people at a tailgate party

Football Season: College Tailgating & Parties While in Recovery

Posted on November 1st, 2017

Whether you are a loyal UCLA Bruin or you spend your Saturdays cheering on the “cardinal and gold” of USC, game-day tradition calls for a booze-filled tailgate party outside the stadium. Stuffing oneself with food and alcohol pregame is a ritual that even marginal fans don’t want to miss. So just how does a fan in recovery navigate this danger zone? What options do they have to stay sober at tailgates and continue to work their relapse prevention program?

Of course, it’s not just football games where young adults knock back alcohol, but they are a time when heavy drinking is pretty much condoned. The daylong binge often begins a few hours before kick-off, continues during the game, and then regains steam in the parking lot afterward as students party even harder.

Abusing alcohol and other drugs as an adolescent can lead to addiction. In fact, research shows that 20% of college students already meet the criteria for an alcohol use disorder. With two out of three students reporting binge drinking in the last month, a good number of them are setting themselves up for serious trouble. And while the drunken hijinks at the stadium may seem funny at the time, long-term alcohol abuse has other, enormous consequences. There’s the obvious — drunk driving, sexual assault, bad grades — but another that many young people are unaware of or brush off in “not-me” fashion.

Here’s what they don’t wish to consider: Binge drinking can harm the still-developing adolescent brain, even beyond the well-known problems with memory. Research finds that the brains of drinkers undergo subtle impairments that make it more difficult for them to learn from mistakes and learn new ways of dealing with problems. These issues can follow people for a lifetime. The science also suggests that loss of brain function in people under the age of 20 brought on by heavy episodic drinking increases the likelihood that they will become alcoholics later in life.

“You only get one brain, as far as I know,” Kansas City Chiefs quarterback Alex Smith said last year when he chose to sit out a game due to a concussion. College students might want to keep that at top of mind the next time they step up to a liquid buffet.

Throwing a Sober Tailgate Party

Just because you’re sober doesn’t mean you have to stay home and remove your voice from the crowd. Serving alcohol off the back of a truck doesn’t make it a tailgate. One way to celebrate game day sober is to host a Recovery First Tailgaters party. Since their inaugural party in 2002, Recovery First Tailgaters events have been held at both UCLA and USC, the University of Texas, University of Georgia, University of Alabama and many other schools. All events are shared (including maps and directions) on the group’s Facebook page, where you can get a Recovery First Tailgaters logo, banner and flag proofs to recreate in your team’s colors. It’s a great way to get the word out about your party and meet new friends in recovery.

You can also throw a party on your own, using what you’ve learned in rehab about relapse prevention to have a safe, fun get-together. Here are some ideas:

  • Invite everyone to bring a dish to share, but tell them to leave the alcohol at home. Have an array of non-alcoholic beverages available. Think fruit punch to match the uniforms, nonalcoholic spritzers, even margarita mocktails.
  • Hold a friendly competition. Maybe someone can bring a ping-pong table or cornhole set. Perhaps card games are popular with your friends. Oh, and don’t forget the football and Frisbee.
  • Consider making it a family-friendly affair by inviting the kids. Grill some burgers and hot dogs (pancakes, too!) and include the kids in the Frisbee toss contest. Prizes like team caps, socks or decadent homemade desserts add to the fun.

Challenges Staying Sober at Sporting Events

No matter where you are on your recovery path, being around people who are drinking can be really difficult. You’ve had a great time at the sober tailgate, but then you’re bombarded by ads for alcohol as soon as you enter the stadium. Even worse, the person sitting next to you may be getting wasted and offer you a drink. This is when it’s extremely important that you have a plan in place in your own mind for relapse prevention. Talk with your sponsor ahead of time and let them know you’ll be in a triggering environment. They can give you their own tips for staying sober and remind you of how far you’ve come in your recovery journey and how much you have to lose by having “just one” beer. If you need extra support, give them a quick call.  You could also get up, take a walk, or text your spouse or a friend. You have a choice each day not to take that first drink.

Don’t step away from life and the things you want to do because you’re in recovery. With sober friends by your side, you can enjoy things like football games and actually remember the win — yours, and, hopefully, your team’s — for many seasons to come.

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