I have the worst headache. I’m recovering from one of my first weekends of being 21, and that’s especially important for me because I just had my first drink. You read that right: I — hand to God — didn’t have an alcoholic beverage until my 21st birthday.
After 20 years of waiting, and probably several cumulative hours explaining myself to people, I had my first beer at midnight on my birthday with my dad at Dana’s almost two weeks ago. I accomplished the seemingly impossible: I waited to drink any alcohol until I was 21 years old, surviving two and a half long, sober years of college life in the process.
Reactions to my self-imposed prohibition were mixed. Some people respected my decision and were eager to hear more about it. Some even encouraged me. Others didn’t hesitate to tell me why I was wrong and stupid for adhering to such a pointless law. At different points, I was accused of being naïve and judgmental.
In addition to those mixed reactions, there were plenty of times I doubted my own decision. I had a lot of movie and coloring nights my freshman year. And when I did start going out with friends, I often served as the de facto designated driver or was relegated to nursing friends, forced to listen to “insightful” drunken banter and prevent people from fighting. And now that I’m amongst the drinking population, I have a few questions I’d like to answer. For one thing, beer is indeed an acquired taste. Two weeks and five brands later, I have yet to find one that I like.
But more importantly, why did I wait? The easy answer is that it just “wasn’t me.” My parents have never been big drinkers, and my friends in high school didn’t drink until they got to college. Alcohol had never been a part of my life, and I had no intention of changing that. But I confess that there was a time when some of my critics were correct: I once thought myself “too good” to drink.
When I first came to college, drinking underage was a sort of categorical moral imperative. I thought I was above the lifestyle of someone who drinks, even in moderation. I looked around at my peers in my freshman year and rolled my eyes at their drunken weekends and “thirsty Thursdays,” perplexed by their decisions.
Potential moral questions aside, the minimum drinking age seems arbitrary. The United States is one of only four developed countries to have a nationwide drinking age over age 18. The federal government only instituted the nationwide 21 year-old drinking age in 1984 with the National Minimum Drinking Age Act. As a result, there was probably alcohol (albeit of lower alcohol content) available at many of our parents’ school sponsored senior proms, a ridiculous notion to a generation raised under the continued influence of the “Just Say No” campaign.
As I thought about all of these things and spent more time with people who drink, I found my motivations began to change. The moral imperative not to drink fell away when I considered that I could legally drink in almost every other country in the world. Moreover, I came to see that drinking wasn’t just about getting drunk. There was certainly a middle-ground between straight sober and burgeoning alcoholic, a distinction I didn’t originally care to see.
So ultimately, I think I waited to drink as a challenge to myself. I wanted to prove to myself that I would begin drinking, a social activity that, for better or worse, is central to the “college experience,” on my own terms rather than someone else’s.
The poet Charles Baudelaire once commanded that you “be drunken…so as not to feel the horrible burden of time that breaks your back and bends you to the earth, be drunken always,” adding that you could be drunk not just on wine but on “poetry” or “virtue.”
Baudelaire may have died from prolonged opium and alcohol usage, but his message stands: life is worth living because of the moments we are “drunken.” We truly live when we disconnect from our inhibitions, seeking the small and impossibly poignant moments of clarity and beauty that only letting yourself be absorbed by something else can bring. That certainly doesn’t mean we get drunk all the time, but it does mean we have to sometimes let go and ride a sort of “high,” be it on wine, on poetry or on virtue. My quest for underage sobriety taught me that. But seriously, does anyone have an asprin? My head is killing me.