I just turned 21 in mid-June, and what is typically a birthday that college students celebrate to the max was, for me, conflicting.
Not only because my turning of legal drinking age fell on a Tuesday, but because I'm actually over a year in recovery for alcohol abuse.
Alcoholism seems like something far removed from young adults, but it simply isn't. I grew up in a small, rural community where there weren't a lot of options for recreation. Instead, we drank.
I started drinking during my junior year of high school, and it quickly escalated — nights upon nights spent drinking because there was "nothing else to do."
My relationship with alcohol was incredibly toxic, but since all my peers were drinking too, I thought nothing of it. It felt normal.
I didn't think it was weird that drinking made my sad thoughts disappear. I didn't give a second thought to how much more intense my depression felt after drinking. I thought that's how it was for everyone, and I carried that thinking with me to college.
Coming into college, my priorities were closely aligned with my alcoholism: I wanted to find a group of people that wanted to party as much as I did, and my goal was to get my stomach pumped by the end of my freshman year because "how else will I know that I'm doing college right?"
While I luckily never had to go to the hospital for alcohol poisoning, I did continue to treat beer and liquor as a cure-all during my first year and a half at college. While going out become rarer, my drinking kept up — only now, I was drinking alone in my dorm room to handle any stress that came my way.
During the spring of my sophomore year of college, after a particularly rough night of drinking alone in my dorm, I came to the realization that I was slowly killing myself.
I'll spare all the emotional details, but realizing that I was an alcoholic was the biggest slap in the face I've ever encountered.
For over a year, I was totally sober. That's not easy for everyone, and I'm super grateful that for me, sobriety was easy. I was able to take a year to really think about what I wanted my relationship with alcohol to be and how to best live a life without it.
That meant giving up a lot of college life — after all, college kids love to party. I knew that being at parties would likely trigger me back to that toxic lifestyle, so I avoided it.
Then, this past spring, I signed up for a short study abroad class to Ireland.
I thought to myself "Well, no big deal — I don't need to drink while I'm there, and even if I drink I can handle it" but soon realized that the pressure of being of legal drinking age in a foreign country, surrounded by peers who were drinking, was too much for me.
I never got drunk or even had more than two drinks in one sitting while abroad, but my anxiety was through the roof the entire time. I hated that I couldn't just enjoy a drink or have a fun night out without my heart racing. When people say "once an addict, always an addict" they're right, because even in a relaxed situation I couldn't focus around alcohol.
I got back to the states about a month before my 21st birthday — a rite of passage for people my age. I have friends that have done huge celebrations for their 21st, going on bar crawls with big to-do lists revolving around drinking. I knew I couldn't do that, and it made me incredibly depressed.
I struggled for weeks with my emotions around turning 21, and then the day came.
I decided to have a cider with my dinner just to celebrate, and that was fine. What wasn't fine was going to the grocery store later that night and realizing that I could now buy alcohol whenever I wanted to. I didn't give in to that temptation, but knowing that I'm able to succumb to my addiction at any time now has opened up new and old anxieties in my brain.
I'm not sure that my relationship with alcohol will ever be healthy, but it's something that I am actively trying to work on. But the larger picture to fix is how our country treats turning 21 and drinking culture — the beginning of my addiction was the thinking that "there's nothing else to do, and everyone else is doing it" and I see people in high school falling into those same assumptions all the time, especially back in my hometown where rural life kills healthier hobbies.
If you or someone you know is drinking every night and passing it off as fine, maybe it's time to reevaluate that thinking. Seek a conversation with a campus resource or health professional. It's not an easy realization to come to, but it can save you so much anxiety and health issues in the future. There are tons of resources out there for anyone struggling, like SAMHSA or the NIH.
Turning 21 has been eye-opening for me in terms of my relationship with alcohol. I'm not sure if I'll ever be able to treat it as anything other than an addiction, but I hope my story can help others.