Words and Artwork: Tess Hardy (she/her)
Disclaimer: Certain names are kept anonymous for privacy reasons
Growing up in the UK, the apex “coming of age” moment is moving to university. Leaving your childhood home, packing up your room as you enter a new world: a teenage utopia. The notorious freshers’ events, drinking and hook-up culture. These ideas of the stereotypical teenage experience are a testament to, and generated by, 2000s media: the rough and romanticised Skins and Trainspotting or the painful satire comedy Fresh Meat.
In all honesty, I was terrified of the profound drinking culture disreputably associated with university. Vodka-squash pre’s, copious Jager bombs and cheap union pints, creating a tempest of drunkenness and leaving you hanging in your 9am lecture the next day.
Coming from North-East England, the proclaimed “binge drinking capital of Britain”, I’ve always been aware of the foul side of nightlife. I had an inordinate fear of embarrassing myself, or becoming a sensationalised “Northerner” like the Geordie Shore cast, commodified for comedy while pertaining to underlying classism. My best friend went to Newcastle Uni. When I visited her at 16, I was dazed. Saturday night entailed outbursts of street harassment, Maccies brawls and people shagging on Northumberland Street.
Her time at university occurred amidst my A-Levels. As my anxiety became unbearable, I was relentlessly thinking, ‘how am I going to manage at university?’. I realised medication was viable and I was prescribed Sertraline. What didn’t occur to me was that combining Sertraline with alcohol causes an atrocious reaction. Sadly, I learnt this on my 18th birthday, recognizing I’d go to university sober. This challenged one of the largest aspects of university culture I had grown to understand. I fell into the myth that if I wasn’t drinking, I wasn’t “doing Uni properly”.
The social aspect of freshers is a paradox amplified by its synergy with drinking. It’s a red pill vs. blue pill moment.
Red pill: During freshers, you have the time of your life! It only happens once, so go out every night, buy that £50 wristband and meet the people who will be your #BFFS4EVER! If you don’t, it’s social suicide.
Blue pill: The friendships you make during freshers are factitious and have an impending expiry date. You’ll acquire hundreds of followers which eventually become a sea of faceless people.
I found this to be the fuel behind the fires of student drinking. The need for confidence, the liquid luck that lets you lose yourself and forget the fear of the blue pill and embrace the lie of the red. I chose neither. No wristband, no group chats: nothing, with no liquid magic to socially bail me out.
I blindly let myself be led down this social rabbit hole.
The rabbit first led me to the QMU White T-Shirt Party. In that queue, I met a strange array of people from all over the world: D.C., Egypt, Scotland, the South, the South-west and the North-east. We all met at the same time, completely by chance and completely sober. I found that I wasn’t alone in my sobriety. A. freshly 21, experiencing drinking for the first time and Y. a practising Muslim. As Saturday night shifted into Sunday morning, I realised something: the moments in the clubs were fun and stereotypical of student life, but they weren’t that week’s takeaways.
The moments that gave me a sense of satisfaction were seemingly more menial compared to the chaos of clubbing. It was cheesy chips from 727 and seeing two mythical-looking foxes in the street, consoling my tears after a GUSA girl made me cry on the night bus, bonding over Bob’s Burgers, taking pictures of my sonny angel baby in the Botanic Gardens or game night in my (surprisingly large) room drinking chai. I found people who mirrored me all around: the cashier at Papyrus or the girl sitting next to me having coffee. All it took was me saying something, anything: ‘I love your scrunchie,’ ‘is that a ceramic crocodile charm on your Crocs?’ or ‘I love your tattoos.’
Ironically, this wasn’t an unknown concept to me, making friends with the “cool girl” at my local bookshop who consoled my fears of alcoholic abstinence in the world of academia. But I was blinded by the trepidation of missing out on a false feeling of validation. The prerequisite for copious amounts of shots for confidence and asking for boys’ Snapchats in Hive with sweat dripping down the walls was left redundant, and I found an alternative way to do university “properly.”
The fear I felt going to university was unnecessarily interlaced with my fears of not drinking, favouring a lime soda with two straws instead of a Tennent’s. My qualms were quickly forgotten as false assumptions fused with reality and were eventually demolished. Completely sober, I found friendships and comfort in this beautiful city I get to call home.