Turning 21, Booze-Free

By Taylor Ellsworth 06/19/12
When I came of age, I was legally allowed to drink. And as it turns out, I couldn’t have cared less.
I'm legal now. So what? Photo via

Most teenagers—the alcoholic ones, anyway—dream of their 21st birthday and the endless freedom and fun that it will bring. It’s the end of countless pathetic shoulder-tapping attempts outside of 7-11 but it also marks a transition in how society views you. If you drink before 21, like I did, people just know you are trouble. To this day, I am still baffled by the kids who wouldn’t touch a drop of alcohol in high school but now get drunk on the regular with their parents. But it makes sense, socially; once past the arbitrary milestone, getting wasted is expected, if not encouraged. And for me, alcohol would not only be much easier to contract once I turned 21 but also what I did with it once I had it in my hands wouldn’t be the cause of so much concern to my loved ones. I would just be doing what everyone else did. Maybe people would even quit asking me why I wouldn’t stop drinking.

I’ll never know, provided I don’t relapse. I got sober at 18; I had been of age to buy my own lottery tickets and smokes for less than three months. Unlike some alcoholics I know, I didn’t have to get 86’d from bars like The Bitter End Pub—this place does exist, by the way—to hit rock bottom. My drinking had been restricted to basements, cars, party houses and public parks. A few years after getting sober, when my 21st birthday was on the horizon, it dawned on me that if I wanted to drink, all I had to do was walk into a bar or a liquor store and I could be on my way to a blackout in minutes. I’d never realized it until that last month before my birthday that bars were almost as prevalent as Starbucks in my downtown Portland neighborhood. Getting drunk would no longer require any premeditation.

Unlike some alcoholics I know, I didn’t have to get 86’d from bars like The Bitter End Pub—this place does exist, by the way—to hit rock bottom. 

Some sober friends had turned 21 before me and managed to make it to the other side of the coming-of-age anxiety but I had seen countless others immerse themselves in the club scene only to rapidly spiral downward into its dirty underbelly: sometimes dealing drugs; sometimes stripping; always eventually drinking. I never actually wanted to drink during the months leading up to my birthday, though. Despite the fact that I was working two jobs and it was a grossly hot summer—two more-than sufficient excuses for my former self—I never really considered getting drunk. This is due in part to something I once heard in a meeting early on, something I’ve miraculously never been able to forget: there is nothing that taking a drink will ever fix or make better. It seems that this should be obvious to someone who typically wakes up sans several items of clothing with puke encrusted on most of her body parts after “just one drink” but for some reason it wasn’t. If it were easy to remember this, alcoholics wouldn’t drink. Before I got sober, the number of flip-flops I lost or friends I lied to was inconsequential because drinking and playing the victim were my only problem-solving techniques. I didn’t know that not hating every second of my sober existence was possible until I had worked the 12 steps. Up until that point, every time a drink was in front of me, I would forget any reason I’d ever had to abstain. A few Rum and Cokes were the only answer to anything. 

After staying sober for a while, abstaining became bearable and even, at times, fun. And given how dark things had gotten pre-sobriety, you wouldn't have thought I'd be so afraid of my 21st birthday. But it was because I remembered alcoholic hell that I was so terrified. I never wanted to go back to the desperation I had felt at 18, when I couldn’t bear look myself in the eye in a mirror. The people I’d seen turn 21 and relapse all had—or at least seemed to have—strong recovery at one point or another. But most of them had managed to convince themselves that they weren’t alcoholics. Whether that was true for them or not, it’s a trap that many young, real alcoholics do fall into. They say that they were just experimenting when they hit bottom; they were too young to know better or it was a phase. They see people getting hammered in clubs and come to believe that all 20-somethings drink problematically. This might be true but I also know to my core that I’m never going to be a normal drinker. Something about the way I loved alcohol was different from the way most of my partying friends loved it—the flood of panic I felt when someone asked for a swig of my fifth, the hours I would spend all week obsessing over how I would get sufficiently fucked up over the weekend, the elaborate plots I executed to steal my friends’ drugs and alcohol when I couldn’t get my own, the way I wouldn’t drink at all if I didn’t have enough to get completely wasted—none of it was normal. I also knew that, if I caved in a moment of weakness, I might never stop. This was another phenomenon I’d been given the gift of observing time and time again in the rooms. It may sound crass because I wouldn’t wish the misery of drinking like an alcoholic or using like an addict upon anyone but the more times I am reminded that going back out doesn’t work, the less I am tempted to do it myself.

Something strange happened in the few days leading up to my 21st birthday. I shared my fears in meetings and with other friends who had turned 21 in sobriety. In fact, I talked and talked so much about it that by the time the day arrived, I had exhausted myself of caring or worrying. Alcohol was no more of a threat than it had ever been at 18, 19, and 20; it was just going to be more accessible if I ever changed my mind. I liked cocaine too, and had been able to stay coke-free for those three years without any sort of legal prohibitions stopping me. Well, aside from the fact that it’s illegal for anyone to purchase cocaine, but that law applied to me as much at 15 as it did at 21.

On my birthday, I met up with a big group of friends for dinner; there were more people there than at any alcohol-infused birthday party I’d had before getting sober. After we ate, those of us who were of age preceded to hit several bars and strip clubs. It wasn’t until we had made it to the last bar, a gay club on hip-hop night, that I realized I could get drunk in that moment. As I stood at the bar paying for my water bottles, I gazed without longing at the bottles of liquor I’d probably never get to try lining the shelves. The bartender asked me if that would be it. I looked back at my friends, covered in sweat and dancing like idiots. I told him I thought I was okay.

Taylor Ellsworth writes from Portland, Oregon. She also wrote about getting fired by a sponsee and managing her eating disorder, among many other topics, for The Fix. Follow her on Twitter here.

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