This post was originally published in Post Grad Survival Guide.
The first time I got drunk I was barely fifteen.It had been on my bucket list for a while. Sat at the back of my drama class in September right after my birthday, I remember making a list of everything I wanted to do before the end of the year. All the important teenage milestones: first kiss, first relationship, first cigarette, first tattoo, first piercing, and so on. Top of the list: get drunk for the first time.
Much to my own surprise, I actually did end up ticking off everything on that list. I did the tattoo myself — it’s terrible and people still make fun of it but I love it as a reminder of that time. A friend pierced my ears and cartilage in school with a drawing pin — I still have horrible lumps of scar tissue in my ears from that but again, I don’t mind it. And yes, I got drunk for the first time.
Back in the day, parties went like this. You told your mum you were going to a sleepover at a trustworthy friend’s house. Someone whose parents your mum knew well enough to trust with you, just not so well that they might try to verify your story. Your mum dropped you, dressed up in fishnets and heavy eyeliner and a band t-shirt borrowed from your older brother, at the friend’s house.
When you got there, your friend had told their mother you were both going to a sleepover at a different friend’s house. Then you had a few options. Either she dropped you off at a random location and you both went and got the bus, then walked like 5 miles to the place. Or you got her to drop you at the home of a friend who had weirdly permissive parents who would happily drop you off at the real party location.
You’d arrive there fairly early, say 5pm. It would be at the house of someone whose parents really didn’t care, so long as everyone stayed outdoors in their massive garden or perhaps you’d all go camping in a nearby field or forest. No one ever actually brought tents — you’d end up with 5 tents for 100 people. There would be a bonfire. There would be a strange mixture of people across a wide age spectrum.
And there would be alcohol. Everyone brought whatever they could — people stole from their parents, people got fake IDs, those who were actually 18 were given fistfuls of change and asked to buy stuff for you.
My tactic was creative: I’d go to car boot sales and buy ancient bottles of liquor- those tiny ones people collect- that were cloudy and almost rusted shut. I’d tell the seller it was for an art project and pay next to nothing for boxes of fifty-year-old liquor which somehow never killed anyone.
Then you’d start drinking. It always began with beer and those cheap 2L bottles of watery cider. You and your friend would find two older guys who were also friends and glue yourselves to them. They would give you a beer and you’d sit around the bonfire sipping it and trying not to grimace. Beer is disgusting by the way.
At that first party, I was wearing navy blue Doc Martens, red tartan jeans, a shirt with a unicorn on it, a hoodie and literally half a palette of eyeshadow. SO much eye makeup. I drunk my first beer. Then I drunk my second as we walked up to the house to use the bathroom.
On the way back, I suddenly found I couldn’t walk straight. We had to climb over a gate to get back to the field where we were camped and when I got on top of the gate, I suddenly found I couldn’t move. I whooped and yelled that I was officially drunk and also I was not coming down, it’s cool guys just leave me here. Someone lifted me off the gate, we returned to the fire and someone gave me another beer. The fire went out,
It was November so it was dark by that point. Having consumed my third beer, plus swigs of whiskey mixed with vodka (vile) from someone’s hip flask, I felt overwhelmed and crawled into one of the five tents — a 2-person tent which within minutes contained 12 people. It started raining. I fell asleep. We’d later find out that night had the heaviest rainfall the area had experienced for years.
When I woke up, the tent was pitch dark, completely packed with people and also flooded. We sat in inches of rainwater, swigging more beer and hip flask concoctions, arguing over nothing and making trips outside. Some guy fell out of a tree. The conversations all went like this: You’d walk up to someone and ask if they were wasted, they would confirm that yes, they were wasted, then you’d hug and say you were now friends and drink some of whatever they were holding, then move on.
By 3am, the whole place was flooded. Everyone was off their faces. I, the goody two shoes, had visions of the police arriving and arresting us all. I ended up getting stuck in a ditch full of rainwater and barbed wire and decided that was how I was going to die: some combination of hypothermia, blood poisoning from the barbed wire, alcohol poisoning and maybe I’d drown too. God knows how I even got home but I did and sinking into a hot bath felt better than anything, ever. I am never drinking again, I thought.
