11 October 2018
A study has revealed that a third of under-25s don’t drink. Lucy Holden wishes she had stopped sooner
I wish I’d stopped drinking at 25. I was 25 when I phoned Alcoholics Anonymous. It was only three years ago, and while that feels like a lifetime, I can picture myself sitting at the small table in the converted loft of the lawyer I lived with in Newcastle while I dialled the number lucidly.
I was curious, mainly. I knew I drank too much and I wanted to hear what they’d say, but I wasn’t taking it too seriously because everyone I knew was an alcoholic if the NHS guidelines were anything to go by, probably even the Queen. The man I spoke to said he was an alcoholic too. I tried to sip the glass of white wine I’d just poured quietly. I thought it would be rude if he heard me. Then I promised to go to a meeting, but of course I never went.
Yesterday’s news suggested that there’s finally a generation that doesn’t need to excuse its bingeing in the way that those before them have. A third of people under 25 don’t drink, according to a study of 10,000 young people, with the proportion who have never tried alcohol almost doubling in a year. As a binge-drinker of ten years strong, I found the news, well, annoying.
“Absolute bores,” we said of this younger, teetotal generation, scoffing at headlines that suggested they weren’t interested in getting legless at 4am. We far from envied this pious bunch and their vainly “clean” and mindful existence that seemed to take place on sticky yoga mats more than the sticky floors of bars. I wrote off anyone who didn’t drink, and the fiancé of a good friend who told me he didn’t “believe” in the hair of the dog; I was surprised anyone could be so stupid.
But this year something changed. At 28, I’ve given up booze, which was horrible because I love it. “I only drink champagne on two occasions, when I am in love and when I am not,” said Coco Chanel, and I agreed. Alcohol suited every emotion, I thought. I also found it incredibly alluring. My generation was binge-drinking at 15, and once we got past the White Lightning cider phase, I felt an overwhelming excitement about the limitless possibilities behind bars. Then, to my horror, I realised I had to stop after having a huge panic attack this year; my hands scrunched into immovable balls as the adrenaline flooded to my chest to try to help me to breathe. I’ve only had a handful of panic attacks, but they’ve always come immediately after days of drinking a city dry.
The comedian John Bishop said putting petrol in a diesel car “is like putting gin in a woman. You know at some point she will break down.” But wine is just as lethal: we drink it like Badoit and order another. I regret the epiphanic moment I realised that it turned nothing into “something” like a magic trick by making it seem celebratory. When that thinking becomes ingrained, nothing is fun without a drink.
“Bottomless” drinking culture is everywhere, and I’m convinced the inventor of the “bottomless brunch” was a complete sadist, given the sole aim in booking a table is to drink as much prosecco as you can over two hours while eating scrambled eggs, then trying to go about the rest of your weekend accident-free.
If a younger generation are avoiding all this, they’re saving themselves a lot of grief. If I’d given up alcohol at 25, I wouldn’t have had so many sick days, so many rows with my boyfriends and parents, cancelled so many friends, wasted so much money and let horrible men kiss me at the ends of nights out.
I wouldn’t have a huge scar on my leg from a night at the Box in Soho I can barely remember, and memories of leaving phones and favourite coats all over London. I wouldn’t have had an affair that ruined the relationship I was in and then almost broke my sanity entirely. I would better remember late-night conversations with close friends, one of whom I was shocked to learn had moved to India since I saw her the previous week.
“I did tell you!” she said.
“Was it very late?” I asked nervously.
“We were very drunk, yes,” she said.
That’s the thing. Everyone I know drinks too much, but often the women are worse. My female friends make out with their Uber drivers and don’t go to work. One got sacked recently and another got signed off work for stress that she knows is connected to late-night drinking, but can’t control.
One was put on to anti-anxiety medication and given a stash of valium to control crippling panic attacks that come only after a night out drinking. Among twentysomethings anxiety is rife, but drinking intensifies it and, worst of all, many young women I know use drink to try to control it, only making it worse.
Until you give it up, you don’t realise how much calmer everything instantly becomes. At first, I actually felt as if a part of my personality was missing — which is perhaps the most awful part of the come-down. Or is the worst part of it the fact that I’ve only just realised that anyone who gets hammered all the time is just a complete bore?
