Sober & Not Boring: Not Drinking at University

Image Courtesy of Rakshana Gopinath | InQuire Photography

Picture this: a fresher dressed up like a carrot, completely sober, stood in the middle of a group of drunk girls chugging down booze. That was me. It was 2016, my first year at university and the first time I experienced initiations. I had decided to join the University of Kent Women’s Lacrosse Club. I had heard they could down one-litre bottles quicker than I could count to ten. They put half the larger guys to shame with their gulping efforts, before placing a cup on their heads to signal they had finished the entire thing. They did not need degrees when they got the informal award of ‘Best Downer of Drinks’. I was impressed.

In recent years, the British Sporting Association has clamped down on initiations, branding it ‘toxic’ and ‘forceful’. But back then it was an unspoken rule that you had to attend initiations to be a part of a sports team, and no one seemed to give a damn if they were being forced to lick VK from the floor.

These unofficial welcome socials stretched across all the main sports teams – hockey, rugby, lacrosse, cheerleading, netball, the list goes on. You were told a time, a place, and a theme. Nothing else. You were expected to be punctual and to follow the dress code right down to the orange paint. If you disobeyed, you would be ‘punished’. Initiations reminded me of prohibition. All those underground speakeasie’s dominating the drink prohibited streets after hours.

Arriving at the scene, we had been briefed the rules. The older girls spoke only through megaphones, daring us to talk back. Our orange tops and trousers were miles longer than their denim shorts and checked tops. I did not care about looking bad, but I feared the liquid inside the bottles nestled between their fingers.

I have always had a phobia of drinks that are not water. My dad is petrified of heights; he says that when he gets too close to the edge of a bridge, there is a sharp feeling of panic in his chest. I get that panic when I’m close to a drink that is not the clear liquid you get from the tap.

The first time I remember feeling this way was when I was about four or five and my mum had tried to make me drink a carton of orange juice. I was a small toddler, too scared to even touch the box, flailing my arms around until my mum gave up. The fear followed me throughout primary school, heightened when a boy spat a brown coloured fluid on my leg during late club. I fled to the bathroom, scratching my leg with a blue paper towel trying desperately to get the mysterious substance off before it sunk into my skin. Nausea in my veins. If there were drinks too close to me when sat at a table in a fancy restaurant I would push the glass away with a napkin between my fingers and the surface, until I felt comfortable. Hosting a ‘gathering’ at my house, people have to leave their drinks outside my door if they want to come into my room. The idea of it in my space makes me convulse. Even glasses that I have not washed or that are not my own. To this day, I still do not know how this phobia arose. All I know is that I cannot stop the ice-cold hand that claws its way up my back when thinking about anything that is not water.

As I got older, the fear of people judging me was a notch higher than my fear of drinks. There are only so many weird looks you can take from people when they ask you to pass their drink and you decline. They do not understand that you are not being rude; you just don’t want people to witness your queasy state. As a kid, you can get away with not liking something but an adult has to suck it up.

I learnt to compromise. By sixth form, I could touch the bottle of a drink if I had to. By first year of university, if a drink spilled on me, I would not have a major freak out in public. I would quietly go straight to the bathroom and wipe the wet spot until it was red raw. In third-year, I worked in a bar and I would serve the drinks without a fuss, mop up the bar when liquids were split, and even change the beer barrel. I sucked it up for my paycheck and when I would get home from my work shift, I would fling my collared work shirt straight into the washing machine and shower away the moisture. Cleansing myself head-to-toe of the fluids that made me want to strip my skin off. I battled through the fear of touching unknown liquids, but the idea of them being anywhere near my lips makes my heart pulse at an unsteady rate.

I concluded that it was rare for people in sports clubs to not drink. My brothers had told me stories of their university shenanigans, stories of being in sports teams. Yet, despite the stories of intoxication and heavy drinking culture, I still wanted to be in a sports club. My brothers dwelled over the fun of playing matches, of being a part of a team and partying together. I had watched the Lacrosse girls in their gorgeous kits at the Freshers Fair, kitted out in sunglasses and lacrosse sticks slung over their shoulders. Sports clubs were like families. I wanted that. I wanted to feel a part of a group at university. The surroundings of an entirely new place, especially one as big as Kent, were unnerving enough. I was desperate to fit in.

