If I drink a small cup of coffee at 8 AM, I can be awake until 6 or 7 AM the next morning. Caffeine affects me more than it affects most people. I’ve learned that the hard way enough times. Caffeinated black tea or green tea in the morning has kept me awake all night, when I’ve left the tea bag in a little bit too long. The one time I tried a pumpkin spice latte, I didn’t sleep for 24 hours. I can’t take Midol anymore because the new caffeinated formula makes my hands shake. On New Year’s Eve two years ago, I drank half a can of Red Bull and was awake for 36 hours, and I felt jittery for a full week, long after it should have been out of my system. I should mention that my friend who drank a Red Bull with me fell asleep a couple hours after drinking it and, as far as I know, was not affected by it after that day. I am a Highly Sensitive Person [link] and I can’t process caffeine the same way that most people can.
When I say that I can’t have caffeine because I don’t like the way it makes me feel, the way it makes me feel is different than the way it makes most people feel. In other words, most people who start their day with a cup of coffee are still able to fall asleep at night. It’s not like the point of coffee is to stay up all night, every night, and I’m this boring person who doesn’t like that. The caffeine affects me in a different way than it affects you.
Drinking alcohol is similar for me, in that it affects me differently. When I drink alcohol, I feel dizzy and like I have a fever, and everything around me becomes way too much stimulation. I don’t feel looser, I don’t feel like I wanna dance more or party more. I don’t have fun laughing at goofy stuff with my friends. I almost instantly feel like I want to go home and get away from all the stimulation of the party. Alcohol essentially prevents me from having any fun. It ruins my good time. About a year ago at my friend’s party, I tried a slice of watermelon that had been soaked in margarita. It was such a tiny slice, I didn’t think it would affect me at all, and everyone was raving about it so much that I really wanted to just try one piece. Within about ten minutes, I felt like I had fever. I felt dizzy. I felt like the party was way too much stimulation, everything was too loud and too bright and I wanted to go home. I got really upset. I had been looking forward to this party for such a long time and I had to go and ruin it for myself with a slice of watermelon! Luckily it was only one slice, so I instantly tried to counteract it by eating a lot of food, even though I wasn’t hungry, and I eventually felt better and was able to stay and enjoy the rest of the party. All while other people were eating multiple slices of the watermelon and saying that it wasn’t having any effect on them.
This made it sink in with me just how different my experience of alcohol is than most people’s. For the longest time, I really wondered what was wrong with me, why I couldn’t enjoy drinking like everyone else could, and how other people could possibly enjoy something that felt absolutely miserable to me. And then I read about how highly sensitive people have a different experience of things like alcohol and caffeine, and I understood. Like with the coffee, alcohol affects me differently than it affects most people. It’s not a matter of me not enjoying what you enjoy – it’s that I’m having a different sensory experience altogether. If you knew that a cup of coffee in the morning would keep you awake all night, you probably wouldn’t drink it. And likewise, if you had the experience with alcohol that I have, you probably wouldn’t drink at all.
It’s not my fault that I process these things the way that I do. I need you to accept that this is the real reason why I don’t drink.
Remember back in elementary school, when we had the DARE program and they made it sound like you would instantly drop dead or have something horrible happen to you if you took one drink? I will admit that I bought into that when I was a child. I bought into it when I was a teenager as well. As a teenager, I didn’t drink because I was scared that something horrible would happen. And if you knew me back then, you might think that I’m still that way. But I’m not. I took my first shot at age 20 and learned from that that I didn’t like drinking, although I pushed myself to like it for several years. But after age 20, I wasn’t scared anymore. I just legitimately hated the sensory experience of getting drunk. Given the choice, I’d rather be at a party with a cold than be at a party drunk. Being drunk just ruins everything for me and I have never enjoyed it, even if I pretended to.
