Taking a shot: trying alcohol for the first time at 21

Staff writer Sarah Morris (left) had her first drink at 21 this past week. (Photo courtesy of Sarah Morris)

“No, thank you,” quickly became my most commonly uttered phrase on weekends once I moved away to college — I would continuously be offered drinks at parties and would continuously turn them down.

I’m not sure exactly when I decided I wouldn’t drink alcohol before I turned 21 — I guess for a while I wasn’t sure if I would ever drink at all. My main reason was the legality of it. A rule follower from the time I was born, I couldn’t imagine intentionally breaking such a clearly defined law, even in situations where I knew I wouldn’t get caught.

But more than that, there was a feeling of not being ready. Somewhere in my mind I knew alcohol was a responsibility I couldn’t handle at 18 or 19 years old, and even if 21 felt like an arbitrary age to change that, waiting at least gave me some time to figure it out.

I determinedly avoided parties my first year of college. I was going to Drexel University, and I would go home every weekend — in part to be away from the party scene. Drinking was scary and foreign to me. It’s still scary, but once I came to accept it’s something that happens when kids go off to college, it got easier to be around.

In my experience, drunk college kids are very respectful when you say you don’t drink, which surprised me. I expected some sort of judgment — I thought I’d be labelled an “other” for not partaking in what seemed to be a coming-of-age ritual before actually coming of age.

The first time I went out to a party in the city, my friends and I were all still living in dorms in West Philly. It was a Thursday night, and we were meeting to leave at 11 p.m. I had never in my life been to a party that started so late. My friends showed up outside my building with mixed drinks in iced tea bottles. I had a water, and someone I didn’t know in the group asked me if I was bringing straight vodka.

For a second I considered lying, or at least not tell the whole truth. Then I realized that no one, not even the craziest of first years, would pour that much vodka into a plastic water bottle and not mix it with anything. I fessed up.

“It’s water. You know, so we all stay hydrated.”

(Illustration by Raka Sarkar | Senior Staff Illustrator)

I was off to a really cool start. But when we got to the party, a crowded dingy basement filled with all the art freaks West Philly had to offer, it was shockingly easy to avoid the beer. I just didn’t pour myself any. And no one other than my best friend even noticed. I joined the dance floor and went nuts.

I didn’t know at the time whether or not I would enjoy drinking, but I always knew dancing was a good time. The playlist that night was full of my favorite hits from the ‘80s, and I guess I went hard. A friend came up a few hours in and started dancing with me. She assumed I’d been drinking because I was having so much fun. I told her I hadn’t been, but I realized then it didn’t really matter.

After that night the shock of underage drinking wore off — it wasn’t something foreign or unfathomable anymore. I developed my ways to refuse drinks without drawing too much attention to myself.

I moved to Pittsburgh halfway through my sophomore year of college, when I was 20. At that point I’d made it long enough — I was dead set on making it to 21 before I drank. It would feel like an accomplishment, and I still hated breaking rules.

Entering new environments at 20 was a bit different than entering new environments at 18. Most people I was around were now already of age. The drinking was less about partying and more casual, which was a lot more pleasant to be around while sober.

If someone offered me a drink, I would simply say, “No, thank you” without explanation. If they pressed for whatever reason, I would quietly add, “Oh, I don’t drink,” and no one ever asked questions after that — again, much respect from everyone around me.

I noticed that some people thought I may have had a drinking problem, and they too were kind — they would go into the other room to take their shots so I wasn’t near it. I think there’s a stigma that you have to drink in college to fit in — I can say with honesty that my experience has proved otherwise.

I made lifelong friends my first few years of college — some who knew I didn’t drink early on, and some who only figured it out if we went out together. But none of them ever made me feel like I was an outcast, immature or doing the wrong thing for not drinking.

There were times, of course, when it was difficult. Sometimes I would be lounging in my friends’ apartment and they would open a bottle of wine. I’m staying the night and have nowhere to drive, I figured. Why not have a glass? There were times like this when I definitely wanted to. But honestly I’m really happy I waited.

I turned 21 last week, and in the very early minutes of my birthday Tuesday morning, my roommate and I walked to the closest open bar near our apartment. I handed over my newly valid ID with a strange sense of pride. They gave us free drinks, and I sat down.

I think I expected the first sip to change my life — to have some wildly different taste I’d never experienced or take my mind to new places or something. Instead, the gin and tonic just tasted like sprite, mixed with a little bit of vomit.

I was shaky when I stood up. I must have drunk more than I meant to in the 45 minutes we sat by the bar. I got home and drank several liters of water, scared to death of the dreaded hangover with class in seven hours.

I tried new kinds of alcohol every night that week — never drinking to excess, just seeing what it was like. I decided white wine was too sweet, red wine was good for its bitterness, and two glasses is too many if I want to stay upright. I guess I’m a lightweight.

Some older adults commended me for waiting to drink, but it doesn’t so much feel like an accomplishment as just reaching a milestone in my life. It was exciting to have something new left to experience at 21 when it feels like all of the good parts of growing up have already passed me by.

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