Dry January is the national month of ‘New Year, New Me!’-ing yourself out of alcoholism. My guess is that a combination of excessive drinking over the holidays and optimism for the year ahead is why Dry January has more star power than say, Dry December or Sober October. However, the existence of Dry January does highlight how drinking is the cultural default despite the benefits of sobriety. In the UK, where student life is indisputably booze-centric, sobriety often draws confusion or disparagement from peers. Dry January provides a blessed amnesty period during which staying sober is hip and health-conscious rather than buzz-kill behaviour. Speaking for myself, as someone who does not do well on the sauce, I gladly welcome the glorious thirty days of unquestioned soda water.
I grew up in a subculture rife with substance abuse. In my hometown, it’s not a night out unless someone starts an argument, gets kicked, or ends up dry heaving over a gutter. Coming to university I was often met with looks of distress or disgust when telling what I considered to be pretty neutral anecdotes about recreational drug use. It’s very strange to me that someone could at once be horrified at the thought of ‘illicit substances’, while simultaneously viewing alcohol just as spicy water for a fun night out. My point here isn’t to stigmatise alcohol, or even destigmatise drug use, it’s just to say that there’s a total double standard!
If someone offers you a smoke, let alone anything more hardcore, it would be totally acceptable for you to decline without stating a reason, or even challenge them on their use. I’ve had nights out where I’ve told mates I’m not drinking only to be handed a double and told I’m getting the next round. I think we’re lying to ourselves about how harmful drinking actually is.
My hypothesis is that people are defensive around non-drinkers because it draws attention to their own habits. I’m vegetarian and it reminds me of the defensiveness being plant-based can elicit. A lot of unwarranted, uncalled for ‘I hate how vegans shove it down your throat’, followed by an extended vindication of how it’s fine to eat meat, and can everyone just shut up about it? It doesn’t make you a better or worse person to drink, so if you find yourself grilling sober friends, it probably says more about you than them.
Additionally, it occurs to me that in an environment as socially asymmetric as Oxford, there may well be people who simply haven’t considered that substance abuse affects their peers. However, neither of these are really good excuses for encouraging someone to drink if they’ve said they don’t want to, or questioning someone’s sobriety. Ultimately, addiction is a systemic issue but I still think we can be more mindful in how we interact with anyone who chooses not to drink.
People are sober for all kinds of reasons; fitness, mental health, religion, finances, family history, allergies, and personal preferences. Questioning someone’s sobriety is at best singling them out and at worst encouraging them to compromise it. Of course there’s nothing inherently wrong with asking someone politely about why they choose not to drink – my point is that when you’re in a vulnerable state, someone’s words of support or disparagement can have a much greater impact. I think most of us have at some point offered a second beer when the first was turned down, told someone to ‘let loose’, or even just not challenged this behaviour in others. This often comes from a good place, wanting to make sure everyone has a good night and isn’t left out, or not wanting to butt in on what can be a touchy issue. Sometimes this attitude, even if it is thoughtless or done with good intent, can be very harmful and that bears reconsidering how we talk about sobriety.
The first step for everybody, despite our differences in opinions, drinking habits, and party preferences, is a recognition that sobriety is a perfectly valid and normal habit despite our tacit social endorsement of drinking culture.