It’s the beginning of a new year, a time full of new goals and resolutions. Though New Year’s has always been one of my favorite holidays, resolutions have rarely been a part of it. In fact, I recall making an honest attempt at exactly two New Year’s resolutions. There was also a time when I gave up soda for an entire year in my teens, but I don’t recall it being associated with the new year.
A few days before New Year’s Day 2014 I decided I would not have a single drink of alcohol during the calendar year. One year later, I can mark my resolution as complete. It has been an inspiring year, this is the story of how it came to be.
My story with alcohol, however, starts much earlier.
My Childhood and Teen Years
As many of my friends became teenagers they began to sneak around trying their parent’s liquor or beer. Some parents provided that first beer to them. In my house however, a drop of alcohol could never be found. Family gatherings were no different. I don’t have a single recollection of seeing alcohol at my parent’s house, grandparent’s house, or most of my aunts’ and uncles’ homes.
I have exactly two memories of my family consuming alcohol. The more recent of the two was at my brother’s wedding where my parents each had a glass of champagne. Then again, I’m not entirely sure if they had the champagne or the alcohol-free bubbly. There is also a memory from our childhood during an extended family reunion. My grandmother brought a glass of apple juice to my brother, or at least she thought it was apple juice. Turned out it was a light beer. I mostly recall from the stories I’ve heard, but apparently my brother didn’t like it too much.
Throughout high school there were plenty of opportunities to drink, though I didn’t feel a lot of peer pressure. During my rebellious teen days of wearing JNCO jeans I typically spent my Friday nights in my bedroom with headphones on working on little art projects, writing in journals, or composing letters to my high school crushes. People always assumed teenagers would drink to rebel against parents, society, school, etc. And somewhere along the way I began to think, “If everyone seems to be drinking, and it’s the ‘cool’ thing to do, the true rebel is the one who decides not to drink.” That thought stuck with me for a long time. With hockey, skateboarding, snowboarding and photography, I had plenty to focus on and all the adrenalin I needed.
High school graduation came and went, and suddenly I was a freshman at Michigan State University. I loathe the following assumption, as MSU is such a remarkable institution, but since it’s relevant to this discussion it is the one time I will refer to this quote from Playboy magazine: “Michigan State University will no longer be considered for our annual list of party schools because we feel it is unfair to include professionals on a list of amateurs.” So, yeah, it was a party school. Opportunities to drink were everywhere. Even more so at the MSU Snowboard Club parties which I frequented.
The peer pressure to drink, which was relatively absent in high school, was now much more present in college. But I held on to my thoughts on rebellion and never felt any need or desire to drink.
The semesters ticked by. Suddenly I was Junior in college and on my 21st birthday I found myself sick and vomiting. Except it was just the flu. I was finally of legal drinking age and still alcohol-free.
The greatest part of this is that I felt a sense of willpower that was unbreakable. By this time, if I wanted to drink I could without my conscience weighing in, but I was definitely not going to succumb to peer pressure. My heightened sense of willpower affected other areas of my life, where I felt conviction in my choices.
On July 1st, 2004, I was celebrating Canada Day with my study abroad classmates in London. My friend Debbie and I stood at the bar of a pub. She bought me my first drink, a Strongbow. In that moment reservations about drinking were gone. I had long proven to myself the strength of my willpower and no longer felt the need to prove something to society. On top of that, I was in London! If there was ever a perfect time for a first drink, it was then. It was a memorial trip abroad, and I enjoyed plenty more than that one drink.
My senior year came around, and coincidentally, in my capstone advertising class our group project was to come up with a campaign for the health center, focusing on the social norms of drinking on campus. Though my experience with drinking wasn’t the norm, I learned that it actually wasn’t that unusual. Over eight years later the campaign is still in use.
Having some statistical context here is important. The number of American adults who abstain from drinking is not rare. Based on a 2012 study, nearly 25% of 30-year-olds haven’t had a single drink in the last year.
When I had that first drink in 2004, I was 21 years old plus a few months. I’ll be turning 32 soon and there has been plenty of alcohol in those ten years. In fact, I love trying a new craft brew, and many friends can attest to my affinity for a spicy Bloody Mary and especially a White Russian. There were nights of binge drinking, hangovers, a handful of embarrassing vomiting moments. Mom and Dad, you are now hearing about this for the very first time.
With my parents in mind, I want to make one thing very clear, there was never a drinking problem. Throughout this year, as I told people I wasn’t drinking, many reacted with looks of concern, as though I possibly had a drinking problem. Rest assured, this was never the case.
