1. It’s okay to drink.
2. It’s okay not to drink.
3. Know why you’re saying no. My sophomore year, I had an existential alcohol crisis. I was invited to a New Year’s party with good friends (who were also seasoned drinkers) and for the first time in my life I seriously considered drinking. Not just drinking, though. I arranged a pre-drinking drinking training with my best friend from home. She would obtain the drinks, I would drink them, and then I would wait. For what? Who knows? But I would drink and then I would be ready. (I may have been a novice drinker but I was an advanced-level over-thinker.) Somewhere in the middle of the planning, my best friend began asking me questions, specifically Why? Why now? Why not before? That was when I sat down and started contemplating the answer to these questions. In the end, I figured out why I don’t drink, and at the time I found the reason compelling enough to stop my pre-drinking drinking training in the planning phase. Since then, knowing the answer to this question has made a world of difference (both to me and to that one guy who asks me why I don’t drink every time I go out).
4. “Because I don’t want to” is a perfectly fine reason.
5. …but you might want to come up with a few clever jokes and anecdotes to excuse your sobriety (just in case). There will always be that one guy (or girl) who just can’t take no for an answer. He will appear out of nowhere and drill you about your drinking habits. He might even accuse you of going to parties for the sole sake of laughing at your drunk friends. Try leading him away from the trail with a clever pun about why you’re not drinking and slip away while he laughs at you. If at first you don’t succeed, don’t be discouraged. Your confidence and humor will eventually wear him down and soon enough he’ll get bored and move on to pursuits more suited to his talents, such as beer pong in the basement. Keep saying no, and if all else fails, feel free to employ the buddy system (See #14).
6. Learn about alcohol. Learn what limits look like and the difference between being buzzed and being drunk. Learn what’s in one Four Loko and how many shots your best friend can handle before he starts making out with everything that moves. Learn what a shot looks like in a plastic red cup (and learn what ten shots look like in the same cup). Learn how to be a safe sober-cab and how to care for people who pass out. Knowledge is power, and that’s a valuable thing to have in situations where you might feel vulnerable otherwise.
7. Always bring a bottle of something to a party. If you want to avoid talking about it all together, bring a bottle of Coke and keep it in your hands while you socialize. People are likely to assume you’re already covered and won’t bother offering you drinks. If someone asks what you’re having, you can decide if you want to spill the beans or pretend the pop’s loaded.
8. Find friends who don’t drink. Fellow non-drinkers exist, and they are valuable. Indeed, they can be your commiserating comrades, your double Debbie downers… but they are also your shining beacons of hope! They remind you that you’re not a sad, lonely swamp-creature who doesn’t know how to have a good time because you’ve been living under a rock amongst the alligators and the warty toads your whole life. Seek out the people who will help you discover that you are a human, damn it, and you can do The Sprinkler better than anybody else on that dance floor!
9. Find friends who do drink. They’re just as valuable as the ones who don’t.
10. Learn how to stay in without hating yourself. One of my most traumatic college experiences happened late one Saturday night at home in my dorm room. I was opening my window to let in some fresh air when I heard the unmistakable voices of several of my best friends on the sidewalk below. They were going to a party. Without me. Laughing. Loudly. I had plenty of time that night to stew in the bitter juices of my jealous dejection, trying to get to the bottom of what I thought was surely a deliberate exclusion. Ultimately, though, it wasn’t my friends who decided that my night was going to suck (they didn’t even know!): it was me. Do yourself a favor when you’re staying in and decide for yourself early on that no matter what, you are going to have a good night — not a lonely night, and not a mediocre night, but a genuinely fulfilling and all-around good night.
11. However, even if you do manage to have an awesome night alone, it’s probably wise to avoid the morning-after brunch. Your friends will have funny stories (that are only actually funny if you were there to see them). They may not understand exactly why you weren’t with them or what was so great about what you thought was a genuinely fulfilling and all-around good night. Sometimes it’s best to simply stay away from the morning after when the friends you heard under your window are out devouring mass quantities of fried foods and coffee. Instead, wake up early and go for a run on the treadmill, or stay in bed even later than they did and bask in a long, luxurious sleep (sans the headache). You’ll be happier for it later.
12. If you want to go out, go out! It’s easy to say “I can’t go to parties because I don’t drink.” But it’s also stupid. Since when is drinking a prerequisite to having a party? Or dancing? I’m pretty sure when I turned ten my mom didn’t say, “Julia, you can’t dance at your birthday party if you don’t have a shot with me first.” It wasn’t a prereq then and it isn’t a prereq now. Don’t let this one little thing stop you from flying your freak flag on a Friday night.
13. If you want to stay in, stay in… but say yes sometimes when you want to say no. For some people (like me), knowing that alcohol will be at a social gathering is a trigger for anxiety. However, having exposure to safe and comfortable settings that include alcohol oftentimes results in feeling better about it, better about friends who drink, and more able to say yes to a night out next time. It’s healthy to challenge your comfort zones.
14. Use the buddy system. When I go to parties, I always bring a friend who will agree to stay sober with me, even if just for that night. It’s easy to feel like an island out there, so I always welcome company. I will say that after three years of trial-and-error with the buddy system, I’ve learned to avoid first years who have never been offered a drink before and drinkers with no concrete motivation for staying sober.
15. Be honest with your buddy. I feel like a hypocrite just having this on the list. How many times have I actually been able to say no when asked “Do you mind if I just…?” Zero. Whenever that happened, one drink always seemed to turn into five, and I always felt ditched. So trust me: honesty is the best policy (as with most things) and saves everyone at least a little bit of heartache.
16. Remember that you’re not alone. Whether it’s because they’re fellow non-drinkers, or because they have to wake up for work at 6 a.m., there will be people at parties who are not drinking. Just. Like. You.
17. So don’t be a martyr. This is simple. Don’t pass judgment on your friends for drinking, and don’t pretend you’re a saint for choosing not to. Trust me: no matter how strong you feel in the face of peer pressure or how good you feel for not lying to your mother, nobody else actually wants to hear about it. When you talk yourself up or others down, you’re making the rest of us non-drinkers look bad, so if you can avoid it (which you can, I assure you), don’t do it.
18. Alcohol does not change your core. Adding alcohol to a person’s system does not change who they are. Your good friends who love you when they’re sober will love you just as much when they’re buzzed, smashed, or blackout drunk.
19. This choice does not define you. Don’t let anyone tell you or make you believe that it does.
20. Be persistent. It’s easy to feel like you’re the only person on the planet who isn’t drinking, and it’s easy to get knocked down both by particularly persuasive peer pressure and by friends who just think they’re being polite. However, as you keep going out and you keep saying no and you keep having fun without the drinks, eventually people will stop asking, and that will feel awesome.
21. Drink when you’re ready. I’m turning 21 in a week, and I’m excited. After several years of saying no thanks (and, I might add, with no regrets), I’m going to have my very first drink. There’s plenty of anxiety that comes with this occasion for me. I’m full of questions indicative of my inexperience and personal discomfort with the topic. Are my friends going to suddenly hate me for apparently changing my mind about alcohol? Will my first drink trigger some little switch in my brain I didn’t know about? Is my head going to explode? Will I become an insta-alcoholic? Will God strike me down when I — NO. Everything is going to be fine. We drink when we’re ready to drink, whether it’s early, late, or never, and that’s not just fine: it’s fantastic.