So, I stood there, wet cans and cider at my feet. Pinpricks on my arms from the unnerving cold chill, hands rubbing up-and-down my bumpy skin in an attempt to keep my body above freezing. Girls ran around, screaming as flour was chucked all over them. The flour was soft and harmless, but the liquid was poison to me. I clutched a plastic bottle of water firmly in my hand, drinking from it whenever anyone else would drink from theirs. Someone even thought I was drinking straight vodka. I smiled, swigging it back. But, when the older girls started coming around with their own mixtures, it was harder to pretend. A girl stood in front of me, holding a plastic bottle above my head: “Drink it or wear it?” Wearing it was the only option. It took all my strength to not let my inner grimace become outer. I knew I would be showering for hours after the night was done.

I was only a quarter way through the initiation, and they were already throwing more drinks my way. I had declined every single one with various excuses. For every refusal, I was told to do press-ups, sit-ups, burpees, anything that could make up for my ‘lameness’. But I was starting to get some weird looks. There were only so many times I could say “Oh, but I just had some from her bottle” and “I’ve got a 9am tomorrow” without seeming like a wimp. I was out of my depth – like a fish swimming with sharks in a sea of Sangria. At that moment, I knew I had to tell someone I was teetotal. I will never forget that shame-filled moment. Walking up to the social secretary, in my orange attire and shaking legs, muttering in a meek voice so no one else could hear: “I don’t drink alcohol”. A face of disbelief, with confusion and a layer of disgust. She masked it quickly with seemingly caring eyes, but I saw the judgement. The girl I confided in told me they were not going to make me do anything I did not want to do. But, from her tone, I knew she was sure as hell going to make me feel bad about it.

I had to prove that I could still be fun. The rest of the initiations consisted of me appearing to be as drunk as everyone else. I decided to ramp up my usual hyper self. I bounced off the drunken atmosphere of those around me. Falling over, glazed over eyes, drunken screams. I stumbled past other members of the club, older girls saying: “She’s far gone.”

Although I aced initiations, I still felt I had a long way to go to feel integrated into the sport. So, I stuck around. Went to training sessions. Enjoyed the sport. Partying the odd night out here and there. There was one con. I was scared to go to events by myself, sober. Everyone I know would not dream of turning up to a night out sober when they did not know anyone. They would be drunk before they got there to numb any social anxiety.

Luckily, I had Fiona. She was one of my best friends on the team. She was a third-year student who fulfilled the drunken Irish stereotype. One of the few people who knew that I was a teetotaller. Since telling that one girl at initiations I had been sceptical, but Fiona never once judged or sneered. She accepted it and moved on. She would often cover for me if anyone shoved a drink in my face and told me “down it fresher”, by grabbing the drink and downing it herself. If there were ever group shots or someone who brought me a drink, I would put my lips to the straw and pretend to sip, but then swap my full cup with Fiona’s empty one.

Nights out with the team would consist of running around the place, clutching what was, to unknowing spectators, a red plastic cup filled with water. Making everyone think you are drunk is surprisingly easy. I have binged so many episodes of Skins and been surrounded by enough drunk mates at sixth form to known how to fit in with the drunkards. It worked every time. My teetotal world remained unnoticed as everyone else was too far gone to realise.

Until Tour.

Tour 2018 was initiations all over again. We were fresher’s again. A holiday that was not really a holiday, consisting of five days on the beach of sunny Croatia. Except it was not sunny. And we did not go to the beach.

I had been on ‘boozy holidays’ before. I have stepped off a two-hour shuttle bus at 4am in the depths of Magaluf, greeted by boys smashing bottles and chanting ‘fresh meat’ at us. It was intimidating, to say the least. But in Magaluf, I did not have to worry about not drinking because there were no set rules.

The trip consisted of most of the sports teams from the university getting drunk and doing challenges. There are ‘tour families’, where members of Men’s Lacrosse and Women’s Lacrosse, who have been on tour before, are parents to their selected children, who are named ‘tour freshers’.

It started on the couch. Hands tied to my calf. I had tape over my mouth because I was ‘too mouthy’. Dressed in a rubber ring and armbands. I took the challenges happily, anything that did not involve drinking was a blessing in my eyes.

