Most people don’t turn 21 and then decide to stop drinking alcohol - especially when they’re entering their senior year of college. I, however, did, and experienced quite a few bumps along the way. This is my story (and struggle) and all of the challenges I faced and lessons I’ve learned along the way.

How it all began

In April of last year (during finals week, nonetheless), I caught mono from two of my closest friends who had had it in the months prior. Mononucleosis, or “mono” as it is popularly termed, is every college student’s worst nightmare. It is a vicious disease known for aggressively attacking the immune system and wreaking total havoc on one’s body. As luck would have it, finals week was the beginning of the worst part of the virus for me. Regardless, I forced myself to suffer through all of my finals. I had absolutely no appetite, I couldn’t swallow, I looked like I had a tennis ball stuck in my neck (because my lymph nodes were so swollen), I had a severe cold that lasted for two weeks, and I was constantly freezing. When my mom picked my sister and I up to go home for the summer, I waited for her outside on a 70-degree day shivering in my biggest winter coat.

I spent the beginning half of that summer lying in bed, eating extremely healthy foods (made by my amazing sister), sleeping, and watching Spongebob 24/7 (not exactly my dream summer). Everything that I loved doing seemed to be taken away from me: I couldn’t run (or else I ran the risk of my spleen exploding), I had to stop drinking coffee (my one, true love and my absolute lifeline), and I couldn’t even talk normally because my throat was extremely swollen – to put it into perspective, I sounded exactly like the Snapchat robot voice filter. I was utterly miserable and spent the rest of my summer slowly trying to get better and rebuild my life. 

So much for "twenty-fun"

When my 21st birthday came around in the middle of August, drinking and going to the bars was the last thing on my mind. Although I was feeling a lot better than I had been in the beginning of the summer, I knew that it was still too soon to try drinking again. By the time senior year rolled around two weeks later, I figured I had waited long enough and decided to drink and see what would happen. Well peeps, I made the wrong choice because after the first night of going out, all of the cold symptoms I had had when I first caught mono came back the next day. I didn’t feel too bad, however, and the symptoms went away within a day or two. For a few weekends after that, I decided I would drink when I went out, but only a little bit. I would order my favorite shot pitcher from Hem’s and only take a few sips (give or take a few more :p). Sometimes, I would notice the lymph nodes under my arm start to swell up, but I chose to ignore it. After a couple of months of doing this, I began to drink more and more each time I went out – getting sicker and sicker after each time (e.g. the “mono cold” would come back each time and began to get more severe and last longer after every time I went out). At one point, I almost felt like I had full-blown mono again. After feeling ill for a week, I would take a weekend off from going out until I felt back to normal, and the cycle would continue.

By the middle of November, I was desperately hoping I could have a successful drinking experience. One Saturday night, I started out at Hem’s (my go-to) and ordered my usual Pathfinder. Not long after, I finished the entire thing (my first and last time ever doing so – big yikes) and had a few more drinks after that, including, but not limited to: tequila shots (my weakness) and vodka crans. That night, which took us from Hem’s to Panther House and eventually to deep South O, was the most fun I had had in a long time. But, as any insightful person might guess, I paid a hell of a price for it. I spent the following two weeks (including all of Thanksgiving break) sick as a dog with the mono cold and swollen lymph nodes under my arm. When I got back to my apartment that same night, I found it impossible to sleep, and I woke up the next morning with a super swollen face and looking like I had been hit by a truck. When I FaceTimed my mom the next day, she said I looked worse than I had in a while. I couldn’t bring myself to tell her it was because I had gone out (and way overdid it) the previous night.

"Did you say a virgin Pathfinder?"

