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Episode #13 Sobriety in Your Twenties
Hello hello, lovely friends. Welcome back to “Get Unbothered”. I’m Margaret, and today, I’m going to be sharing something a bit personal with you guys. I’m talking about my decision to be sober in my 20’s. This is a bit of a long episode as it includes some research, so I hope you are prepared!
I know I talked about this in a previous episode, but I felt the need to elaborate more because there are so many people out there struggling with alcohol abuse disorders and addictions. Many young people are unknowingly heading down that path because of the social pressures of today’s drinking culture. Choosing to be sober at a young age has some level of stigma attached to it because heavy drinking is considered the norm. My goal for this episode is to further elaborate on my choice, discuss the dangers of binge drinking culture, and share the benefits of sobriety. I also want to discuss how my friends and family reacted to my decision and explain my plan to socialize in the future as lockdown restrictions are lifted.
Before we dive in, I’d like to give you guys some background information on my history with alcohol.
I started drinking at a fairly young age during small gatherings with friends. In the United States, the legal drinking age is 21, but like most of my peers, I started while I was still a high school student. We had our ways to get the good stuff. And when I say the good stuff, I mean those disgusting, cheap bottles of Burnett’s.
For a while, I could drink reasonable amounts with friends with no issues. As a young college student, I naturally went to parties and had fun, but I rarely let myself go too crazy. I focused on making good grades, so I could keep my scholarships and graduate.
Then, my mother unexpectedly passed away between my freshman and sophomore years. That was so hard; I never expected to be without my mom at 19. It turned my entire world upside down. When I returned to university in the fall, I felt lost and overwhelmed. Even though I was in grief counseling, it felt like there was a gaping hole in my chest I could never fill. My depression and anxiety skyrocketed.
During social events, alcohol helped me feel at ease. With a nice buzz, I could talk to people without getting anxious or overwhelmed and pretend I was a normal, happy girl having the time of her life. I realize now that many of my coping strategies were not the most effective. But I was doing the best I could with the resources I had at the time. Dropping out to grieve and process her loss wasn’t an option for me because I knew I wouldn’t be able to afford going back to school without scholarships. I just pushed through and focused on school.
Also, even without personal tragedies, most young people in college still have a lot on their plate. It makes sense why party culture is so appealing. It’s an escape from the constant academic pressure. As a senior in college, my drinking increased due to stress. I was anxious about the future and my courses were very difficult, so I let loose harder on the weekends to unwind.
Things only worsened after graduation because I no longer had to worry about my studies. My roommates and friends were still in school, and I had six months left on my lease before my move to Japan. During that time, I’d get embarrassingly drunk and frequently blackout. I wouldn’t be able to remember half the night, and I felt anxious the next day trying to recall the gaps in my memories. There were times when I’d fall and either hit my head or sprain my ankle.
I didn’t want to admit it, but I couldn’t have one or two drinks anymore. My self-control disappeared. I’d always go well past my limit find myself in situations where my friends needed to take care of me. During those late nights, I felt so alive and free, but the next day I always felt tired, anxious, and depressed with zero motivation to do anything productive.
After moving to Japan, I decided to focus on cultivating a healthy life there. I wanted to improve my Japanese, make friends, and become a good teacher. I spoke with a counselor online who helped me set achievable goals and work through my past traumas. I drank infrequently, and when I did, I was able to stop after one or two drinks. Social events felt very awkward at first without my former crutch, but they got better with practice. During this time, what helped me the most was cultivating self-love and awareness.
I focused on eating healthier, learning, exploring Japan’s culture, traveling, and making new friends who also rarely drank. I learned I didn’t need alcohol to have fun or to be myself.
At large gatherings where people were drinking, I could still have fun. It was honestly kind of entertaining watching people stumble around and say random stuff. I just left at a certain point when the level of intoxication got too intense for me. It was very satisfying going to bed after a night out and waking up without a hangover.
Things were going very well until Covid-19 hit. Like most people, my mental health took a downward trend. When I returned to the United States, I decided to seek more treatment for my depression and anxiety, and my doctor prescribed me an anti-depressant. Anti-depressants and alcohol do not mix well, so I decided not to drink at all for several months while my body adjusted to the medication. For Christmas Eve, I did have a glass of wine after confirming it was okay with my doctor. The next day, I had quite a bad headache and felt nauseous. I was so glad I didn’t drink more.