The fun part was always the week after when everyone would be in a group chat trying to figure out exactly what had happened. The answer was never anything more sinister than ‘we all got really drunk and stumbled around in a field. ’ Everyone’s parents would catch on and be mad because: the tents always got destroyed, so did our shoes, we were all hungover for days and covered in bruises from walking into trees and tripping over tent pegs. I’d spend days with my notebook, documenting the whole event.
That’s how it went the first time, and the twice-yearly similar parties afterwards. That was as wild as it got: about 3 units of alcohol, a bit of dancing around, then falling asleep. As a teenager, I took any opportunity to drink because it was new and interesting and I was otherwise crippled with anxiety, so I loved the sense of oblivion.
But I pretty much quit drinking before I was even old enough to legally do so. I had never drank more than a couple of times a year and I didn’t get drunk once at university. Which, in England, is essentially an expensive alcoholism camp. My tolerance to alcohol remains so low that I don't risk it unless I'm somewhere where I can go to sleep when the urge hits (usually by my second or third drink.) When I initially considered writing about this topic, it seemed a bit too much like unprofessional oversharing. But then I realised that my idea of heavy drinking (say, three glasses of wine) is what most people my age would consider an average weeknight, certainly not a weekend.
The only time I ever drank regularly was during the miserable few months after I simultaneously went through a breakup and lost my grandfather. After that, I went to a local bar and drunk whiskey alone almost every night for about two months because it was the only way to get some sleep that wouldn’t be plagued with nightmares. Whiskey seemed like the hardcore choice, although I mixed it with cola.
Then I stopped again. Drinking alone stops being acceptable once you’re out of your teens and, having no social life, there’s rarely a reason for me to touch even a single drink more than once a month.
For a short time, I did try the whole ‘glass of wine as you cook dinner’ thing, mostly as a ruse to get myself to cook. But once I finished the 2 bottles of wine I’d claimed after they were left over from my office Christmas party, I never bought more. I stopped going to networking events because everyone I talked to brought me drinks and I’d always end up sobbing in a corner.
Honestly? I hate drinking. I hate losing control of my emotions and inevitably crying, then falling asleep. I hate being non-functional the day after. It’s not worth the lost productivity — I enjoy working far more than socialising and will always put it first.
I hate that everyone assumes if you’re in your early twenties, you’re partying and getting drunk every night. Finding a place to rent at my age, for example, is hard because most landlords have had bad experiences with drunk students wrecking the place and most don’t believe me when I say that I literally just work and sleep and only socialise once in a blue moon to remind myself why I don’t like that side of it, just the part that involves spending actual time with people. My life does not revolve around it. If I do end up in a bar, I can barely remember what I even like and just ask for something with coffee.
Yes, there are those beautiful rare moments when you have one drink and it’s lovely. In Dubrovnik with my mum and brother, I had an Irish coffee on the top of a hillside, looking out across the sparkling sea, dotted with islands. That was blissful. Arriving in Paris with Corrie after we finished our exams, we got super lost and took hours to find out Airbnb and when we got there, the owner had left us six bottles of wine. We shared a glass of red wine on the balcony, looking out over Paris and that was beautiful. My brother’s friend made me gin with juniper berries and cardamom in the summer which was fun. In January, my best friend took me clubbing for the first time and we shared what was basically a cup full of whipped cream and maybe one shot of something or other.
But mostly, I hate what alcohol has become. It’s seen as something binary. Either you get wasted multiple times a week, or you’re a kale snorting yogi dressed in hemp.
It’s the linchpin of social events, the prerequisite for having fun. People who quit drinking usually become over the top self-righteous and start acting as if it’s some massive achievement (I’m not talking about alcoholism here by the way.) It’s used as a shortcut to confidence. I used it for overcoming my anxiety (combined with the twice-daily dose of sedatives my doctor prescribed which I’m also thankfully free of now), before realising that I needed to do the hard work of building my confidence, not faking it. I hate that it’s such a coping mechanism, that so few people have healthy attitudes towards it, that writers are expected to drink.