We often associate drinking with partying and having no inhibitions. We use alcohol as a means to that end. During the Hometown Invasion Tour there were some wild days. Some sober, some not. But I have to mention four brothers. These four brothers were the life of the party, and they partied! They were crazy in all the good ways, not an ounce of inhibition, and more energy to keep going than anyone. All while completely sober. How could I be more like that?
Then the day came when I began a career. After a days work it was common to grab a beer with coworkers and friends. There were some late Friday and Saturday nights with many, many drinks. And I loved trying a new beer while eating dinner out. Certainly there were some shameful moments and embarrassing stories (you’ll have to find me in person to hear about those). However, it was very rare to ever find alcohol in my own fridge. Typically the only alcohol there was given to me as a gift. Curiously, I had some of the most sought after Michigan beers in my fridge most of this year. More on that below.
Whether it be a professional networking event, a birthday party, or a BBQ, there have been many situations where I observed people say in shock, “What do you mean there’s no alcohol?” or “Well, I’m not staying long if I can’t drink.” For many there is this social dependency, and I wanted to make sure I could have fun no matter what beverages were offered at the party.
Drinking had very much become the status quo. And status quos and I have never gotten along very well. After ten years of consuming alcoholic beverages, it was time to mix things up for a fresh perspective.
A Resolution with Social Implications
“I love drinking, hate people who don’t drink. Never met an interesting person in my life who didn’t drink. If you don’t drink you’re a boring cunt and all your stories suck.” – Jim Jefferies
Am I a “boring cunt”? Do all of my stories suck? Well, damn.
Giving up alcohol for a period of time was something I had been considering for a while. I was inspired by my friend Eric who had the same resolution a few years ago. I’ve had colleagues and friends who choose not to drink, some who have never had a drink. And then there is my best friend, who based on his religious beliefs does not drink. He has provided the most inspiration. As the sober person around a group of drunk people, he was still the life of the party. He would usually have more fun than the rest of us.
I began to ask myself a few questions. Do I still have the willpower I had as a teenager? Will I be able to have just as much fun without drinking? How can I relieve my social anxiety without using alcohol to loosen my inhibitions?
As I began to tell friends of my resolution the responses were across the board. Many people challenged it, asking “Why not give it up for only a month?” or “Why not give up something else?” I could give up chocolate, meat, swearing, but alcohol has social implications much more ingrained in society.
The responses varied greatly.
- Some were faces of bewilderment, confusion, and a simple, “Why?”
- Many people expressed admiration, “That’s awesome!” Only to be followed with, “but I would never do it” or “I’d go a month, but a year is ridiculous.”
- There were a few examples where people blatantly stated, “That’s the stupidest thing I’ve ever heard.”
- But nothing compares to having a person dealing with substance abuse come up to me and say, “I think it’s inspiring you’re doing this.”
- And more recently, “I’d love to buy you a beer, but only when you’re ready,” while putting an emphasis on whenever I choose.
And perhaps most common was people saying something along the lines of, “I don’t plan to give up anything I like, I like drinking!” I agree, I enjoy drinking too. A dark stout sounds fantastic. On top of that a drink in certain settings helps relieve my social anxiety and lose some inhibitions.
But certainly there are things we can gain through giving up something we love. I never felt that a month would be long enough. A year, now that could have some impact. By practicing restraint and no longer taking things for granted there is much to be learned. I am certain that when I do have another dark stout, it’ll taste better than any I’ve had before it. A year, after all, is not that long, or so I hope. And being sober isn’t for me, well I have the rest of my life to drink as much as I want.
At times, the peer pressure from adults was worse than it ever was from college students or teenagers. Among some groups of people, the idea of not drinking was entirely inconceivable. Yet, last New Year’s Eve went by, my birthday, a moving away party, and a welcoming party as I moved back to Marquette. All without a drink.
Moving back to the Upper Peninsula has been amazing, being surrounded by good people and also in part to moments like this, which has made 2015 an amazing start. One of the longest standing stereotypes of Yoopers has been our love for beer. And let’s face it, along with most stereotypes, it’s a stereotype for a reason.
Being the Official Unofficial Ambassador of the Upper Peninsula is a wonderful mission, but there are Upper Peninsula stereotypes I’ve always wanted to challenge. Many people know me for my marketing and advertising background, but my first field of study at MSU was sociology. I will forever be an amateur sociologist at heart. Many people have offered to buy me a beer this year, and I happily meet them at the brewery where I respectfully decline the beer and have a glass of water. This often led to confusion on their part.