After the holidays, I participated in Dry January, and when February finally arrived, I realized I felt so much better without alcohol and accepted it had zero benefits for me.
Receiving my ADHD diagnosis and starting another medication only solidified my desire to never drink again. It was a very gradual process, and I don’t think I ever outright declared my sobriety except for a few people. I came to this conclusion slowly and naturally, and I am now comfortable sharing more about my experiences and bringing awareness to the dangers of binge drinking.
While doing research, I realized just how toxic the drinking culture on college campuses can be. As a freshman, I assumed the risks my university warned us of were minimal. It felt like as long as I had a designated driver, watched my drink, and stayed with friends, nothing bad would ever happen. Heavy drinking was okay as long as I was cautious. Looking back, I wish I had been smarter with my decisions and consumed alcohol more responsibly instead of doing what I thought was normal for my age group.
The Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration defines heavy alcohol use, which potentially leads to alcohol use disorder or alcoholism, as binge drinking five or more days in one month.
According to the National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism (NIAAA), “many college alcohol problems are related to binge drinking. The NIAAA defines binge drinking as a pattern of drinking that brings blood alcohol concentration (BAC) to 0.08 percent—For a typical adult, this pattern corresponds to consuming 5 or more drinks (biologically male), or 4 or more drinks (biologically female), in about 2 hours.”
When I was a college student, seeing my peers down several shots in a few minutes was considered quite normal if not impressive. Most everyone I interacted with could easily drink five or six drinks in a couple of hours. I certainly could. Others could down even more. And we rarely stopped after that.
But binge drinking can have devastating consequences. The NIAAA’s most recent statistics estimate that about 1,519 college students ages 18 to 24 die from alcohol-related injuries, including car accidents and alcohol poisoning.
Other consequences include assault, date rape, problems with academics, and the future development of an alcohol use disorder. At one time or another, I either experienced or knew someone who experienced one or more of these things because of heavy drinking.
I felt genuinely surprised to read that about 9 percent of full-time college students met the criteria for an alcohol use disorder according to a 2019 national survey. This statistic reminded me of a saying I heard often at the bars when someone was wasted: “Don’t worry. It’s not alcoholism until you’re 25.” And we would laugh and genuinely believe we were fine.
The American Addiction Center states that “binge drinking too much can lead to physical tolerance, alcohol dependence, addiction, and internal damage to the body’s organs, particularly the liver. Students who begin drinking while underage, including during social events in college, put themselves at risk of a lifetime of harm.” The article also states that young adults between 18 and 24 who are in college are far likelier to drink to excess than their non-college peers.
This could be for many reasons including increased social pressure to drink, inconsistent enforcement of underage drinking on and off-campus, academic stress, and the accessibility of alcohol. USA students involved in a fraternity or sorority are even more likely to drink. It’s also very difficult to predict which students will “mature-out” of their heavy drinking and which ones will develop alcohol dependency.
Like most people my age, I stereotyped alcoholics as individuals who drink every day just to function, and I assumed you didn’t have a problem until you developed physical dependence. To me, alcoholics probably had multiple DUIs, anger management issues, and difficulty holding down a job or maintaining healthy relationships.
But diagnosing a drinking problem is not so black and white, and not everyone with an Alcohol Use Disorder fits the description we often see portrayed in the media. Some people drink every evening but still go to work in the morning and perform very well. Students can pull themselves out of a bender to cram for finals and pass their classes.
Should we only label it as a problem when the individual can no longer manage or mask their disorder? The updated DMS-V doesn’t think so.
It outlines Alcohol Use Disorder as a spectrum, acknowledging that abuse at any stage can be dangerous and have lasting consequences. You don’t need to be at the extreme end of the spectrum now to acknowledge your problem and receive treatment. And treatment isn’t just limited to AA and a life of sobriety. Many young people find therapy and learning to drink in moderation works wonders.
While my mental and physical health certainly suffered during my college benders, I feel very lucky that I acknowledged and resolved my unhealthy drinking patterns when I did and not waiting to hit rock bottom first.