I need you to understand how sensitive to alcohol I am, and that it’s not an ethical issue to me, it’s not an out-of-comfort-zone issue, and it’s not a not-wanting-to-party issue. I know sometimes people want me to just take one shot together with them to celebrate a wedding or birthday or something, and I appreciate that you want to do that with me, but when I say I can’t have even one shot, I really mean that I can’t because it will ruin the rest of the night for me. Please let me use my own judgement on how alcohol, caffeine, and anything else will affect me, because it doesn’t affect me the same way it affects you.
Not drinking because I don’t enjoy it is completely different from making a choice not to drink even though I do enjoy it.
Imagine that someone can’t have dairy because they’re allergic, but they eat absolutely everything else that they want. That person is not going to fit into a vegan club just because vegans also don’t eat dairy. Because that person is not actually vegan. Now, imagine that a huge portion of mainstream partying and entertainment was centered around eating ice cream. Entire parties were based on ice-cream eating contests and people acted like if you didn’t eat ice cream, you weren’t really participating in the party and you weren’t really having fun. And imagine that the only way to find other people who don’t base their parties on ice cream is to hang out with vegans. Do you see the problem here? Do you see how much it would suck for this person who is allergic to dairy to essentially be forced into a community where they will be expected to give up other foods that they *do* want to eat, simply because it’s the only place where they won’t be pressured to eat ice cream? Do you see that if this person does not want to restrict their food in any way other than dairy, they will essentially never fit into either the mainstream ice-cream party culture, or the vegan culture, and it would be a problem if those were their only choices?
This is what happened to me at college.
I may not drink, but I love to party! (Now, to be clear, I don’t want constant partying, I want most of my time to be quiet and low-stim and by myself, and it was not okay for me to live with roommates or to live in a dorm or to be in any kind of circumstance with forced social contact. But as long as I have those needs met, as long as it’s fully consensual when I want to interact with other people, and as long as nothing horrible is going on in my life, then I definitely want to go out and party. I’ve talked a lot about the issues I had about being an introvert at a very extroverted college, and that was definitely a major problem, but what I’m describing here is problematic as well, and contrary to what a lot of people think, the two do not contradict each other). In high school, I considered myself to be a wild party girl. We had so many wild parties that were awesome and did not involve drinking, and those are still some of my happiest memories. I had always heard that college was a ton of fun and lots of clubbing and wild partying, which I was so looking forward to.
But my college was essentially divided into two cultures – hardcore drinking culture and non-partying culture. In the hardcore drinking culture, people got extremely drunk on the weekends. I mean, if you walked the campus on a Friday or Saturday night, it smelled like vomit. Everywhere. And urine. People would pee on the floor when the bathroom was like ten steps away. People threw furniture out the windows and the rest of us had to pay for all the dorm damage at the end of the year. One time they threw an armchair down from the third floor that would have killed someone if it had landed on them. People regularly were hospitalized for alcohol poisoning. People talked about having gotten their stomachs pumped multiple times, as if that was just a normal part of life.
We used to have a 24/7 health center on campus, but one year they announced that it would no longer be open 24 hours and if you had an emergency in the middle of the night, you would have to go to the hospital. We all signed a petition to keep the health center open 24 hours. When I signed, I was mainly thinking of someone being physically ill or having a mental health crisis in the middle of the night. But when I talked to other students about the issue, almost everyone’s main reason for wanting to keep the health center open was that people who get so drunk and need to be hospitalized will not go to the actual hospital because they could get in trouble for underage drinking, so they were going to die of alcohol poisoning if the health center was closed at night. Everyone went around saying that people would die of alcohol poisoning if the health center closed at night. The concept of not drinking so much that you could die was not a viable solution to that problem. That was just a part of the mainstream college life.
My friends at home liked to drink as well, but it was nothing like what I saw at my college. Even at home parties where people got extremely drunk, people didn’t break other people’s property or need to go to hospital. I will admit that I had a lot more fun at home parties back in high school, before drinking was involved. But I was still able to have fun at drinking parties without drinking because people were not so drunk that you couldn’t talk to them. I could still dance and play games and socialize and have fun without drinking. But my college classmates got so drunk that you just couldn’t even communicate with them. They’d be falling all over you and slamming into walls and it was just impossible to have any fun at those parties without being drunk. The couple times I went to those types of parties with friends, all I did was babysit my friends while they got drunk. Make sure they didn’t fall or break anything or hit their heads on the wall. A couple times I walked people back to their dorms and I had to let them lean half their weight on me, like you would if someone sprained their ankle. I had to hold onto them really tight when we walked down the stairs and I had to say “Step, step, step…” each time so that they would know when to step. I didn’t go to those kinds of parties very often. I didn’t go to college to babysit people my own age.
