New Zealand is not the easiest place to be sober. But we are increasingly questioning our attitudes towards alcohol. The 2019 Global Drug Survey found that 42.5% of New Zealanders wanted to drink less than they had in previous years. That was 5% above the global average of 37%. So, while alcohol can seem like a permanent feature of our lives, New Zealanders increasingly want to change that.
Looking at Dunedin, you might not get the impression that things are changing. Anecdotally, a lot of students give false answers on the campus doctor’s alcohol questionnaire to avoid being sent to alcohol counselling. Binge drinking is widespread. Alcohol is our favourite drug, despite the harm that it causes. I talked to Tim, a student who has recently stopped drinking, about his experiences of being sober in an environment where drinking is the centrepiece of social interactions.
“Every event after six involves alcohol,” Tim says. “There’s nothing stopping you from drinking”. The attitude is basically, “you’re surrounded by it and it’s legal so why would you not?” He made the decision to be sober so that he could train for a sporting event.
“I feel a lot healthier,” he says. He’s lost weight and he has more energy than he used to. “One of the biggest things is feeling like I’m not putting as much crap in my body. I just feel better.” There’s something to be said for not having a hangover every weekend. “When I get up in the morning on a Sunday, I feel like I can go out and do stuff and be productive.”
But he doesn’t want to make it sound like an easy ride for others. “The worst part is that it can be quite lonely,” he says. “You might be with other people but you’re not drinking so there are certain times when you’re not quite on the same level.” He still goes out with friends, but he has to find new ways to get involved with his friends when they go out drinking. “I do a lot of sober driving.”
There has been peer pressure, too. That’s not just something made up by health classes at high school. “At the start, it was really bad,” Tim tells me. “All the time, every time I went out,” people would ask him why he wasn’t drinking or encourage him to have a few.
Now that he’s demonstrated he is serious about his decision, people tend to leave him alone. “It’s rolled back and there’s quite a lot of respect,” he says. People ask him about his experiences being sober. “People always say: ‘I could never do that.’ And they could.” It wasn’t an easy decision to make, but once he’d made his mind up, he found that he could follow through.
The upcoming sporting event makes it easy to tell people why he is not drinking. “If I didn’t have that, I think it would have been a lot harder,” he says. But training was not his only motivation to stop drinking. “There was a long list of bad decisions and I realised that I should take a break for a bit.” Tim knew that being sober would help, but it took a while to work up to the decision. You have to be firm in your decision, he says. “It’s not a flip of the switch, especially somewhere like Dunedin where the drinking culture is rampant in social gatherings on weekends.”
His experiences being sober have not made him anti-alcohol. “It’s not a thing where nobody should drink and everyone should be sober all the time, it’s just figuring out what works for you.” That said, he does think that more people should try it. “It tells you a lot about yourself.”
New Zealanders like to drink. And we like to drink heavily. Basically, once we’re 18 – and in a lot of cases, before then – we drink a lot and normalise that drinking for others. Our perspective on alcohol is warped, because since the end of high school we haven’t even considered being sober. We’re so deep in a culture that normalises heavy drinking that it can be hard to reconsider our own drinking habits. If you’re curious about what being sober is like, take Tim’s advice: “Try it.”Support Villainesse