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Sober at 21: I Barely Had a Legal Drink

If you’d told me when I was a teenager that I would end up quitting alcohol just eight months after my 21st birthday, I would have thought you were insane. But that’s exactly what happened.

As a teen, I was no angel (is any teen?). But compared to some of my other recovering alcohol misuse friends, I was a goodie two-shoes. I always made it home by curfew, and my occasional drinking and drug use was pretty low-key. I graduated magna cum laude from my high school and began attending theater school in New York City.

My parents were incredibly strict about alcohol. I never saw them have more than two drinks a night and my siblings and I weren’t allowed to drink (although that didn’t always stop us) until we were 21.

I’ve heard stories of other people who get sober young, and many come from very different backgrounds. They may have had a tough family life or alcoholic parents; many started drinking as early as 10.

Despite my growing appetite for partying, I still wanted to keep up my reputation of being a “good” kid.

I had my first drink at 15, but my drinking didn’t really pick up until the summer before college. However, I quickly made up for lost time. I started smoking pot and drinking as often as I could without letting my grades slip. Despite my growing appetite for partying, I still wanted to keep up my reputation of being a “good” kid.

I turned 21 right before Thanksgiving break. But although I was now legally allowed to drink, my mom watched me like a hawk during Thanksgiving dinner, counting my drinks and cutting me off after two glasses of wine. Considering my “good girl” reputation, I was upset by her unnecessary policing.

By Christmas break, I was hiding pints of vodka in my bedroom. After my two drinks with dinner, I’d sneak into my room to guzzle as much booze as I wanted.

Though my partying was ramping up, I believed I would grow out of it once I graduated college—like my dad said he had. I’d soon become the successful, “together” person I always thought I’d be. But as my junior year of college wound down, I couldn’t go a day without weed, cough medicine, or alcohol—often all three.

In only three years of drinking and using drugs regularly, my life had gotten out of control. My partying consisted of blackouts, crying, desperate booty calls, and waking up in an unknown neighborhood with a strange man. This was a far cry from the glamorous, cosmopolitan lifestyle I had fantasized for myself when I was younger.

So, after my partying culminated in a bad breakup and getting fired from a good job, I was ready to let go. I stopped drinking and started going to AA meetings.

In my first couple weeks of going to meetings, I learned that alcohol addiction is not defined by how long or how much you drank, but why you drank. I couldn’t relate to other people’s shares about drinking for decades, but I could relate to their feelings of shame, pride, and fear.

When I hear other alcoholics tell their stories, a lot of them mention how their drinking picked up around college, but how they weren’t ready to stop drinking, and so continued for years afterwards. I’ve been in meetings where I’ve seen day-counters who are as young as 16 and as old as 77. I believe that the best age to quit drinking is whenever you’re ready.

If I could sum up what it’s been like to be present and sober in your 20s, I’d say it’s a wild ride. With the help of the program, I can walk through fear and be the person I want to be. Though it’s hard sometimes, it’s mostly pretty cool.

Related: The Twelve Steps Reconsidered

Grace Kemeny is a pseudonym for a writer living in New York City

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