Party of One
Updated: Mar 2
On libations in isolation.
By Eliza Rudalevige
A few days ago, I was flipping through the New York Times Magazine when I saw an article title that made me stop and raise my eyebrows. “How to Drink Alone,” it read, juxtaposed with a piece about one woman’s experience propagating house plants. “How to Drink Alone” is a title that scares me, especially because I found it in a publication with a large and younger-than-average audience. Although the article contains fewer than four-hundred words on how to mix cocktails and warns its readers to “avoid overdoing it,” its presence suggests that we’ve set an unfortunate new social precedent.
The article hardly marked the beginning of my concern about how people my age are handling alcohol during quarantine. When I open Instagram or Snapchat, I find private stories inundated with tipsy selfies, usually accompanied by flippant peace signs and virus-themed captions (e.g: the “quarantini”). College students already drink in copious quantities, but many of them aren’t used to drinking alone. In my experience, solo drinking is met with pursed mouths and wrinkled foreheads, a far cry from the reactions—half-disbelieving, half-admiring—to claims like, “Dude, I blacked out at XXX fraternity the other night.” It’s okay to black out at XXX fraternity, or so we think, because XXX fraternity is full of people. As parties give way to alcohol-fueled Zoom gatherings, social drinking has turned into just drinking. And while Zoom is a useful tool to maintain a semblance of social interaction, Zoom drinking really isn’t the same thing. The alcohol is no longer enhancing a fun night; it is the night.
Harry, another Columbia first-year, told me that he now drinks mostly alone and is “more likely to be drinking every day, just out of boredom.” What about on school nights? During the day? Yes to both. When I asked whether he ever hid his alcohol consumption from his parents, he answered with a laugh and a “sometimes.” The little I know about problem drinking and alcoholism—and it is very little, gleaned from my mother’s recollections of her grandfather, various TV shows, and Stephen King’s On Writing—stirs in me some concern for Harry and my friends. The new habits they describe sound like indicators. It’s possible, of course, that this is no widespread phenomenon—that excessive drinking is coincidentally concentrated in my circle of friends and acquaintances. But I have a sneaking suspicion that the sphere is much larger.
This isn’t to say that every young person is drinking more. When I spoke to my older brother, fully expecting him to have become a raging alcoholic during self-isolation, thereby reinforcing my hypothesis, he told me that he’s been drinking less. He admits that he’s lucky, bouncing between his girlfriend’s apartment and his own, which he shares with one remaining roommate and a foster puppy named Wolfie. His apartment is within walking distance from a Target, a grocery store, and, of course, a liquor store. He’s noticed an uptick in glib conversations about alcohol, but he cites a different group of people: “I see that pop up on millennial twitter—‘The difference between the weekends and the weekdays is when I start drinking, and now there’s only wine time and coffee time’—but I don’t see that reflected in my friend group.”
The discrepancy between our experiences may be due to our small but palpable age difference. It’s his senior spring, meaning a lighter course load and possibly less stress. More importantly, older college students like my brother have had years to be college students, to drink freely and adjust to transitions between home and school. As my brother put it, “It’s like you got out of high school, and then you got dropped right back in it.” For those of us who have, we might be clinging on to our college lifestyles, unable to accept the reality that they’re incompatible with our current ones.