Home parties were more accommodating as well. For example, when you play beer pong, you normally try to throw a ping pong ball into a cup of beer, and when you get it in, your opponent has to drink the beer. At home, we always played this game with cups of water, where you would have your own drink off to the side and when someone got the ping pong ball in the cup of water, you’d take a drink. This allowed everyone to have control over how much they were actually drinking, because you could choose how big of a sip to take from your drink. It also allowed people who didn’t want to drink to play, because you could just fill your cup with water or soda or juice and no one would know or care. But at college, people always played with real beer, and when I mentioned the home method to people, they told me that that was wrong and not how you were “supposed” to play. They also told me that it was “so ghetto” that my home friends had once taken a door off its hinges to create a long enough table to play beer pong. The students at my college had a better solution to that problem – one year, some students from another dorm stole the ping-pong table out of our dorm and never brought it back and we all had to pay for it at the end of the year. As well as the couch that they threw out the window.
Needless to say, I didn’t fit into the drinking culture at my college. But the non-drinking culture was even worse. And I was trapped in it. There were only two cultures at my school: drinking and non-drinking. And the drinking culture was simply out of the question. The non-drinking culture at my college was essentially a non-partying culture. A culture where if you didn’t drink, you were expected to be a completely different kind of person.
I was so excited for my first college dance. I loved the dances in high school, but there were never enough of them. My college calendar had a dance every other week, all with some sort of fun theme, and they lasted till 2 AM! I couldn’t wait for all that partying! Now, I lived in a substance-free dorm, and the way the social circles worked, basically everyone I knew outside my dorm was a from a substance-free dorm as well. When the first dance was coming up and I started talking to people about how excited I was, they all looked at me really strangely, like I wasn’t supposed to be that excited. When I asked around about who else was going, everyone was like meh, it sounds like high school. I loved high school dances!!! I had no idea that people would reject stuff in college because it was “like high school.” Now these substance-free students were very social (too social in fact, they never went away when I wanted to be alone). It wasn’t like they just didn’t like going out. There seemed to be a specific issue about dances. So I started talking about this super hot outfit that I wanted to wear to the dance, I was going over possibilities of what would look sexier, and all the girls in my dorm gave me a “what the hell is wrong with you?” stare. Every single person I talked to acted like there was something wrong with me being so excited and spending the effort I was spending on my hot outfit for my first-ever college dance, like I was “supposed” to be over that. I was supposed to be too mature or too feminist or too studious or too concerned about serious issues to put the effort that I was putting into what I wore to a dance.
The summer before college, my friends and I had wanted to go to this nightclub on the beach, but we couldn’t because not everyone in the group had turned 18 yet. We all kind of thought, oh well, before long we’ll be in college and we’ll be doing that sort of thing every weekend. The first time I expressed my desire to go nightclubbing in college, everyone put me down for it. Everyone. When I said that it was one of my life goals, I was flat-out told, “That’s not a real goal.”
When I told everyone at college about my awesome beach week with my high school friends and how I had my first summer fling and that I was heartbroken that it wasn’t for real and I still felt kind of empty and desperate for that kind of experience again, I was told that I wasn’t supposed to have a boyfriend or do anything sexual and that we were too young and we’re supposed to be smart and independent and focused on learning, not like those people who get drunk and get to dress as provocatively as they want and have all the sex they want.
