Jackson: Realizing drinking isn’t for me — and owning it

Cassidy Jackson, Op-Ed Contributor

Throughout high school, I didn’t drink. It was a small part of my ploy to be as counter-culture as possible. In middle school, for example, when I caught the whiff that Uggs were becoming chic, I never wore mine out in public again. As high school went by, drinking started to catch on and began popping up at more and more social hangouts. So, being the anti-culture fanatic I was, I refrained from drinking for no reason other than separating myself from the majority.

This past summer, the summer before my freshman year here, I had a quarter-life crisis — largely credited to the “Hamilton” soundtrack. In preparation for One Book One Northwestern’s free Hamilton performance, I was listening to the soundtrack on repeat, and I was haunted by one lyric in particular. The line in “Aaron Burr, Sir” when Hamilton asks, “If you stand for nothing, Burr, what’ll you fall for?”

That lyric made me completely question my counter-culture mentality, as I realized being anti-establishment doesn’t necessarily equate to standing up for anything. I wasn’t drinking, but there wasn’t any particular reason behind it. I was protesting drinking culture, but I had no explanation for why. Without a clear set of morals and values, I would blow where the wind took me in college.

So, that summer, I made the decisive choice to question everything I do. Was I doing something or believing in something blindly? Or was I doing it because it added to my happiness, empowered me or was something I genuinely cared about? One of the main questions I had for myself was, “Why are you choosing to not drink?”

I told myself that at the end of the day, avoiding drinking just to oppose the norm isn’t a moral choice. At the same time though, some part of me knew that drinking wasn’t for me.

So, I sat down with a pen and notebook and wracked my brain for reasons to explain why I felt that way. To my surprise, I wrote down a long list that day. Two of my main reasons were: not wanting to risk becoming addicted to alcohol (because addiction runs in my distant family) and worrying about how alcohol would affect my already complicated anxiety. I wrote that list thinking it would be all the empowerment I needed to live an alcohol-free life, but I was completely wrong.

In college, there have been numerous instances in which I’ve felt tested — often not even by my peers. The majority of my struggles concerning sobriety have come from me.

There’s a shame I’ve felt and have not been fully able to shake. When you don’t drink, you immediately become the outsider at parties, especially at smaller gatherings where it’s so painstakingly obvious who’s drinking and who’s not.

A trend I’ve noticed among many non-drinkers is that we rarely tell other people that we don’t drink unless they’re close to us or unless it’s absolutely — and I mean absolutely — necessary. For a while, I convinced myself that I was keeping it to myself because it wasn’t everyone’s business, which is true. But I realized — at least before this column is published — that I could count on one hand the number of people at Northwestern who know I don’t drink.

The true reason I don’t tell people is because I’m scared. Scared of saying it wrong or them misconstruing my decision not to drink as judgmental, uppity or prudish. At the end of the day, people I tell don’t get to read my long list of sensible reasons: whether they have biases about people who don’t drink will determine how they see me.

One night in particular made me confront my shame right in the face. It was an extremely small party, which meant the entirety of the night was spent playing drinking games. Someone raised the question of playing “Kings,” which I’d heard of but had never played. A girl started to explain the game: you have a deck of cards, and each card stands for something. If you draw an ace, you start a drinking circle, and everyone has to drink until you stop (it’s called a waterfall).

I don’t know the mechanics of drinking. How long can the average person guzzle alcohol? Does it depend on the type of alcohol? I had no idea, but I knew I could fly under the radar as long as I didn’t get an ace. But of course, with my luck, I got it on my first draw. In that moment, I could have just admitted it: I don’t drink, and this red solo cup is filled with Sprite. Yet, I couldn’t; I didn’t want to be judged or questioned. So, I put the solo cup to my lips and drank.

I drank for way too long, because as soon as I lifted the cup from my lips, I was bombarded with questions and comments like, “Oh my gosh Cassidy! You’re strong!” “Wow — how did you do that with liquor?” “Cassidy, you go hard!” They kept coming, and I said nothing — I awkwardly laughed it off.

I’ve grappled with this inexplicable shame ever since I got to college. I even struggled with it when writing this, searching for an angle to take that wouldn’t paint me as preachy or judgy. When I think back on that party, I just want to press rewind and say it. I want to own it and speak my truth instead of laughing the questions off. The more I think about that night, the more angry I get at myself, because this is ultimately my choice. No one told me I can’t drink. I have clear, etched out reasons why I stay sober. So, when I have the opportunity to talk about it, why do I shy away?

Recently, I’ve been pushing myself to feel empowered when it comes to drinking, because my decision not to has been the right choice for me — not some other person. I’m trying not to worry about how other people will view my choices, because at the end of the day, we’re all free to make our own. And I’m choosing something other than alcohol.

Cassidy Jackson is a Medill freshman. She can be contacted at [email protected]. If you would like to respond publicly to this op-ed, send a Letter to the Editor to [email protected]. The views expressed in this piece do not necessarily reflect the views of all staff members of The Daily Northwestern.