I’ve always been a straight edge. Even before I knew the phrase itself or equated my life with it, I’ve never had alcohol or done drugs and it was never something I had really considered implementing into my life.

In high school, that naturally started to become a problem. The group I hung out with in high school was pretty tight-knit, we would hang out on the weekends in someone’s basement or go boating when the weather was nice but eventually, everyone collectively decided that doing those things weren’t fun anymore without alcohol involved. Every weekend our gatherings started turning into loud parties in dimly lit basements with the same annoying pop-chart music playing on repeat. While I still loved my friends, getting together with them on weekends became less and less fun. The more they drank the less I recognized them as my friends. So I’d just sit there unable to hold real, full conversations. At times I would still have fun and laugh with them, but overall I definitely preferred the more honest and sober nights.

For the most part, they let me be, but no one ever knew what to do with me at those parties. At times, they would become very aware that I wasn’t participating and offer me a drink. Because I always said no thank you, people either walked away, made half-hearted attempts at conversations which never went anywhere, or made fun of me for not be “as cool” as them.

By my junior year of high school, I was called a pretentious bitch more than once for staying quiet at the lunchroom table when conversations shifted to how drunk or high everyone had gotten that weekend. They started to see me as having a holier-than-thou attitude when in reality, I just felt isolated from them. In ways, things went from being completely normal to rather hostile.

Friends I had grown up with were making snide comments toward me or stopped inviting me to things that thought I would judge them for. The more our interest diverged, the more isolated I became from the people I loved. I felt like an outcast where I once had a huge group of people to fall on and I didn’t know why something so small like not wanting to drink made me so different from everyone else. I felt like there was something severely wrong with me.

So while going through this, I threw myself deeper into music. I grew up on pop punk and alternative music and owe a lot of who I am to Green Day’s “American Idiot” for throwing me into it all. I started spending more time going to concerts and finding that, inside venues, I wasn’t alone or weird because everyone there was unified by the music. Shows became to me what drugs and alcohol were becoming to the people around me: a release from the world. I didn’t need anything else if I could chase the feeling music gave me for the rest of my life.

Eventually, I found out that I wasn’t alone in that mindset. In the middle of my junior year, I found a video of Patty Walters of As It Is explaining why he was straight edge and his experience in coming to find out what straight edge was. It aligned perfectly with what I was going through in my own life. I watched the video with tears streaming down my face. After feeling so isolated from my friends, I was given a place to exist unapologetically in this punk rock subculture.

I came to find out that straight edge happened because of the music I already related to and there were members of bands I loved and listened to prescribed to the same lifestyle: Patty Walters of As It Is, Andy Hurley of Fall Out Boy, Davey Havok and Jade Puget of AFI, Joe Principe, Tim McIlrath, and Zach Blair of Rise Against, and so many others that there’s an entire Wikipedia page dedicated to them. The two things that felt most important to who I was as a person at the time came together and I started to feel whole and normal again.

My senior year of high school, things started to settle with my friends. I committed to Arizona State University for their prestigious writing program and was looking forward to the new life I could create outside of my suburban town. I was mistaken to think my problems were over though. The same friends who had called me a pretentious bitch a year earlier became increasingly concerned about my school of choice. A party school for a girl like me? I wouldn’t fit in, I wouldn’t have any friends, I wouldn’t find a place in that world. As much as I hated to admit it their words got to me and going off to college became my greatest anxiety. I was terrified I would spend four years in my biggest mistake, friendless and miserable.

Two months before the end of senior year things had gotten so bad I was having panic attacks almost daily. My mom took me into a local tattoo parlor one day and told me I was getting an X, the symbol of straight edge, tattooed that day as a reminder that I would be okay.

I graduated, moved to Arizona, and started school at ASU. Within the first week, I met the friends that I still get to gladly call family. At first, parties were a loop of high school, declining drinks and feeling as If I needed to explain myself but soon I realized no one cared if I had water rather than vodka. If they did ask me why, I’d show my tattoo and explain what straight edge was and I was mostly met with positive responses. Nowadays, it’s completely a non-event. I go to parties with my friends rather frequently and they’ve always made sure that I have a place in that world with them despite my lifestyle choices. Not a single person I know now is straight edge and it doesn’t matter.

Last month I turned 21 and while old anxieties kept me slightly on edge, my friends had me chug chocolate cashew milk at midnight and still sang happy birthday. It was slightly gross to chug chocolate cashew milk, but I knew it would mean the world to my 15-, 16-, and 17-year-old self to see how happy and comfortable I am now in my straight edge skin. Instead of bars, I spent my 21st going to concerts and an Emo Nite. I spent all night dancing to the music that has quite literally shaped my life with my non-straight edge friends who found the same euphoria in the music they didn’t need the drinks to have fun.

But that’s not why I’m straight edge. That’s what life has been for me as a straight edge. It wasn’t something I consciously chose to be, it just fell into place. I just didn’t see the appeal. Even in the most unglamorous moments, I’m at ease knowing everything I say or do is purely of my influence. In short, I just feel so much more comfortable being wholeheartedly myself.

For anyone else reading this, whether you’re straight edge or not, finding that place within this music subculture I belonged to made it possible for me to begin to feel comfortable with who I was and allowed me to be in a place now where I’m happy with my life as is. I hope in writing this that others will feel the same.