My Sober 21st Birthday Experience

Last month I turned 21.  Here’s how that went:

Image source

For months I kept feeling nervous about this day, my birthday. In past years, I was very excited about it. Birthdays usually brought out a lot of my emotions and existential questions, and this one did the same, except for with one principal experience: anxiety. I tried soothing myself, asking, “Why am I so nervous about this day that so many other people get pumped up for in their own lives?” While I don’t have a concrete answer to this question, I will tell you about some of the worries my birthday brought into my head this year.

I associated becoming 21 with drinking alcohol and partying, which was frightening.  

As someone who has viewed alcohol as a harmful substance, even in moderation, it has been challenging to grapple with others’ excitement about my new ability to drink legally. During the months leading up to my birthday, I heard comments like, “Where are you gonna go out [and drink]?” and “I only have a month to go ['til I turn 21]; it’s been a long wait. I’m excited to go out to bars with my friends who are already 21.”  “Wow,” I thought, “People just assume I want to go out and drink on my birthday.” I felt like I had to correct them and let them know what my real plans were. By the way, I didn’t have real plans; I suggested what I might do, which didn’t include drinking.

I thought I was going to feel alone in, ashamed of, or judged by others about my choice not to drink, as a person now of legal drinking age.  

After telling people about my birthday “plans,” I received mixed responses. Some people were kind and supportive about my wish to be a sober 21-year-old. Others seemed surprised or shocked, continuing to talk about their own happiness about drinking. So I validated their opinions and experiences and proceeded with life.

Image by the author

I wondered if I would ever drink and how I felt about a number of possible responses to that idea.  

On one hand, I felt confident about my safety in never drinking, given my discomfort with alcohol’s impairing and harmful effects. On the other hand, I felt concerned about having to regularly deal with disbelieving reactions to my choice to be sober. Although I haven’t necessarily come to any sort of resolution about what being a sober 21-year-old means for me in the future, I feel confident that this decision will help keep me safe, healthy, and focused on what really matters to me.

On the day of my 21st birthday, I enjoyed my sober celebration with my boyfriend at the Cheesecake Factory and felt excited about getting my calories from a delicious piece of pumpkin cheesecake, rather than from alcohol.

Image by the author