Two people come to mind with whom I had in-depth conversations with about drinking culture. One from California and one from Colorado. They were both under the impression that in the Midwest there is a much greater culture of drinking. The locals will often acknowledge this while pointing to long winters and short days. Though I made my way through all 50 states, it was never long enough to truly observe the difference in drinking cultures from state to state. Both of these people mentioned how in the Midwest drinking comes first. But out west, drinking comes second, because you want to go biking and skiing the next day, and you don’t want to interrupt those plans by over drinking. They argued that in the Midwest you drink, then if you’re not too hungover you decide if you’re going to go biking or skiing that day. I thought this provided wonderful context to this year without a drink.
At some point during the year I became to feel very liberated. This was the point where I truly feel I achieved my goal, which wasn’t just to go 365 days without a drink, but to challenge my willpower and see if I still had it.
I recall going to prom dinner in high school. Everyone ordered a soda, but I ordered a chocolate milk. As some snickered I became self-conscious. But to me chocolate milk is way more tasty and way more soothing. It was a similar feeling earlier in the year each time I ordered a ginger ale at the bar when everyone else was getting a beer. The pressure to have a drink began to fade, I became more confident in defying that status quo.
Ok, so there’s an asterisk. Did you really think I would go a year without one? Let me explain.
I opened by mentioning two New Year’s resolutions. This is the second one.
On January 1, 2010 I launched Beer With Branson, a social media campaign to achieve my New Year’s resolution of having a beer with Richard Branson. The year, and the resolution, began with lots of buzz. But it would silently fade, and it didn’t happen. The goal lingered in my mind, and it slowly became a bucket list item rather than a resolution.
After great patience, some persistence, and a lot of luck, I poured Richard Branson a beer, or as my friends call it, “Foam With Branson.” But give me a break, that was the most nerve-wracking beer I’ve poured in my life.
I came home from that trip to Grand Rapids with a few cases of the best beer in Michigan. It included a Kentucky Breakfast Stout from Founder’s, a rare beer that has won awards for being the best beer in America. Beer connoisseurs would be furious to know I’ve had one sitting in my fridge, unnoticed for seven months. The kind folks at Founders, nor anyone helping to make Beer With Branson come true, had no idea I was five months into a commitment not to drink.
So yes, I did have a drink in 2014. If you want to challenge me and say I didn’t achieve my resolution of not drinking, that’s fine. However, my conscience is very clear and I am quite alright that I paused one resolution for a day, to achieve a previous resolution from four years prior.
In part, I felt it was fate. That this epic moment was meant to be part of this year without drinking. And I debated with myself, maybe I would show up with chocolate milk for each of us instead of a beer. As I drank my Widowmaker from Keweenaw Brewing Company, it was most certainly the best tasting beer I ever had.
Drinking in 2015
There were relatively few people who know of my resolution not to drink, but my parents were never one of them. And suddenly in Wisconsin this December there was a milestone moment where they bought me a beer for the first time. We were admiring all the beer labels at a small shop when we noticed the Fat Squirrel label (it’s worth noting that I have a squirrel thing, partially by choice, partially because of the success from the Hometown Invasion Tour). Having no idea of my resolution, it was an awkward exchange, and the bottle still sits in my fridge.
The questions I’m asking myself have changed. I find myself asking if I want to have another drink? Does not drinking actually make me a better person or more productive person? Does it help bring out the quintessential Bugsy? Those are still things I’ll still try and answer.
There are some very tangible benefits from this year. Not drinking has saved me hundreds of dollars, thousands of calories, some headaches, and probably a few poor decisions. But nothing compares to the perspective it has helped me gain. This year was incredibly fresh and clear. It has been a spectacular year with a lot of changes in my personal life, but much of it can be credited to giving something up for the sake of creating new perspectives.
I have yet to have that first drink of alcohol, but I achieved what I set out to, and that next perfect moment for a drink will come along soon enough. But I am certainly in no hurry.
People are beginning to ask what my resolution is for 2015. It’s already a few days into January and I’ve got ideas, but no concrete answers. But what I’ve learned is the importance to continually challenge yourself. I love the idea that there is always something we can quietly work towards. Challenging the status quo, working on your willpower, or gaining some perspective are just a few of the potential benefits. But if it comes to giving something up or taking something on for an entire year, the fact is that in the grand scheme of things, one year is a pretty small part of our lives.
And I guess this is where that famous quote from Socrates would go.