But young people who quit before ruining their life may face confusion, skepticism, and even resistance from their peers. It’s much easier for us to respect the sobriety of a full-blown alcoholic than a young twenty-something who just seemed to enjoy partying more than usual.
We normalize heavy drinking so much that many red flags get overlooked until EMS or the police show up.
Fortunately, plenty of binge drinkers who indulge in college, early adulthood, or during stressful situations can recognize eventually when their drinking is getting out of hand and make positive lifestyle adjustments to lower their drinking to safer levels. For me, becoming self-aware and speaking to a therapist helped me learn to moderate.
However, I am choosing to abstain because the benefits are amazing. Ultimately, I’m happier being sober. And that matters the most.
Since I stopped drinking:
My health has improved. I have fewer digestive issues, clearer skin, and more energy.
I also have saved money since I’m no longer buying expensive cocktails or liquor.
I’ve been able to focus on my goals and personal growth.
I’m more confident in my relationships because I know the people in my life love me for my authentic self and not the drunk, loud version of me.
Not drinking hasn’t solved all my problems, but it has helped me face them head-on instead of relying on methods of escapism.
When I am sober, I know I am actively becoming my best self. I feel proud each day of how far I have come, and I don’t want to trade that feeling away for one night of fun that I know will be followed by days of guilt, anxiety, and being hungover.
Maybe one day I will drink responsibly again, but for now I do not see that being the case. I’m simply feeling too good to risk going back to my old habits. There’s still so much progress I have to make, and I want nothing to derail that.
While I am confident in my decision now, there was a point where I feared other peoples’ opinions.
Not drinking in Japan was relatively easy because my reputation there was different, and my social groups didn’t revolve around alcohol. But I was nervous about what my friends and family back home would think. I remember having thoughts like what if they judge me or don’t invite me out anymore?
I was honestly a little relieved that the pandemic meant large gatherings with alcohol weren’t allowed. On zoom calls, I could drink sparkling water while my friends sipped their beer and wine, no big deal.
When I first shared my intention to drink moderately, I received a few mixed reactions. Most people supported me right away. Others seemed a bit shocked, felt I was overreacting, and wanted me to drink with them, anyway. They didn’t think I had a problem. But I maintained my boundaries, and those people eventually came around.
Then, I realized my decision wasn’t that big of a deal.
It only affected me after all. I wasn’t asking anyone else to quit with me or refusing to be around alcohol ever again. I accepted that the people who love me would support me even if they didn’t fully understand.
While I’m fortunate to have very supportive people in my life who respect my choices, it’s not uncommon to lose friendships when pursuing sobriety. You may realize the only thing you had in common with one group of people was booze.
Without that, neither of you may particularly enjoys the other’s company. It’s a good time to find new people who share your hobbies and interests. The people who truly support you will understand your decision and find ways to connect with you that don’t involve heavy drinking, even if that was something you did previously.
I’m not out much, but as Covid-19 restrictions have eased, I’ve learned to say “no, thanks” when offered a drink. I don’t owe anyone an explanation.
If someone is genuinely curious about why I’m not drinking, I’m happy to share, but I don’t feel the need to make it a big deal from the beginning. When I am more comfortable returning out into the world, I know I’ll be able to stick to my guns without caring if I seem uncool or uptight.
I’m sure I’ll go to bars and parties less often than I used to, but I still plan to be around people who are drinking and enjoying themselves. I’ll be there having a good time and making sure things don’t get too crazy!
Ultimately, I would like to show my readers and listeners that it’s okay to make personal decisions for your body and health without worrying about what others may think of you.
My goal is not to pressure anybody here to give up drinking or shame anyone for their choices or lifestyle. Most of my friends and family still drink, and I see nothing wrong with that for them.
But just because a lifestyle may work for some doesn’t mean it’s necessarily a one-size-fits-all. My decisions are for me and me alone. I hope that through sharing my experiences, I can help break down the stigma of sobriety, provide a word of caution to young drinkers, and offer support to those struggling with alcohol abuse disorders.
If you can relate to my journey or benefit from it, then making this episode is 100% worth it.
For those of you listening to the podcast, check out the blog post if you’d like to review the sources I used. I will also include links to resources for anyone who may struggle with alcohol use.
You are not alone.
Thanks so much for reading or listening, and I hope you have a wonderful day!