‘Change my ways? I’d need to change my friends’
Ben Clatworthy, 25, travel expert
A third of under-25s are now teetotal? Not me. And definitely not a third of my friends. It’s a good job too: we socialise in pubs or over dinner, naturally with a bottle of wine.
Half of my generation, apparently, have not drunk in the past week (up from 35 per cent in 2005). Half? In the past week, I’ve been to a book launch, had dinner with my old flatmate, another with my best friend from school, dinner with my mum, caught up with a colleague at the pub and last night, after filing this piece, was off to a work party. Six nights: all with booze.
I’m not getting blindly drunk, nor waking up feeling ill — so what’s the big deal? I might only have managed one night off in the past week, but I’ve had a great time. The colleague I met at the pub is a (temporary) teetotaller who has kicked the booze for Go Sober for October.
October’s my birthday month, so it’s not a bandwagon I’d like to be on.
Do I drink too much? Probably. But to change my ways I’d need to change my dear friends and find some permanently sober ones. The thought alone is enough to drive me to drink.
‘I’ve pretended my sparkling water is a gin and tonic’
Elisabeth Perlman, 26, journalist
Call me sensible, or boring even, but I’ve always hated the feeling of being out of control. When I was a child I’d pour my parents’ glasses of wine down the sink at an opportune moment. If that failed I’d elicit the help of the salt and pepper shakers, making their cabernet sauvignon undrinkable. I actually cried on a family trip to Amsterdam, petrified that I had inhaled marijuana. That was the extent of my obsession with a drug and alcohol-free existence.
As a teenager I wasn’t in the cool crowd (surprise, surprise). There was no vodka-swigging or smoking by the school gates during Friday lunch breaks. Then came university. Drinking was no longer confined to a group of girls who’d fast-tracked their way through adolescence. Absolutely everyone shunned my teetotal lifestyle. I was introduced to the world of binge-boozers who downed Jägerbombs and chugged cheap tequila. I learnt that a £3 bottle of Lambrini is best consumed alone — with a straw. Occasionally, I did have a few drinks. Other times I said I was on antibiotics to avoid the “Wait, are you pregnant?” conversation. When it got really awkward I pretended my sparkling water was gin and tonic.
Of course, I’ve had the odd night I don’t remember. I’ve sent the 3am drunk Whatsapp professing my love for an emotionally unavailable ex-boyfriend. There was a New Year’s Eve when I lost my belongings in a nightclub, including my keys. I rang the bell at 4am and was greeted by my dad, who opened the door, huffy and bleary-eyed.
It wasn’t until my early twenties that I started to understand the appeal, albeit limited, of good wine. I liked a guy who had a penchant for pinot noir and found myself drinking it in his company. But the truth is that I just don’t enjoy alcohol that much.
Waking up with a bucket positioned beside my pillow and a pounding headache is not my idea of fun. Most of my friends don’t get it, but at least I’m a cheap date.
‘I tried it on my 18th birthday. I thought, pfft’
Harry Hickmore, 25, theatre development head
I’ve never been that interested in alcohol, but in the past six months I’ve stopped drinking almost entirely. I might have half a pint or something if it’s a celebration, but between Sunday and Thursday I won’t touch a drop.
That may partly be because my parents didn’t drink unless it was Christmas. They never had wine at the dinner table, so I never associated drinking with being an adult and I didn’t try it until around my 18th birthday, when I remember first thinking: “Pfft.”
When I went to university I’d listen to other people’s stories about getting drunk in parks aged 14 or 15 and think they sounded completely alien. There was always a bit of booze at school parties, but I just wasn’t interested.
When I was at university in Cambridge, there was so much other stuff going on I didn’t feel the need to drink every night. I was studying music and I drank as much as your average, quite sensible undergraduate. That makes me sound really square it just never thrilled me. I drank a bit — our time was more flexible and you could sleep in if you had a searing headache the next day, which I seem always to have even after one drink.
That’s the main reason I’ve completely stopped drinking on school nights because I find it too difficult to wake up the next day, and I have a really busy, interesting job [at Wilton’s Music Hall in east London] and want to be always on the ball.
Sometimes it’s hard, especially when you work somewhere like Wilton’s, where there’s an amazing bar, and particularly I think if you work in the creative industries. The after-work drink culture is hard enough to avoid and sometimes an eyebrow is raised if I ask for a tonic water. I just don’t want to pretend I’ve got the stamina to drink all night.
