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Why do we drink?

Some drink for good reasons. This might be a tipple after a hard day, or a few drinks and a dance every so often to unwind with friends, or maybe a vodka-mixer for liquid courage before a date. Some people drink for other reasons. It’s not for fun per-se – maybe it is at first – and it’s not exactly satisfying. Some people drink self-destructively, to excess, to shame, to falling over, to spinning out on their bed wondering what happened. I can’t blame anyone for these – we’ve all been there. University students are renowned, nowhere more than England, for their alcohol use and abuse. 

And yet I’m told that we’re drinking less as a generation – a fact that feels unreflective of my experience. According to SOS in 2022, 53% of students drink alcohol more than once a week, and 81% of them think that drinking and getting drunk is part of university culture. Something seems natural about drinking here.

I used to be adamant I’d never drink. It was a running joke in my family – I didn’t see the point. I had seen people drink in pubs and bars and I noticed them turn into grotesques of themselves as they drank: their tempers snapped quicker; their hugs got tighter. Sure, I knew that these emotions must have existed while sober, but I also knew that alcohol made it worse.

In my late teens, I began to see alcohol as something different: a social crutch. Alcohol didn’t change people, just loosened them, exposed them. They drank so they could say the thoughts in the back of their throats. Liquid courage. 

I first drank properly on my eighteenth birthday. My conviction about not drinking earlier helped me hold off for a while, so I lost out on the quintessential British Teenager Lifestyle, but the drinking won out eventually. I handled it well: I found that I could drink as much as the rest of my family and still walk straight. I had a jaeger-bomb at the end of a night out, something I thought was the guaranteed thing to get me very drunk but I just felt giddy.

Then I came to uni. Freshers’ week was uneventful for me – not a week of ragers, just tonsillitis. I was homesick and lonely, slowly adjusting to a new place with lots of new people I didn’t know. I met people, but slowly. Like many at university, the way I hung out with friends was through drinking. I knew I didn’t have to, but also that I enjoyed it a lot more if I did. This meant for a while I felt I didn’t know a lot of people very well. I think what I knew was partially a drunk version of them I had seen a few times and forgotten. They were almost strangers I knew very well. 

After I turned nineteen, I became better at separating these things, knowing that alcohol wasn’t a substitute for confidence. I became better at separating drinking from social interaction. I managed a bit, but still found my most stressed self reverting to a drunk night at Plush. But, I also found from observation that it wasn’t just me. I could see that people’s cravings for intimacy led them to drink uncontrollably so they’d meet someone at a club and be able to do something about it. Or they felt separate from the others in a club, watching people trying to connect in the darkness and seeing only phantoms dancing past them. 

I felt like a phantom. I knew that I wouldn’t find connection or meaning there. I mostly found myself sitting on the faux-leather stools at the back of the club and looking on. Or walking out at 1AM to go to sleep. 

Nights out had become a chance. When you weren’t seeing people in the day – stuck in libraries and at opposite ends of the city – the club was an enclosed space where you could imagine something different might happen. Different clubs, different venues, same space. Maybe you could forget about reason, about time, about differences. This well-worn routine is okay until you get tired.  Until you’ve spent too many mornings walking with a hangover, trying to both remember and forget. Then you try to heal, find what needs to be changed. You’ll do it again, and maybe it wasn’t all bad, maybe there’s a way that you can do it without the stress or shame.

The lines between healthy and unhealthy drinking are blurred and difficult to distinguish. I hear people say that drinking can never be healthy; that any drinks are crutches, coping mechanisms, or distractions. If you can enjoy things sober, what’s even the point of drinking? I reflexively kick back: “Could it never [be healthy]?” It might be an anti-puritan reflex more than anything, but I wonder if it is truly possible that there’s no joy to be brought from drinking.

For every memory of seeing people cry and shout drunk, I have the memories of people jolly and smiling like they’ve never done before. I remember the glow of a warm smile in a club dancing under the neon lights. An arm at your waist in abandon, linking arms with your friend on the way home. 

All of this to say that alcohol is everywhere in Oxford, whether you drink or not. While pervasive, it is almost invisible – it’s hard to know how to find the words about feeling uncertain about your alcohol use when so many don’t think twice before going out multiple times a week. Do you stay quiet and accept it as part of the way things are? Do you work on it yourself, let other people do what they want? Openness is probably the way forward – look at the reasons of others and yourselves, talk about it and be open to seeing how unhealthy habits form. Maybe the good reasons could stick around.

Image credit: Lawnpylon / CC BY-SA 3.0 via Wikipedia

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