When You Turn Twenty-One

The weather was not in favor of any kind of celebration; a few days prior a blizzard had hit, and now temperatures had plummeted to subzero conditions. 

“I’m still going,” I told my friends adamantly, refusing to let anything disrupt what at the time felt monumental. “Bundle up, take a cab, it’ll be fine. I’m not worried.” Mom had texted me earlier, an unspoken understanding of just how significant this birthday was. I put my makeup on, did my hair, and anxiously waited for one month to transition to the next. 

Midnight. It was time. 

///

I chuckle at how a number can make you feel like you’re on top of the world with nothing to lose. Invincible, almost. And while it was a completely different era compared to the one I’m in now, it feels as if it was a lifetime ago. My cousin and baby sister only recently celebrated the big day,  and while their college experiences have been different than mine, I still carry a kind of maternal wisdom when I think back to seven years ago. 

 

Don’t Take It For Granted

Regardless of where you go or what you study, this is a time in your life that you’re not going to get back once you graduate. I won’t advocate for the extreme, but at least allow yourself to enjoy some of the perks that come with being of legal age. That could range from checking out the local music scene, to beer and wine tastings, or trying your hand at a casino (once was enough for me to cross it off my bucket list). Going out almost every weekend probably wasn’t the most realistic or healthy thing to do, but I can’t say that I regret it. I was an independent person and had come from a very sheltered social scene before college, so I wanted to experience different things as often as I could. Sometimes that meant going alone and hoping I could join up with people later, and sometimes that meant staying sober if I was going to be alone. And when it was all over, when I moved from Iowa City for that last time, I could hold onto the gratitude of having one helluva four year-ride.

 

Be Aware

There’s a dark underbelly to the drinking culture, especially on campus. What can start out as a way to let loose after a week of classes, papers, and exams can easily turn into unhealthy ways to cope with both stress and pain. My junior year was filled with a lot of firsts, and many of them involved grief and loss. Right after my birthday, I formally ended a relationship that I held onto for several years. Some time after that, my parents started the divorce process. And then over the summer, a friend from high school unexpectedly passed away. I didn’t drink to numb the pain, but I had already developed a habit of using alcohol as a way to try to turn sad or angry feelings into happy ones (spoiler: it doesn’t work). I saw it as a way to feel connected to my friends and even acquaintances, because a lot of them couldn’t understand what I was going through at the time. And I was afraid of making people uncomfortable, even though my closest friends stepped up to support me. Fuzzy memories, kissing strangers, it’s all fun to a point. I knew where the line was, but I was afraid of getting bored or becoming a hermit if I truly backed away from it. And despite the expressed concerns and worries, I didn’t truly try to make any changes until long afterward. 

 

Allow Yourself To Evolve

For most people, there comes a time when binge drinking and bar-hopping until closing time just isn’t as fun anymore. If they aren’t already, priorities such as work, paying bills, and having enough energy will come into play. Whatever the reason, know that your changing interests and values is not only normal, but responsible. We all have to outgrow certain things and grow up, and if not the matters of life and health will force us to. 

Living in eating disorder recovery has definitely changed my relationship with alcohol. This could be another post in itself, but it’s very easy to engage in various ED-related behaviors and claim that the liquor was the culprit (or use it in place of engaging with those behaviors). Dealing with a hangover  often leads to sleeping in late, and doing so throws of my entire day in terms of when I eat and how much I eat because I’m essentially playing catch-up. 

I’ve also witnessed the effects of alcoholism up close, starting from mildly embarrassing to downright terrifying. Dating and loving someone who struggles with addiction is anything but romantic, and it sucks to tell them that you can’t be around them when they’re drunk because of what happened the last time, or even with the last guy. And I can only speak from my experiences as a woman, but it’s infuriating to be told that, “Well maybe if you had only been sober, maybe he wouldn’t have done that.” 

Some will tell you that you don’t know how to party anymore, or exclude you from social functions because of the way your experiences have shaped your thinking. But that’s on them, and you don’t owe anyone justification or explanation regarding do what’s best for you.

///

These days I consider myself an introverted extrovert, where I enjoy going out and being social, but also need some amount of alone time to recharge. One of the things I love about venturing about in Chicago is that there is such a variety of things to do, as opposed to being stuck between going to a bar or just staying home and watching TV. When I do go out, I typically turn back into a pumpkin by midnight, unless something or someone gives me enough motivation to stay awake. 

I’m not a prohibitionist by any means; my ideal night in often involves a glass of wine and a fireplace, and I’ll never turn down a margarita or a mojito. But I’m also not comfortable with how society inserts booze into the likes of every-day activities, from beer yoga to the concept of holding a cocktail in one hand and a baby in the other. Are we in that much pain where we have to include getting buzzed as part of the daily routine? 

Life is a balance of ebb and flow, but also involves being more intentional (especially as you get older). You’ll never have it entirely figured out, but that also doesn’t mean you shouldn’t do the work either. 

Yes, the bubble eventually pops. But from where I’m standing, that hasn’t been a bad thing.

 

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