Not drinking at one of Canada’s top party schools

When I stopped trying to fit in at Queen’s, I finally belonged

Tegwyn appreciates how her life is made easier without drinking.
Photo: 

On Homecoming of my first year I got drunk for the first and last time. I spent the first two months of school desperate to fit in with my peers and, sporting a tricolour rugby shirt and stumbling down University Avenue, I felt like I finally had. 

In my first few weeks at Queen’s, I’d somehow missed out on the Frosh Week residence parties, Vic Hall write-ups, and late-night Lazy runs my first-year peers experienced plenty of. When Homecoming rolled around, I made sure I had the school swag, face paint, and litre bottle of Smirnoff Ice to match everyone on my floor.

When Homecoming rolled around, I made sure I had the school swag, face paint, and litre bottle of Smirnoff Ice to match everyone on my floor.

Later, when I got the spins and dry-heaved into the dirty toilet of my residence’s bathroom stall, I thought it was all part of the experience. 

By the beginning of second year, when two glasses of QP sangria or a couple of beers would have me up all night sick to my stomach, I realized what I was feeling wasn’t normal and was determined to fix it.

I’d already gone vegan for other reasons but cutting out dairy didn’t have any effect on my sensitive stomach. I got an endoscopy—an operation involving a camera placed down my throat into my lower stomach—but doctors found no ulcers or visual abnormalities. 

I even got a prescription for medication that would reduce my stomach acid. It helped, but mostly encouraged me to test the limits of my newfound resistance. Through trial and error, I took my medication religiously, went through a lot of Tums before and after having a social drink with friends, and still endured terrible stomach pain. But, I thought, at least I wasn’t throwing up anymore.

Like any other teenager, I’d seen drinking and partying as the ultimate step into young adulthood and university living. I wanted nothing more than to participate in university culture by going to raucous house parties, dancing my heart out at Stages, and drunkenly gorging myself on Smoke’s poutine at 4 a.m. 

I was so eager to be just like any other university student that I put my health at risk. 

I was so eager to be just like any other university student that I put my health at risk. 

One night from second year that stands out is when my best friend visited Queen’s from Ottawa. I wanted to spend as much time with him as possible, so I agreed to go to a friend’s pre and then Ale House.

I drank one Somersby’s cider and played flip cup with water, sure that I’d figured out my own limits and would be fine. On our walk to Ale, when my stomach started churning, I realized I hadn’t taken my stomach medication that day.

I pushed past the discomfort, paid $5 for cover, and clutched my coat to my chest like a life jacket.

Ten minutes later, realizing the tell-tale symptoms of a night of stomach aches, I left and walked home alone. I fought back tears because all I’d wanted was to have a nice night out with my friends.

This pressure I felt to drink at university doesn’t make sense to many of my friends who regularly participate in Queen’s drinking culture. They’ve gone out sober before and had a great time or were forced to be the designated driver one night and found it rewarding. 

What they don’t understand is when you never drink, it impacts your participation in a wider social sphere that extends beyond weekend plans.

Part of acceptance into a social group is participating in the same interests and activities as others. When I tell people I don’t drink, I’m almost automatically shut out of a huge chunk of social experiences that university students consider normal. 

I don’t have a funny drunk story. I’ve never made a drunken mistake and regretted it. I’ve never woken up not remembering where I was. These are things most Queen’s students can call back on and use to relate to others.

At a certain point, I realized I couldn’t spend my time trying to be someone I’m not and participating in things I physically can’t do. Queen’s social culture isn’t going to change any time soon, but I can choose to try and carve out my own space within it.

After two years of clinging to the idea that my social life depended on my ability to drink alcohol, I’ve realized that I don’t need to drink to have a good time—however clichéd that may sound.

I see movies, go to escape rooms, and play tabletop games with my friends. I won’t lie and say that when Friday night rolls around and everyone I know is at Stages, I don’t feel left out. At the same time, I no longer feel the overwhelming pressure to put myself in an unhealthy situation just to feel included.

If I go to a pub or restaurants with friends, I order a Shirley Temple and joke about never having to carry my I.D. with me. I get to wake up early on Saturday while everyone else is spending their mornings hungover. On the rare occasion I do end up at a house party, I take comfort knowing my drunk friends will be safe with me.

Accepting that I can’t participate in the social activities most Queen’s students take for granted has helped me appreciate all the ways my life is made easier without drinking.

I still don’t know why my body reacts so poorly to alcohol. Although I’m currently getting blood tests and talking to doctors about my stomach issues, I don’t feel desperate to fix my inability to drink anymore. 

I’ve now come to terms with my own insecurities about drinking, but Queen’s students as a whole need to think about why our drinking culture results in social pressure. My reason can’t be debated against. I garner sympathy from friends when they learn that I'm unable to drink. I wonder how those who don’t drink for religious, cultural, or mental health reasons fare.

I’ve now come to terms with my own insecurities about drinking, but Queen’s students as a whole need to think about why our drinking culture results in social pressure.

My experiences have forced me to look at Queen’s drinking culture head-on and realize it isn’t healthy. Those who don’t drink feel immense pressure to assimilate, and those who choose to drink find themselves competing to out-do their friends in elaborate drinking games. 

I hope there will soon be more spaces for students to talk about alcohol in a less sensationalized way, and enjoy the university experience without stressing about living up to college stereotypes. 

Until then, I’ll sip my Shirley Temple and wait.

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