When most people picture someone’s 21st birthday, they typically imagine a night with a ton of celebrating, countless shots, and barely any sleep. My 21st birthday this past year, on the other hand, was quite a bit tamer than what you’d assume.

It started with a group of my closest lady friends (no boys allowed) at Anatolia — by far the best ethnic restaurant in Bloomington. We stuffed our faces with Turkish food at a 12-person table that took up the majority of the dining area, laughing and catching up about the beginning of the spring semester.

Naturally, we made our way out into the cold (keep in mind that my birthday is in January) to go to Hartzell’s, because not even an Indiana blizzard can keep me away from a fresh waffle cone overflowing with homemade ice cream. 

gelato, wafer, waffle, chocolate ice cream, ice cream, cream, ice, chocolate
Amelia Hitchens

After ensuring that we were as full as humanly possible, we headed back to my apartment to watch one of my favorite movies of all time, Me and Earl and the Dying Girl. With cheeks stained from running mascara (gotta get waterproof next time) and the clock close to midnight, it was almost time to go out.

Once the clock officially struck January 24th, my friends who aren’t quite 21 left — sorry, guys — and the rest of us headed out to a bar just a few minutes away. When we got there, however, they told us they had stopped letting people in for the night, so we tried our luck on one downtown.

Here’s where things started to go downhill. First of all, one of my friends (you know who you are) forgot her ID, so she had to go back home to grab it. All of us headed inside after the bouncer carefully scrutinized my license — everyone always thinks I’m a teenager, so I wouldn’t have been surprised if he didn’t believe it was real — and we grabbed a table.

Since I was the birthday girl, my friends decided that I should get a drink first. A couple of us headed to the bar, and that’s when I went into panic mode. I had no idea what to order, let alone how to order, so I was totally overwhelmed.

Quick explanation: Prior to that night, I only had a few drinks during my life, all in the company of my family the previous year. I was terrified of drinking growing up; I was one of those middle school girls who told her friends that she’d never associate with them again if they drank. It wasn’t out of a superiority complex, but rather a deep fear that they would turn out like the various family members I witnessed struggling with alcoholism.

Giving drinking a chance in the first place was a foreign concept to me. Whenever I tried sips of my dad’s beer or my mom’s wine, I cringed. It never appealed to me as it did to the peers surrounding me. People constantly told me that it’s an acquired taste, that I’d get used to it eventually. I just never wanted to get used to it.

coffee, red wine, liquor, alcohol, wine
Alex Frank

Walking up to the bar on my 21st birthday — the night that every college student dreams about — brought back those bad gut feelings I felt every time I smelled alcohol on a family member’s breath or watched someone stumble around at a post-prom party.

In my chaotic attempt to order a drink, my friend shouted over the noise, “It’s her 21st birthday, and she doesn’t know what to order.” The bartender whipped up the most basic thing you could think of (vodka, cranberry juice, and club soda), slid it to me, and asked for five dollars.

Frazzled, I handed him the money, grabbed my drink, and shuffled back to our table. While my friends chatted and took turns getting drinks, I stared at the glass in front of me, taking only a few sips from it. Eventually, my friends started asking if I was okay, and one of them suggested that we go to the bathroom to talk.

syrup, maple syrup, beer, liquor, wine, whisky, alcohol
Christin Urso

The second we stepped into the bathroom, I burst into tears. Memories of drunken family members came flooding back into my mind, and I wondered why I suddenly decided to start drinking after a lifetime of seeing no reason to do so. I never needed any substances to have a good time and dance at a party; I never liked the idea of using alcohol to numb my feelings; I never wanted to risk my well-being for the sake of fitting in. I never understood the appeal.

A little while later, once the ranting and crying had subsided, we returned from the bathroom. My friends offered comfort as they finished their drinks, but I left mine untouched. We took pictures in the photo booth by our table, chatted a bit more, and headed home. Though the night ended on a more positive note, I still cried myself to sleep that night.

It felt against my nature to do something just to prove that I could, or just to look more mature to the people around me. It turns out that drinking isn’t for me, at least at this point in my life. I find much more pleasure in a good meal, a scoop of ice cream, and a bittersweet movie than I do in a bar full of sweaty college students. That’s not to say that I disapprove of other people’s decision to drink, but I stand by my choice to abstain if that’s what is best for me.

The next day (technically my actual birthday), I ran into friends who asked how my birthday celebration had been. They asked how much I had to drink and if I had the best night of my life. I felt obligated to say that it was awesome, since that’s what every 21st birthday is supposed to be. But I told them the truth — that it was a rough night, and not for the reasons they would expect.

The rest of the day was filled with way too much food: a pancake brunch with one friend, a Mediterranean dinner with another, and a red velvet cupcake sent from my mom. As I sat in my pajamas eating my cupcake that night, I realized that I am happy just as I am and just as I have been throughout my twenty one years on this earth.

Maybe I’d enjoy a mimosa with brunch, but I’m fine with orange juice. Maybe I’d savor a glass of red wine when I study in Florence this upcoming fall, but I’m content with a huge plate of pasta on its own. All I know is that deciding to drink or not is a personal choice, and I’ve made that decision with a lot of care. At the end of the day, we should feel the freedom to be ourselves. Cheers to that.