Here's What It's Really Like to Be Sober When You're in Your 20s

Here's What It's Really Like to Be Sober When You're in Your 20s

After years of struggling with depression, Lucy*, 23, started taking antidepressants. The medication she was on mixed badly with alcohol, so she made the decision to stop drinking around the same time. 

Almost a year later, Lucy is now totally sober, a choice that she says has caused profound changes in her social life. She no longer goes out to bars like most of her 20-something friends, and she no longer hangs out with the friends she used to hang out with when she drank, because she said they encouraged her bad habits. "The friends I have now are people that love me. I don't have to drink to make them enjoy my company," she told Mic.

Although Lucy's family constantly questions if she'll actually stay sober, she's realized that even though she stopped drinking for medical reasons, she no longer has any desire to drink at all. 

"Sober me is the best me," Lucy said. "I would never want to risk losing the best version of myself."

Choosing between alcohol and a social life: As a 23-year-old who abstains from drinking alcohol, Lucy is something of an anomaly in her demographic. But 20-something sober people are far from uncommon. In a culture that emphasizes binge-drinking and raging over partaking in the occasional social cocktail, some young adults are giving up their destructive drinking habits and sobering up for good. 

According to Alcoholics Anonymous, nearly 10% of their members are under the age of 30, and celebrities like Zac Efron and Demi Lovato have come out as sober after years of hard partying.  Other users may quit thanks to medical requirements, like Lucy, or out of a simple desire to lose weight or save money.

Although maintaining sobriety at any age is challenging, battling addiction as a young adult carries its own unique difficulties. Sober 20-somethings must grapple with social lives that revolve around partying, as well as friends who judge them for abstaining. 

"I feel like people see my sobriety as a phase. They assume my problem with alcohol is something I will grow out of," Lucy said.

But the challenges, they say, are worth the peace that comes with a sober lifestyle.

It's all too easy to become dependent on alcohol as a 20-something.  While some might assume that young people who drink heavily are merely sowing their wild oats or going through a "phase," national statistics indicate that there's a serious binge drinking epidemic going on.  A 2004 national survey found that 21% of young adults met the criteria for alcohol dependence or abuse, and in 2013, the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration estimated that 40% of 18-25 year olds participated in binge drinking

Tess Brigham, a marriage and family therapist who specializes in treating 20-somethings, told Mic that young people often become addicts as the result of social anxiety, turning to alcohol as a way to loosen their inhibitions and become more extroverted. She said that young people are likely to develop alcoholism because they often don't have established careers and families to lose as a result of their drinking, making it easy for them to drift into a life of partying.

"They don't have the ties to a spouse and a child to make them go, 'I can't do this anymore,'" Brigham said.

The decision to get sober usually comes after a wake-up call, such as a run-in with the law, flunking out of school, getting cut off from their parents, or a worried family member or partner staging an intervention. Jeremy*, 28, told Mic he got sober two years ago after receiving his second DUI.

"As I began working the steps of [Alcoholics Anonymous], things began to dramatically improve in my life. I regained my zest for life. I almost felt childlike," Jeremy said. "That's when I knew I no longer wanted to drink again."

Choosing between alcohol and friendship: People who become sober in their 20s often face the challenge of having to find an entirely new social circle, one that doesn't revolve entirely around alcohol. Brigham said that while young people may still want to hang out with friends who drink, they simply can't spend time with anyone who may trigger them to drink, which changes how they relate to all of their non-sober friends.

"The ones that are using aren't going to want to relate to you, and you can't relate to them. And the 'normies' who can drink casually here and there still want to go out and drink, and then they feel awkward and weird – like, 'Should we invite so-and-so to come along?'" Brigham said. "It shifts and changes all of your relationships."

It also doesn't take long for a person's sober status to come up when they start dating someone new. Lucy, for instance, said she recently dated a guy who broke things off suddenly and unexpectedly. She knows her choice not to drink played a role in his decision.

"Drinking was an important part of his life that he didn't want to compromise. I never and would never ask him to not drink," Lucy said. "It could be that for some people, my choice is intimidating."

It can also be difficult for a young person to accept that they'll never have a drink again — not at their wedding, not at their child's graduation, not even at a baseball game. Newly sober individuals who are barely old enough to even have a legal drink must suddenly let go of all these future experiences. "I think there's something very psychological[ly troubling] about being 55 and doing that, versus 25," Brigham said.

A newly sober individual must also come to terms with their own insecurities that led them to drink in the first place. Living sober is about learning how to deal with your feelings and accept yourself, which takes more effort and introspection than simply giving up alcohol.

"Life in sobriety has to be more than your old life minus alcohol – that's living dry. For many alcoholics, alcohol is a solution, not the problem," Ralph*, 26, said. "You have to diagnose the problem – like social anxiety – and then really work towards fixing it."

There's still a pervasive misunderstanding of what addiction really is. It's incredibly difficult for young addicts to maintain sobriety when faced with so many misconceptions of what addiction and sobriety really are. While researchers believe genetic factors account for 50% of a person's likelihood of developing alcoholism (a family history of alcoholism and anxiety disorders have also been found to be risk factors), non-addicts still often assume that a person can simply choose to stop drinking.

Jeremy said many people believe his alcoholism is due to a weakness of his character, while Ralph said people tend to think of his addiction as an on-off switch. Friends don't understand why they can't have "just one" drink.

Noel*, 28, has been sober for two years, but she still thinks about drinking all the time. She described her feelings about alcohol as similar to OCD in that her desire to drink "consumes [her] thoughts."

"You can't concentrate on anything. It's like being hungry, or really needing to pee. It's an all-consuming urge if you let it go on, and on, and on," Noel told Mic. "But you can't give up – the moment you do, tomorrow becomes 10 times harder."

Just as a diabetic needs to take insulin and watch their diet and exercise, alcoholics must manage the symptoms of their disease on a daily basis. But that's easier said than done for young people in recovery, especially in the face of support groups filled with older addicts who may not be able to relate to the struggles of younger addicts, as well as friends who still drink and don't understand the constant effort it takes a former addict to maintain their sobriety.

"If you've stopped drinking, [friends think], 'Ok, come out and do all this stuff with us,' but you still have a lot of work to do. And then the [addict] is like, 'Oh yeah, why can't I just have one drink?'" Brigham said. "If you're an alcoholic, no, you definitely can't have one drink and you'll never be able to have one drink."

Still, young people who are able to stay sober find that the improvements in their lives are worth it. Jeremy said while some of his relationships have suffered, the ones he values most, like his relationships with his wife and children, have improved dramatically. Noel said the anxiety of maintaining her "closeted" drinking habits has lifted. She lost 40 pounds, saved thousands of dollars, stopped having random mood swings and began sleeping better.

"I no longer watch the clock at work, waiting to get off so I can go get my pint. I don't have to worry about where I'm going to hide it in my house, and how I'm going to get the bottle in the trash once I'm done with it," Noel said. "I don't have to worry about if I drank it fast enough so that I won't be hung over the next morning."

Lucy agreed. "Where I am right now – mentally, physically, spiritually," she said, "is the most amazing place in my life."

*^Names have been changed to allow subjects to speak freely on private matters.