When I worked at English National Opera as a fundraiser I’d often be working in the evenings until about 10pm if there was a performance on, and I was expected to be there first thing in the morning too. I just found that alcohol on top of long hours led to a feeling of burnout.
Actually lots of younger people don’t automatically order alcohol, especially in the week, and many of my friends are more interested in the gym than the boozer. Last year I was even invited to a “workout party” to celebrate a friend’s 25th birthday. It was actually quite fun if you like the sound of pass the parcel while jogging on the spot.
I went back to Cambridge last week and had an interesting chat with one of the academics about how freshers week has changed. He said students are more interested in how they look and in the activities on offer than in getting drunk and worrying about what pictures go up online.
I just finished reading Tina Brown’s The Vanity Fair Diaries and she credits being allergic to alcohol with helping her to achieve so much. I’d never thought about it like this before, but it made me wonder whether you can achieve more by drinking less.
‘I love being sober, never waking cloudy with a hangover’
Jayna Cavendish, 30, yoga teacher
I gave up alcohol aged 22 because I felt as if it was becoming a destructive force and I realised I wasn’t in control. I was drinking to fill emptiness that I felt inside. I was a professional dancer and I left ballet school aged 18, and it just started to spiral and feel unmanageable.
I enjoyed drinking maybe a little bit too much, I thought it was cool. I remember being in New York, where I lived for a while doing modelling, and one night I went out with friends and at 10pm I blacked out. I couldn’t remember the rest of the evening and I woke up the next day in a flat I didn’t recognise. It shocked me. I found out later that a friend spotted I was getting out of it and took me home, gave me his room and slept on the sofa. Had it been someone else, things could have got really bad. It was quite a wake-up call.
Drinking made me feel very disconnected from myself, to the point where I couldn’t feel anything emotionally. I could see that there were two paths ahead — one was experiencing my life fully and the other was a self-destructive route.
I was fortunate enough to go to rehab, which was the turning point. One of the big things that has helped is my yoga practice, healing the deep-rooted reasons I drank in the first place. I’m now a yoga teacher, running my business Kind Yoga, and working in music — I’m in a band called AYA with my sister Bess, who is also sober, which helps.
About once a year I’ll think, “It would be really nice to have a glass of red wine now,” but it passes.
I love being sober. I love never having to wake up in the morning cloudy with a hangover; never having to stay at an event that I’m not enjoying just because I’m drunk and so is everybody else. The energy that I’ve been able to redirect away from drinking and into the things I love, which are music and yoga, is phenomenal.
‘A drink in hand remains a social norm in my life’
Hannah Rogers, 25, fashion writer
I am just 25 and my question is: where are this third of young men and women who don’t drink? Nearly everyone I know does.
In fact, at this moment there are only three types of people I know who will turn down a drink: the ones going sober for October (which is, actually, an act of charity); the ones on an extreme diet; and the ones training for a marathon.
Actually, I’m training for a half-marathon, which is in two weeks’ time, but haven’t quite got to the point of turning down wine.
Neither has my boyfriend, who is also doing the half; he spent the weekend sinking beer at Oktoberfest in Munich.
Others I know who don’t drink never have, for personal reasons. But even then I can think of no more than three of those people. Everyone else is only ever doing “sober sprints”, with varying degrees of success.
So, yes, I drink. Obviously. When I was growing up, it never crossed my mind that I wouldn’t. When we were too young to drink, we all wanted to, desperately, and would on any occasion we were allowed. And through my late teens and early twenties, getting as drunk as possible — even in a ball gown — was the entire point of a social meeting. In fact, at most ticketed social events I went to at university, that ticket would include a bottle of wine to myself. Hopefully more if you knew the people running it.
These days I try not to drink on a week night because my hangovers seem to last days instead of hours. But it doesn’t take much to tempt me: a dinner party, birthday, work event or glass’s worth of wine left in the fridge will do the trick.
At the weekend all bets are off: bottomless brunch, sports socials, “shall we just go to the pub for one?” afternoons that turn into 4am stints on sticky dancefloors in Stockwell. A drink in hand remains a social norm in my life and general indicator of fun times ahead.
Of course, I’ll have to start my own sober sprint next week. Thankfully the half marathon is in Amsterdam. There’s a beer at the end.