Being substance-free should be more accepted on campus

Graphic by Callie Wohlgemuth ’21

Graphic by Callie Wohlgemuth ’21


When I went to Spain right after my 18th birthday, I was so excited to drink for the first time. My friend group in high school wasn’t particularly reckless (the only illegal thing we ever did together was pirate “Frozen” the day after its release), so I had never even had a sip of alcohol before then. Lucky for me, I tried my first alcoholic beverage in a country with some of the best wine in the world. It tasted so good that I would have a glass almost every time we went out to dinner.

But then I started to notice something. Every time I drank, I would feel more upset about things than usual, and I would usually end up withdrawing from my group for a while. Then, one night, I had more than just one glass of wine. Later that evening, I started to feel absolutely terrible in a way I had only felt once — the time in my life right before I started taking antidepressants.

The next morning, I did some research. Although studies haven’t reached any definite conclusions, it turns out that drinking while taking antidepressants has been reported to cause people to feel depressed, anxious and even suicidal. Because of this, I decided that I would be substance-free from then on. It could be just a coincidence that I felt so terrible every time I drank — or it could be that a different substance would not affect me so negatively. But I feel that it is too risky for me to find out.

Throughout college, I have retold this story to anyone who brings up partying or drinking to me, although usually in less detail. It wasn’t until a recent conversation with my friend that I questioned the reason I did this. I was telling her about how I had just told my story to people that I had never met before, and she simply replied, “You shouldn’t have to explain.”

Her response surprised me. I had always assumed that being substance-free required some sort of explanation. Using substances is considered essential in our lives, especially during college. It’s what characterizes most social events, and I had always assumed that everyone my age enjoys it. I felt that if I didn’t say that I’m only substance-free because I have to be, people would not see me as normal. I had never even considered my own thoughts on this matter because I always felt as if I had to feel the way I was expected to feel: that being substance-free is a burden.

But now, I realize that I’m not just substance-free because I have to be. There are many reasons why I actually like being substance-free and why I would consider living this way even without the threat of a bad reaction. I feel as if I’m drunk when I’m caught up in the energy and excitement of a party, and I like that when I leave that environment, I can leave behind that feeling, rather than being forced to wait until the effects of drinking go away. I like being able to take care of my friends at parties, because knowing that they’re safe is important to me, and I know that I wouldn’t be able to take care of them nearly as effectively if I were also drinking. I like that being substance-free forces me to take full responsibility for my actions, since I don’t have the “I was so drunk last night” excuse for any negative or unwarranted behavior. And I like that I don’t have to worry about any of those health risks we were all relentlessly warned about in our adolescence.

I think the Mount Holyoke community should start to think about drinking as something that people either want to do or don’t want to do rather than something people can or can’t do. I understand that using drugs or alcohol is a fun activity that can have a positive impact on people’s lives, but I also believe that being substance-free is an equally valid choice that should not need an explanation.