The literal hell I experienced after that night was all it took for me to finally bring myself to stop drinking. It has been the challenge of a lifetime, but I haven’t had any alcohol since that night in November. While I definitely feel like my social life has taken a hit, I’m healthier than I have been in a long time. In the months since then, I’ve talked to tons of people, gotten advice from all over, and learned a few things along the way as I’ve tried to perfect my new “going out” routine. I’ve gotten used to going to the bars completely sober (weird, I know – I’m cringing as I write this), and ordering drinks without alcohol. The first time I asked the bartender at Hem’s for a “virgin Pathfinder,” he just stared at me. I laughed and quickly explained that I couldn’t drink. Surprisingly, I get all of my Pathfinders for free now because “I’m not going to charge you since there’s no alcohol in the drink.” We both benefit from that since he gets a nice tip and I have more money to spend on food (obviously the best part about going out anyways – buff chick dip, anyone?). Obviously, I’m not trying to get diabetes (which I’m sure you can get from having just one Pathfinder) anytime soon (although my diet might say otherwise #chocolateaddict), so I try to switch up my drinks each time I go out. My all-time favorite drink has always been Sex on the Beach. Now, I have the unfortunate irony of asking the bartender at Hem’s for a virgin Sex on the Beach (you can imagine the look on his face the first time I ordered one – huge cringe). When I’m trying to be healthy, I’ll order a club soda (honestly, could I get any more lame at this point? *insert eye-rolling emoji*) and occasionally fries, pizza, or buff chick dip so that I don’t feel so bad for not being charged for drinks.

Now, it’s almost February, and while I don’t go out nearly as much as I used to, I like to think that at least I’m not losing precious hours of sleep and waking up hungover and miserable like a lot of my peers do. During this time, I’ve relied heavily on my faith as well as my family and closest friends for support and encouragement in changing my lifestyle (s/o to you guys, you know who you are and ily dearly). I definitely could not have done any of this without my mom or my sister - they've been a constant source of love, support, and inspiration. Not to mention, my sister has made almost every single one of my meals since April (ILY). Along the way, one of the most important lessons I’ve learned is that you don’t need alcohol to have fun (cliché, I know). While I’m aware that most people don’t believe me when I say that, it’s true. At the end of the night, all that really matters is that you get to hang out with the people you love most and dance your 🍑s off, which, contrary to popular belief, you don’t need alcohol to do.

Coffee Talk

As of December, I still haven’t been able to drink coffee (the only thing I actually care about now) because it makes the lymph nodes in my arm swell up a little bit. I’ve struggled tremendously with giving it up since I first caught mono. Side note: the virus that causes mono hates caffeine, so it’s best to avoid it at all costs if you’re sick with mono. I stopped drinking coffee for a while, then picked it back up again around June and just ignored the swelling in my arm (idiotic, I know). From June through December, I tried everything from having my usual Starbucks grande blonde and being completely wired and feeling like I was going to pass out, to trying decaf (so boring) as well as decaf pumpkin spice lattes and peppermint mochas during the holidays because Lord knows I was NOT about to go through Fall without a few PSLs. Eventually, I decided that I’m going to try to make it from January through April without having any coffee (it will truly be a miracle if I can pull it off). In the meantime, I’ve been drinking tons of water, turmeric tea, green smoothies, and virgin Sex on the Beaches (cringe). Going forward, I don't plan on drinking again any time soon. Is this my last semester of college? Yes. Might I be considered crazy for swearing off alcohol for now? Yes, but I don't care. Life doesn't always work out like we think it will, and for now, I'm just going with it.

The moral of the story is...

And I cannot emphasize this enough: if you contract mono, STOP DRINKING. I promise that all of your organs will thank you, even though your social life probably won’t. But what's more important in this type of situation? It will all be worth it in the long run. While this has meant no longer being the life of the party or becoming best friends with strangers in under five minutes, but rather being a completely normal human being when I go out, as well as becoming visibly pissed off at all the strange men who come up to my friends and I at the bars (@ Pitt med student who cursed me out in Italian & CMU business card boy), I wouldn’t have it any other way. I’ve learned so much about life, myself, my priorities, and the things that really matter in life (e.g. good health), and I wouldn’t trade those hardships I endured or the  lessons I’ve learned for anything in the world (not even a regular Sex on the Beach).