My first year of university – which I completed in April 2023 – looked like a typical first year university experience: filled with first experiences.
I had never packed half of my belongings into a suitcase before, never dyed my hair by myself, never taken any kind of drug, and never drank more than a few glasses of wine or a couple of margaritas, until I came to UBCO.
The first time I tried cannabis, it was a homemade edible made by one of my friends. The experience was enjoyable, and as my year went on, I partook in cannabis heavily. This is normal for first years away from home to try new things they’ve never done before, especially partying and taking recreational drugs.
As the year ended and I went back home for the summer, I continued to use cannabis heavily. I was ignoring the hindering it was starting to have on my mental health, and continued with my heavy usage.
At first, I convinced myself that my cannabis consumption made me more productive. I remember smoking a joint, then hammering out a 2000-word paper, completing assignments, and coming up with poems with complex metaphors. Then, smoking weed started to become something I did just to lay in bed and rot.
Smoking weed started to impact my ability to function, but at the same time, I felt like I couldn’t even do a basic task like my laundry without being high on cannabis.
I felt like smoking weed was something that I needed to do to feel stable, to function in a society that wasn’t built for me as a transgender, autistic individual with OCD. Cannabis started to become less about fun with friends, and more about usage to survive.
After a summer of new clarity and assessing my drug usage, I decided to go sober. This was a difficult decision for me, because cannabis was so ingrained into my weekly — and sometimes daily — life.
It was also a difficult decision, because I felt like I was choosing between either fixing my mental health, or partaking in social norms of the university experience and the young adult experience.
I also felt like my writing – particularly my poetry – wouldn’t be as good if I got sober. To be completely honest, it was really boring at first. Nonetheless, it was a decision I needed to make. My mental health became worse and worse, as my cannabis consumption got higher and higher — pun intended.
I had only told a select group of friends, afraid of starting a conversation around cannabis dependency. But eventually, I started to own my sobriety.
As I’m writing this article, I am in my second year of university at UBCO, my second year of my undergraduate degree, and have been sober from cannabis since the end of August 2023. And, as I’m writing this, I am so lonely.
There are plenty of other sober students at UBCO, for a variety of reasons. Some are sober mainly because they have no desire to consume alcohol or cannabis, others because of addiction, and others are sober for religious, cultural, and spiritual reasons. All reasons are valid, and can be equally as isolating in an environment where not being sober is the cultural and social norm.
I sat down with two of my peers – both of whom would like to remain anonymous – about what they feel about being a sober student. The first student told me that being a sober student hasn’t affected attending social gatherings and spending time with other peers, but it tends to be a bit awkward for them when drugs are shared, particularly cannabis.
Regarding whether they feel pressured to not be sober because of peer pressure and other factors, they said, “Of course. Sometimes in my head, I say, ‘how honestly bad can it be? I should try it at least once.’ And my friends, jokingly, like to nag me about it. I think frankly out of spite, I’ve refused so.”
The second student, who is sober from alcohol for religious reasons, said that they are invited to gatherings because their friends are sober too. However, their non-sober friends tend to extend an invitation only when they’re going to sober events, rather than asking if they’d like to go out to bars with them as well, even as the hype surrounding mocktails increases.
They commented on this by stating,
“I don't think they do this to exclude me, so to say. I think it's more to do with me not being able to have as much fun as them if I were to join them. Nevertheless, it doesn't feel great to see your friends hang out and not even know about it until you see it on their [Instagram] stories. Even a courtesy invite from time to time can be a great way to help your sober friends who may not enjoy going out!”
Regarding their pet peeve about being sober and going out, they stated that mocktails are frustrating as they are made primarily of juice. To them, it feels weird to not be drinking something while their friends are, since drinking is such a social norm.
They talked further about mocktails and how happy they are whenever they see real thought being put into a virgin cocktail, where there are combinations of flavours.
This student's perspective is interesting as it adds a new perspective to the sober student experience. Their sobriety is connected closely to their religion, which is a common experience for those who practice different religions. Because of that, this student told me they don’t feel isolated, primarily because their friends are also sober, and respect their reason for being sober.
Students might feel pressured to partake in alcohol and recreational drugs, not necessarily by other students, but just by social “norms.” Peer pressure isn’t as common as those scary documentaries you watched in middle school make it seem – not direct peer pressure, anyway. But oftentimes, when at gatherings where substances are passed around, and the norm is to partake, sober students or students struggling with substance use might feel pressured to join in.
Lastly, when discussing being sober with this student, I asked what they wished non-sober students knew about being sober. They said,
“I wish non-sober students knew that we aren't having a bad time just because we're sober (unless we're always the caretaker). We hang out with you because we enjoy your presence, not because we want to have an overpriced drink outside.”
To wrap it up, the first student said that the worst thing about being sober for them is the awkwardness, but they would rather be awkward than dependent on substances. Balancing this awkwardness and personal boundaries is the main struggle for peers like this when being sober at university.
I am still navigating what it’s like to be sober from cannabis at university. My non-sober friends are generally supportive, but I agree that there is awkwardness that comes with it. And unfortunately, most people I’ve told outside of my friend group are not informed about cannabis dependency, and/or disagree that cannabis dependency even exists.
In the end, a supportive friend group or environment is what matters. Maybe, even a support group centered around sobriety! There are places that support sobriety. A quick Google search could bring you to a sober forum, an AA meeting, or an MA meeting (although there isn’t much for Marijuana Anonymous in the Kelowna area). However, if you’re sober for non-addictive reasons, there are plenty of events on and off-campus that do not involve alcohol as well!
And, if you don’t have people around you who support your sobriety, and only hang out with you when drugs and alcohol are involved, it's time to reassess your relationships.
It’s okay to be sober; you are not alone in this awkwardness and new phase of life.