I did as many challenges as I could as if it was my compensation for not drinking.

My sober mind was a blur. On the first day, my body was wrapped in bubble wrap and I fell into the pool. The second day, the social secretary superglued cheese to my face, which unintentionally pulled the entirety of my eyebrow off with it. My nickname became ‘cheese girl’. On the third day, I was covered head-to-toe in an entire tube of sun cream.

I relished in the attention. No one tried to get me to drink. They were intently focused on my crazy acts that were beyond the point of recreation. They drew on my face words such as “mouthy”, “crazy”, “legend”, and “insane”. There were no words like boring or dull tattooed on my skin.

Those I had never spoken to would approach me, telling me they were surprised I was that crazy and fun. A smirk rose on my lips when they said: “You must be off your face all the time”.

Due to the unsuspecting nature of those surrounding me, I never expected the truth to come out on the final night. The theme for the night was Parrots and Pirates, the parents being pirates and the children parrots. The social secretary who glued cheese to my face read out the annual tour awards. He said my name for the award for ‘Most Fun Fresher’. My heartbeat increased. People clapped and laughed, some even pointing to my non-existent eyebrow. I was smug. I did not drink but I was still fun.

“She doesn’t even drink,” Fiona laughed as the words left her mouth. My cheeks flushed red. A million eyes blinking. My narrowed eyes turned to Fiona, but she misread my anger as teasing. Question after question flew in. “How is that possible?” or “You do drugs, right?” and “Are you religious?”

More questions followed throughout the night. “Is it because you have health isssues?” and “Why do you pretend to be drunk all the time?” Then, those who did not go on tour found out. Word spreads like wildfire in sports clubs. I was not mad at Fiona anymore. She apologised.

“You are fun. Own it,” She affirmed.

I justified myself against the questions, to begin with. I lied and even went along with the health issues story when I could not be bothered to explain. People didn’t even notice if I lied. They believed what they wanted to believe.

But the lies ran dry through my gritted teeth. The final term of my second-year brought with it a new flourish of truth. Not all at once, but gradually. I no longer felt the need to pretend I did not drink when I met new people. I would tell them if they asked, but only if they asked. I stopped keeping the contents of my cup of water away from prying eyes. If people thought I seemed smashed, I let them. Unless they asked me.

Some accepted it, some did not. Same old story.

What surprised me the most was the gazes of admiration I had received from those closest to me when they watched me act on a night out. They would mutter to each other, ‘she doesn’t even drink, it’s amazing, how does she have this much energy?” Those were the judging words I did not mind hearing.

Back then, I never knew why sports teams revelled in drinking. It’s to let loose. To be able to celebrate victories and commiserate losses. A chance to bond as a club and allow members to speak to one another unfiltered.

After that, no one actually seemed to care that I didn’t drink. If anything, most people were in awe. That judgmental girl from initiations was not an accurate reflection of lacrosse nor most students. The rest of the club swooped me into their arms. The sober girl who was just as fun as the rest of them. Most of the time they forget I don’t drink, still offering me shots to this very day. Everyone I have met has been genuinely lovely about my teetotalism.

I never feel out of place around drunk people. Sometimes, I feel like drunk people are out of place around me. There are moments of annoyance from the comments naïve people make. “Ah, you two will definitely get on!” Jen said when her tee-total friend came down to visit., assuming that we are all the same. Or “I’m sorry you’re surrounded by drunk people”. You don’t say to a man, "I’m sorry you’re surrounded by women.” People often assume that I must hate being around drunk people as a teetotaller, but the truth is, I’ve never minded being around drunk people. Some just didn’t like being around me. ‘Why do you act drunk?’ It’s not intentional. I’m just an extrovert. One of my personal favourites is a post on the anonymous UniKentFess Instagram page: “Lacrosse President doesn’t drink. #cool kid.”

I made a list of pros and cons once. There were a million cons to not drink written down on my notepad. But only one in the pros: because everyone else does. I crossed it out, drawing line after line through those words that cut through me like a knife. I crushed it beneath my pen until it was unreadable. I stand out like I want to, against a bland background.

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First published in 1965, InQuire is the University of Kent student newspaper.

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