It's difficult, but not impossible, to find things to do in Bloomington-Normal that don't involve drinking
If you stood smack-dab in the middle of Bloomington or Normal and threw a rock in any given direction, there's a good chance it would hit a bar or a liquor store — or at least pass one of those on the way.
It's a running, tongue-in-cheek joke for people who live in central Illinois: There's nothing to do here but drink.
"You don't realize how many places alcohol is until you quit drinking," Bloomington resident Justin Boyd recently said. "You'll notice a place doesn't have alcohol faster than you'll notice it doesn't have a restroom to go to."
Boyd has lived in the Bloomington-Normal area for more than 20 years. A few years ago — right before COVID hit, in March 2020 — he decided to stop drinking.
"When you're a social person like I am, you tend to get invited to a lot of community events and those types of things — and there's alcohol everywhere. Everyone's drinking," Boyd said. "So the more you go to those events, the more (I) felt like like drinking turned into, like, a once-a-week thing to an every night thing. It was something that was definitely on my mind."
Boyd said ever since he decided to go sober in February three years ago, he hasn't had a drink ever since.
And that's not a testament to how easy it is, because it can often be anything but.
"When I didn't have that crutch, I felt very uncomfortable. I just kind of pushed through it," he said.
But not easy — or difficult — doesn't mean impossible.
Jamie Laurson, an alcohol and other drug interventionist at Illinois State University, spends her days helping people figure out what their options are that don't involve alcohol. She keeps a long list to kick-start ideas: Go to a local theater production, take a short drive to a drive-in movie, open skate at the Bloomington Ice Center, or take up hobbies that can be shared or practiced with others.
Some of the people she works with are new to town, like first-time students on campus.
Others are older, like graduate students.
Her advice to them is the same, no matter what: Plan ahead and be intentional.
"We want to go do fun things and we want people to do those things with us," Laurson said. "I think it's always difficult to do new things or enter into new environments, especially if people don't have someone to do that with. They're the ones who are going to have to ask others to go do these things with them."
That's something Boyd said he lacked when he first began his journey to sobriety, but something he's willing to offer to others now.
"I'm not an expert, but I can be a support. That's what I do is just, 'Let's go hang out somewhere and not drink and see what it's like,'" he said. "I think that's what I didn't have initially."
But sometimes, all you want is the familiar — and to be where everyone else is, even if you're not drinking. Boyd said he's tried, in a small way, to make spaces in the Twin Cities more friendly to people who want to be present but not drinking.
"Every time I go to a bar, I ask for non-alcoholic beer. I don't even like non-alcoholic beer that much — I enjoy one every now and then — but I do it so they know there's a need," he said. "What I have found over the last, probably two years, is there's a lot more establishments carrying non-alcoholic beer."
Perhaps the prominently placed nod to non-drinkers at a Bloomington-Normal bar is the mocktail menu at Shake It Up Cocktail Lounge. Mirrored after its regular cocktail offerings, the mocktail menu offers customers a chance to get a drink that's equally as involved as the cocktails. Everything — the syrups, the garnishes, the process — is the same, except for the alcohol content.
"Our goal here is to have a nice, inclusive atmosphere for everybody," bar manager Monte McNall said.
"So we want people like non-drinkers and drinkers alike, to have a great time when they come here. (Non-drinkers) should be able to experience that fully, just as much as everybody."
At least one person every night offers off that menu. Sometimes it's people who aren't drinking at all, sometimes it's people trying to pace themselves. Either way, the mocktails offer a chance to have something in-hand.
And while it's possible to go almost anywhere in town and order something like a tonic water and lime, it's not as common to see a menu section dedicated to non-alcoholic options.
"People have thanked us many times just for having the offering, even if they don't get it. They're like, 'I'm just glad it's here,'" McNall said.
There's still a long way to go, Boyd said, but things are a little better from when he first started.
"I think we are getting there. More establishments are starting to carry [non-alcoholic options]. I've seen some large cities having alcohol-free nights... a bar-type atmosphere that doesn't serve alcohol." he said. "It'd be a good experiment in the community, to see how that's received here. But for right now, I'm just trying to meet them where they're at and hopefully give us some more options."
Laurson said whenever possible, she wants to "normalize that there are many people out there who don't drink."
"Overwhelmingly, there's a tendency to overestimate how many individuals drink. We know it on college campuses, that college students overestimate how many people are drinking and how much they're drinking," she said. "I think it's always important to norm that there are many students not drinking, or many adults not drinking, since I think some times that can feel lonely."
"Sometimes there's pressure to drink because it just seems like the way to be included to fit into a group. It just may mean you haven't found the right group yet — the pockets of people who are also not drinking."