price of any Coca-Cola in this town”.

Similarly, William Finlator, second-year student, has no ‘major’ explanation for his sobriety. He says that alcohol is merely “a big commitment” that he would rather avoid.

“You're going to be literally doing it for like four out of seven days a week, and essentially worshipping at its altar”, he says. The student, who doubles as a Deputy Viewpoint and Podcast editor at The Saint, has even voiced why he bucks booze in this newspaper.

Finlator, like Niento, says that he has no religious or personal reasons behind his non-drinking. For him, it’s just a personal preference. Still: he often wonders what it would be like if he had chosen to imbibe. “Every night, I’d be thinking, is this a night where I’m going to be drinking alcohol?” he says.

He says that he is occasionally judged for declining a drink, or given weird looks. But, mostly, he gets the classic, “Oh, I respect that, man”, he says.

The general expectation for university students to lean on intoxication leads some to believe Nieto prefers another tonic. “People think if I don’t drink alcohol, it’s because there’s some other substance”, Nieto says. “[They think that I must choose something else] to be ‘normal.’”

Indeed, there are many traditions –– seen as defining features of student life, even on this University's Wikipedia page –– that involve heavy drinking, including Raisin Sunday, May Dip, and the range of initiations for sports teams, clubs, academic families, and more. That creates a cultural expectation of consumption.

On top of that, to be more financially palatable, events often add drink tokens or champagne receptions as ticket add-ons. The more ‘free alcohol’, the better –– right?

Nieto’s close friends all drink alcohol, which can make her feel excluded at times, even while she doesn’t feel pressure to drink. “I can't justify paying £90-100 [for an event] when half of that goes towards a bottle of wine”, she says.

It is hard when all of your closest friends are going to an event involving alcohol. You don’t want to feel left out –– but, still, it doesn’t make sense to pay for an experience with intoxicants at its crux. In this sense, alcohol can truly define the friendships and social circles a student dabbles in.

“Last year, [at an event hosted by the Polo Committee] tickets were £98 [and included] a whole bottle of wine. I did nothing with that bottle of wine”, Nieto says. “I was a popular girl for five seconds because I shared it with everyone. It was great and super fun. But when that was over, I had just paid £98 to look at some horses when I could have paid for a standard ticket”.

Finlator mentioned that his decision to forgo firewater has changed his social circle and how he chooses to spend his time. “I’ve found other ways of enjoying myself, and I think youth culture misses out on this”, he says.

On nights out, both sober students seldom survive to the wee hours of the night – when liquor has elevated the remaining nocturnal dwellers to another dimension. Nieto says that there’s a point in the night where she thinks to herself: “what am I doing here?”

“No one registers me, no one here even knows I exist, so why would I remain in that environment.If I’m at an event and everyone else is drunk, what’s the point in me being here?” Nieto said.

“I’ve never made it to an ‘afters’ in St Andrews”, she adds.

While they’re both firm in their decisions to stay away from spirits, it can be hard when “everyone is on a different wavelength”, Nieto says. “[But] if it really bothered me that much, I think I would’ve started drinking by now”.

“Some days are way harder than others”, Nieto adds. “Some days at the event itself, I'll be like, either I break 20 years of sobriety or I go home. You have to own it or it’ll eat you alive”.

Alcohol is also increasingly linked to boosting self-confidence. Just think of the term ‘liquid courage’, which is believed to have originated in the 17th century, when soldiers were given a dose of gin for some extra gusto before marching into frontlines to face cannons and gunfire.

Alcohol releases a flow of dopamine, leading to a rush of confidence. It impacts decision-making capabilities, lowering the cognitive functions responsible for evaluating risk.

But Finlator says he can take a risk without a recipe of rotgut in his bloodstream.“I’m confident, and I don’t need alcohol to bring that out in me”, Finlator says.

Nieto says she is unable to understand why ‘liquid courage’ is necessary altogether, “It's baffling to me to see people who genuinely believe that they are more interesting, funnier, or cooler, when they're drunk”, she says.

And since alcohol creates the ideal excuse to pardon regrettable decisions — like the not-so-prudent text to an ex-lover — Nieto adds that she always needs to be “in perfect form”. “I can’t just take two shots and [blame my actions on drink]”, she says.

But outside of university life, alcohol is not nearly as central. As Finlator put it: “aside from these five years, you get perfectly well on with your social life [sober].

A decent portion of the global population does not drink, he adds –– even without experiences at ‘Alcoholics Anonymous’ or rehab.“You don’t need it”, Finlator says. “[The feeling that you do] is completely socially constructed”.

Beyond the university scene, alcohol consumption even seems to be on the decline. In 2021, the Scottish Health Survey found that the consumption of dangerous levels of alcohol has steadily lowered from 34 percent in 2003 to 23 per cent in 2021. The same study also found that the mean number of units adult drinkers consume on a weekly basis has decreased from an average of 16.1 units in 2003 to 11.3 in 2021.

More people are also exploring the realm of non-alcoholic beverages. There were just four non-alcoholic spirits on the market in the UK in April 2018, according to Distill Ventures. By October –– just 6 months later –– 42. 23 per cent of the most influential venues in London reported increased sales of non-alcoholic drinks, and a range of non-alcoholic options had emerged. Notably, 59 percent of the surveyed respondents reported ordering non-alcoholic drinks on nights out when they usually drink alcohol, compared with only 29 per cent who said they only consume alcoholic drinks. New non-alcoholic drink companies are rising too, with many opting for beverages provided by the likes of ‘Wilfred’s Drinks’, which has recently begun selling a popular alcohol free Spritz.

“We should be asking questions about the extent and pressure of conformity on people to drink”, Finlator said, “and what the sober experience is like. It should be more normal”.

Illustration: Olivia Jones

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