Having only ever seen Prince of Wales Road from the top of the number 25 bus on my way south for the holidays, I felt that I was ill-qualified to write an article on the topic of ‘how to have a sober night out in Norwich’, as was suggested. Instead, I’ve decided to hijack this space to talk about life as a UEA student who doesn’t drink.
Freshers’ week can be a wonderful experience. It’s the first time, as you’re encountering your new flatmates, coursemates and the place that will be your home for at least the next three years, that it fully sinks in: you made it to uni. You don’t have to do A-Levels again. This is really happening. Perhaps because of this, the weight of all your expectations, combined with your parent’s paranoia about whether you’ll be eating anything other than beans and cereal all year, and the war stories your cousin brings out every Christmas about all of the ‘crazy parties’, it can also be a rather daunting endeavour. Such feelings are rarely allayed when you decide you don’t want to drink.
Rightly or wrongly, the overarching perception of students is that they drink heavily and frequently. It’s one of the most endorsed stereotypes of student life. It’s hardly surprising, therefore, that a number of people, myself included, arrive at halls on their first day uncertain about how their flatmates will react to the information. Telling people you don’t drink can be rather awkward. Especially if, in an outburst of first instalment of student loan generosity, they’ve just poured you one; somehow, responding with, “I’d rather have a cup of tea, if you don’t mind” comes across as rude, or just a bit eccentric. As it happens, I can only think of one occasion on which, upon announcing this, I was made to feel unwelcome, to the point of wanting to leave. Obviously, I can’t speak for everyone, but I imagine other people’s experiences are similar. For the most part, we are all adults, and able to deal with this revelation without acting offended, or by ignoring the person’s wishes.
This is all very well and good, but unfortunately, you’re then either left with the decision to sit around the kitchen table with everyone else, wincing every time someone spills vodka on the floor, or to spend the evening alone in your room scrolling through Facebook and looking at pictures of people sitting around the kitchen table, spilling vodka on the floor. Admittedly, there is only so much alcohol that the human body can digest, or the impoverished student can afford; eventually, your friends will accept that the bottle has run dry, and then you might be able to interest them in other activities, which don’t require a certain level of inebriation in order to be enjoyed. I am aware that not drinking does not automatically make you hate the idea of going out. I fully accept that this is a personal preference, based on an eclectic (to say the least) music taste, and an inability to dance, which I make no apology for. However, the fear of missing out can hit us non-drinkers rather hard, especially when your friends come back from a night out full of stories that you missed.
There are, of course, (and this is the part which I wish someone had told me before I started at UEA), ways around this. As I’ve already said, university life doesn’t entirely revolve around drinking, even if it sometimes feels that way; at least, it doesn’t have to. All UEA societies are required to include ‘sober socials’ in their calendar of events (which, I imagine, provides a welcome relief for certain people’s livers), so there are plenty of opportunities to meet people outside of the pub and the LCR. It might be a little bit awkward at first, whilst you’re still breaking the ice, but seeing as that’s going to be the case whether or not you’ve been drinking, you might as well be making friends whose names you’re going to remember the next day. In any case, that initial unease is just a part of life, whenever you’re arriving somewhere new surrounded by people you don’t know, and you will get past it. You just need to give it time.
Equally, it’s important to remember that everyone suffers from the fear of missing out every now and again. It’s an intrinsic element of human nature, which in many ways is hindered rather than helped, by the ultra-connectivity of social media. When you’re looking at photos of your old school friends on Instagram, all of whom seem to be having an incredible time with their new uni pals, whilst you feel you haven’t spoken to anyone in weeks, bar the occasional flatmates as you both dance around the hob and the fridge, it’s easy to feel like there’s something everyone else has that you’re missing out on. However, those photos are just that: snapshots. They don’t show the full picture of anyone’s life, just as the soundbites from the wild nights out don’t tell the full story of anyone’s uni experience.
My final piece of advice, to both drinkers and non-drinkers, is about peer pressure. In spite of all the coverage at secondary school, peer pressure is still a part of university life; in all honesty, I think it’s something which never truly goes away. Any adult who claims otherwise is kidding themselves. For that reason, it’s all the more important not to give in to it. Whether you feel rude or awkward doing so, if you feel you’re being forced into something you’re not comfortable with, take yourself out of that situation. Anyone who, upon hearing that you don’t drink, or don’t like Dominoes, or don’t watch Bake Off, or anything else viewed as an intrinsic part of student life, does anything other than smile and say that you’ll catch up in the morning isn’t worth your time of day.