For the first semester I sometimes had people to go to dances with, but after a while, the substance-free students stopped going. Sometimes they’d have alternative events that were fun, but often times, being substance-free meant that Friday and Saturday nights were ordinary nights, and people would actually stay home and study. The people I hung out with would study all the time. They talked about economics at campus barbeques, which were supposed to be fun events. They’d actually bring their textbooks to the beach. There was one time at the start of freshman year that I went on a partial weekend trip with a few people from my dorm, and it was just constant homework and studying the whole time. Like, I literally packed and rode in the car to this beach house so that I could listen to some boring, complicated intellectual conversation in the car that I knew nothing about, spend less than an hour walking on the actual beach, and spend the rest of the time in the beach house with everyone doing homework. (This was also the trip where I was expected to know what rhubarb looked like). Great vacation.
One time there was a slip and slide down the hill, and I had no one to go with. Everyone on the slip and slide was drunk and falling all over the place, it was like it was an activity specifically to do while you were drunk, and everyone I hung out with who didn’t drink either thought the concept of a slip and slide was silly and childish, or else they wanted to talk about how much water it was wasting. I literally had no one who wanted to go with me and not be drunk.
The “work hard, play hard” motto at my college should have really been “work hard, drink hard,” because it was only the drinking students who lived by that motto and valued fun as a top priority. When you worked on a group project or any kind of activity with drinking students, it was just a built-in assumption that you would never ever work on Friday or Saturday nights because those are party nights. But anytime I worked with a non-drinking student who knew that I also didn’t drink, they’d expect me to meet them on a Friday or Saturday night. They would name those times as if it was no big deal, when the rest of the campus was out partying at those hours no matter how much other work they had to do. I was in a play that my friend had to direct for her class and she actually scheduled a rehearsal for the Friday night before spring break, assuming that we would be okay leaving for break on Saturday morning instead. I told her there was no way in hell I was staying, I was leaving on Thursday because I didn’t have class on Friday, but she had the rehearsal anyway and the other two people stayed even though they could have left for spring break on Thursday as well. Because they were substance-free. With drinking students, that would simply be unheard of. With drinking students, they would have thought the director was out of her mind for thinking that anyone would stay and miss a day of vacation for a rehearsal, but they all looked at me like I was wrong to skip it.
I did not get invited to one single party in college. I only got invited to academic lectures and discussions about important issues. I got invited to “come over and study” on a Friday night. I got invited to do education and academics basically all the time, but in a “fun” setting because there lots of people around and someone happened to order a pizza. I never wanted to go to any of those things, I just wanted to have fun, but I was expected to go because I was substance-free. Being part of that group came with so many expectations. I went to a bunch of events and clubs that I never had any interest in joining simply because I was expected to. The people around me were always complaining about how it was such a problem that everyone else cared so much about their wild party weekends and weren’t willing to talk about important issues and go to educational events and have intellectual conversations and all that. From the moment I stepped on campus, I was expected to reject the very culture that I actually wanted to be a part of, the culture that was the main reason I had looked forward to going to college at all.
Even the school administration viewed drinking as the only way to have fun. Towards the end of my junior year, when three students had to be hospitalized after an annual drinking event, the school admins wanted to address the excessive drinking issue. These were the proposed solutions to cut down on the drinking culture:
-Schedule more classes on Fridays. (A lot of us had Fridays off and had a 3-day weekend, so this would reduce the weekend time that people drink).
-Make the January terms classes more rigorous and have more homework. (The January term was advertised to prospective students as at time where you take one easy class and mostly just party, so this would be deceptive).
-Have more academic events on the weekends so people can go to educational talks instead of drinking.
After advertising themselves as a fun-centered school, their plan to deal with the drinking issue was to remove the fun rather than having actual fun events where you didn’t have to get drunk!
THIS is what I mean when I say that I never had my 20’s. I never got to party like I was 21. And now I’m 29.
So as you know, I was horribly damaged after college (I’m not just referring to this post, you can read The Unencrypted Truth [link] if you don’t know the story). It took years for me to even feel well enough to go out again. I had gone to some wild parties on my summer vacations during college, but summer after graduation I wasn’t up for much. By 2012 I felt a bit better and went to the beach and to some parties and clubs. A lot more stuff happened after that – my first job, the breakup, getting my own place, just a lot of stuff, and for a long time, I didn’t feel well enough to do much of anything. Summer 2016 was really fun, but my Grandma died at the end of that year and I had yet another year of not feeling well enough. But I do feel well enough now. I’ve been doing therapy and getting better from the bad stuff and as long as nothing else horrible happens, I feel totally ready to party right now.
