A few weeks ago on my 21st birthday, a friend and I made our way to Good Time Charley’s to buy my first legal drink. We shared a fishbowl called “The Love Spell,” a dangerously sweet concoction of lemonade and mango vodka that — to my delight — didn’t taste much like alcohol. The following weekend, my sister took me to several outdoor places, where I gulped down several margaritas, vodka cocktails and a shot of tequila. I chased down more drinks in the span of several days than I had in my entire life.
Before my 21st birthday, I didn’t drink, and not just because it was illegal. Prior to college, my alcohol intake had been limited to one sip of Budweiser, half a glass of wine at my sister’s wedding and several tastes of wine-turned-blood from a Catholic upbringing. My mom is very allergic to alcohol, and my Dad can’t drink due to medication, so it’s safe to say drinking was never a big thing in my household while I was growing up.
I never felt pressured to drink before college. The choice was made for me, however, due to a medication I was on. My doctor warned me that my liver might process things differently. I had already been taking the medication for several years, but the warning came, seemingly on purpose, at the start of my freshman year. Well aware that college students drink, she told me to limit my alcohol intake and cautioned that it might make me feel sick regardless of quantity. It wasn’t until this past March, two months before my birthday, that I got off my medication and could finally drink without fear of consequences.
At my first college party, I noticed the sticky floors and red solo cups immediately. I expected as much; however, what I didn’t expect was how awkward I would feel. I had previously considered my personality to be bubbly and friendly. I loved to dance and hang out with friends, activities that never included alcohol for my friend group in high school. But standing in the middle of a crowded basement, it was easy to feel self-conscious. Sweaty bodies swayed to music that didn’t seem the type anyone should dance to, and laughter erupted despite nothing funny being said. It felt like one big inside joke I wasn’t privy to, one I couldn’t understand while sober.
Before I could say anything, I was handed my first mixed drink: a vodka and Sprite concoction. After a cautionary sip, I deduced that I hated the taste of vodka and asked my friend if she could put in more Sprite. I was new at this and didn’t try to hide it. But after she came back with the drink, all I could think about was my doctor’s warning about how alcohol might affect me. I handed my drink to another one of my friends and walked home.
At my second college party, I convinced myself to fake it until I made it. I grabbed a beer and took very small sips throughout the evening. The can remained full, but at least I could act like I was drinking. As my friends and people around me grew mildly inebriated, the feelings of awkwardness crept in. I texted my boyfriend about how I wished I hadn’t come. It wasn’t long before one of my friends started staggering and slurring her speech; at that point, we decided to walk her home. New to alcohol like me, she hadn’t eaten or drank anything prior to the party. We watched her for the rest of the night.
My friends were pretty responsible and rarely crossed into dangerous territory. Still, I was always the designated sober friend, and it felt strange to be responsible in case anything bad happened. I stopped attending big parties early into my freshman year. Sometimes, I worried that I was missing out. Down the hall from me, two rooms decked out in sorority door decorations served as the home base for getting ready every Thursday and Friday night. Loud music and laughter echoed down the hall. Then, later on in the evening, I’d frequently see one of the girls hunched over the toilet in the girls bathroom. The party and drinking culture seemed worse on Halloween and game days — with no one batting an eye at groups of friends staggering down busy streets.
College — as a place for newfound freedom, friendships and independence — seemed like the optimal place to get into drinking. One of my acquaintances never tasted alcohol before coming to college, and it didn’t take long for her to begin acquiring a startling dependency on it to relieve stress. Conversely, another one of my friends noted that her drinking actually decreased after coming to college. I learned that some people had been drinking since they were in high school while others kept their newfound drinking habits a secret from family back home.
My mind went back and forth on the subject of alcohol. I was curious more than anything, so much so that I Googled “what does it feel like to be drunk?” on more than one occasion. I wanted to drink; I didn’t want to drink. I didn’t like the taste of alcohol, but I had only tried a few kinds. If I never tried more, how would I know?