Except that I’m about to turn 30 and everyone I talk to says that the last time they went to wild parties was in their 20’s. Everything I read online says that you stop going clubbing in your 30’s. Everyone is saying that they can’t live like they did back in college because they just can’t stay up that late anymore. People my age are posting, “Yay, look at me cooking and cleaning and having workout goals and doing adult responsibilities!” I rarely see the kinds of pics we used to see back in our early 20’s.
And I know you’ll all tell me that I didn’t miss anything. That it’s not all it’s cracked up to be. That you didn’t party hard in your 20’s and you’re okay with it. That’s fine, but that’s not how I feel about it. I will never, ever be okay with not having that party lifestyle.
Some people I’ve talked to have said that I need to “get this out of my system,” but I’m not planning to do that. I don’t like the concept of getting something out of your system. When someone says that someone needs to get something out of their system, the end goal is to get rid of the desire altogether. The idea is to do something to the point that you feel satisfied enough to no longer do it again. I don’t want to get rid of this desire to party hard. I want to actually party hard. I want to party hard my entire life. If a day comes that I personally get bored with partying hard, that’s fine, but if that day never comes, that’s fine too.
When I told my coworkers that I felt like I had never had my 20’s, they said that that was the reason I didn’t want to grow up and be 30, but I don’t see that as the only issue. I don’t grow up and lose interest in things in general. Did you know that I played with my toys and didn’t lose interest until I was about 16? That’s not a problem, it wasn’t because I had an issue or something. If I like something, I keep doing it until I personally lose interest, and I didn’t lose interest in playing with my toys until I was about 16. If I had had all the wild partying that I wanted in my early 20’s, I think it’s very likely that I would still want to continue living that way.
I believe that in order to truly know that you’ve lost interest in something, you need to still have the option to continue doing the thing, and choose not to do it. When my interest in playing with my toys faded, I had the ability to keep playing with them, but I found myself losing interest and being drawn to other things instead. But if I suddenly *can’t* do something anymore, like when I couldn’t get into any plays in college because the auditions were more competitive, that is absolutely not okay. If you have a sweater that you don’t wear anymore and you decide to give it away, that’s fine. But if you have a sweater that you do still want to keep, but someone else gives it away without your permission because they think you’ve outgrown it, that’s not okay. And even if you cope with that situation by telling yourself that you would have outgrown the sweater eventually anyway, that doesn’t make it okay that someone else took it. The only way I’ll ever know if I don’t really like party culture or if I’ve “outgrown” it is to actually have it.
I don’t want to go hiking. I don’t want to take up knitting. I don’t want to have people baking cookies in my house. I don’t want to do serious gaming. I don’t want to be geeky. I don’t want to reject mainstream music or movies or TV shows. I don’t want to go to academic lectures or discussion groups. I don’t want to join a gym. I don’t want to cook. I don’t want to become career-focused. I don’t want to do all the stuff that I was expected to do in college just because I don’t drink.
I want to party. I want to wear super tight short skirts and sequins and sparkles. I want to rock out to mainstream pop music under a strobe light. I want to close the place. I want to be there till they turn the lights on and the music off. I want to stagger in from a dance club at 3 in the morning and crash in my clothes and wake up at noon the next day. I want all-night parties that actually last ALL NIGHT, past midnight at the very least.
And remember that cup of coffee that I mentioned at the start of this post – the one that I can’t drink because I’m so sensitive to caffeine? I want a reason to drink it. I want to know that I’ll actually need to be up all night because I’ve got a wild night of partying ahead of me. So give me that reason. That’s what I want for my 30th birthday.
Not just once. Not a last hurrah. I want it for a lifetime.
Not just once. Not a last hurrah. I want it for a lifetime.