One night, a group of friends and I decided to spend the evening painting our nails and laughing at cheesy rom-coms. Two bottles of cheap vodka were on deck to make the night more fun. I watched my friends gradually lose their inhibitions as the alcohol slipped into their bloodstreams. They seemed confident and relaxed. Giggles and conversation came naturally. They made being carefree look so easy.
I decided to test my body. My friends never pressured me, and the fact that they drank alcohol and I didn’t was never a main factor in our friendship. But I wanted to know what I was missing out on. I drank plenty of water and had a stomach full of food. Plus, if I did get sick, I was in my friend’s bedroom with people I could trust. I felt like being risky while simultaneously telling myself I was being safe.
Thirty minutes later, I felt nauseated and lightheaded. Heat spread to my cheeks and my skin grew itchy. I didn’t feel the bubbliness Google had told me I would feel, only sick and regretful. I wasn’t sure if and when I would drink alcohol again, but it wouldn’t be anytime soon.
By my sophomore year, my party-going was nearly non-existent as I picked up more hours at my part-time job. The allure of alcohol-centered activities didn’t completely fade away, but I often picked board games or movie nights over frat parties. I still held some curiosity for drinking, but I largely abandoned the thought of drinking myself. I was scared of getting sick, wasn’t a fan of what I had tasted so far and didn’t want to have to rely on a substance to have a good time.
In the case of college socialization, drinking occasionally felt like one form of exclusion and inclusion. Sometimes it was fun to observe friends, acquaintances and strangers have a good time. Other times it was startling. It terrified me that blackouts and late nights of vomiting — which blur the line between a fun time and life-threatening scenario — were so normalized.
During a random Thursday my sophomore year, a late-night trip to the ER (unrelated to drinking) seemed to confirm my suspicions. One after another, U-M students came in after dangerously binge-drinking or having an accident while inebriated. “Happens every week,” a nurse told me. It’s well known that many American college students, including those at the University, drink. According to the National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism, “almost 53 percent of full-time college students ages 18 to 22 drank alcohol in the past month and about 33 percent engaged in binge drinking during that same time.”
Up until then, drinking seemed to seep into nearly every activity: Parties, tailgates, even casual hangouts with friends. Occasionally, someone would ask me why I wouldn’t drink, and I told them my medicine didn’t allow me to. It was a good enough reason that no one challenged it, but the frequency of the question marked my soberness as abnormal.
Perhaps part of the stigma surrounding staying sober in college is that people are not always tolerant of weighing a different risk tolerance than theirs. Alcohol is central to depictions of the college experience, so deciding not to drink questions the status quo, thus implying that there may be potential downsides of drinking culture.
Still, it’s not as though people who refuse to drink have a vendetta against alcohol or believe themselves to be better. You do you! So long as you do so responsibly — knowing your limits and surrounding yourself with people who look out for your safety — I have absolutely nothing against drinking in college.
For me, the pressure to drink hasn’t gone away. If I need a reminder, I only need to look in my own home: living with seven other upperclassmen girls, our house has a shelf with a section reserved for wine glasses, a minifridge dedicated to alcoholic beverages and a mantlepiece adorned with empty wine and soju bottles for decoration. Going into my senior year, there certainly still is some social pressure to drink, but the pressure I placed on myself has faded away.
Drinking is different for everyone, as is the impact it has on individuals’ social lives. For me, it depends on whether or not I feel comfortable being around people who are drinking when I’m not. Many students choose not to drink, and nonalcoholic drinks are on the rise. Regardless of whether or not I stay sober, I’ve come to realize the decision doesn’t make me any better of a person, nor does it make me less fun as a human being.
College has been a huge time of transition for my relationship with alcohol. I don’t feel different now that I’m 21, but I’m happy that my fear of not fully experiencing college is no longer centered around drinking. I don’t fear alcohol in relation to health as much, either, though I set my own limits now that I’m not on a medicine that does it for me. Maybe I’ll have a drink, maybe I won’t. But if I’ve learned anything, it’s that turning down a drink doesn’t need a justification.
Statement Contributor Elizabeth Schriner can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.