This month marks seven years since I quit drinking, since my life went off the rails and skidded out of control. I memorialized that experience with a post I shared last year, a warts-and-all portrait of alcohol use gone unmanageable.
I believed my drinking gave me an edge, allowing me to express my most unhinged, outrageous desires and thereby differentiating me from the group at a time I felt invisible. It turned out, however, that when I got right down to it, blackout drinking (I know no other kind) was a form of self-erasure, a way to pull the plug on my conscious self and disappear. What good is standing out from the crowd when you’re not even there? What had gone so horribly wrong socially that I felt such a need for otherness, when my sense of otherness was the source of such pain? Why was I unable to make a choice about how many drinks I was going to have and stick to it? Why wasn’t one cocktail feasible? I was living with my foot pressed to the gas, and dying all at once, and these questions had to be answered.
The first time I took a step back from booze I was 21 years old, just turned, and after a month of legal drinking in bars, buying bottles to bring home and living in a constant state of buzz, I realized if I didn’t arrest my use, it would continue on, no end in sight. We have a terrible history of alcoholism in my family, and I’d heard what it had done to relationships and lives. I’d known kids in high school who were out of control, and shuddered to think. I had friends around me then, in college, who clearly struggled with their drinking. I knew it was a bad deal. At that tender age, a few weeks before my senior year, I was able to see the future, and it looked bleak as hell.
It looked like going to parties and making new best friends with people I couldn’t even clearly see in my advanced state of intoxication, talking mad shit all night along about everyone, being overheard and there being hell to pay later. It looked like trusting the wrong people, getting tight with them overnight and feeling betrayed when no bond lingered in the light of day. It looked like waking up in the throes of a brutal hangover, running to the bathroom with dry heaves, and lying in bed all day eating Grape-Nuts cereal one grain at a time in an attempt to settle my guts. It looked like property damage caused by repeatedly hurling metal patio chairs against a concrete wall at three in the morning, because the impulse couldn’t be checked. It looked like walking home alone late on teetering heels through the University District, reeling out of my mind, an easy target for rape and battery. I would have gone with anyone.
Compared to my drinking at 28, when I took a nose-dive off the wagon, undergrad was the golden age of my alcohol abuse. I was a pretty together drunk girl back then. Alcoholism is a progressive illness, and you don’t level off. You spiral, deeper and darker into the toxic morass.
When new friends started saying things like, I’d love to see you drunk, or well, I’m sure you’re fine, that was college! And old friends said, aw, but you’re so fun when you’re drunk, or look, I know you and honestly, I think you’re fine to drink, I started thinking maybe they were right. Maybe I had overreacted back in the day, giving too much weight to genetic factors. I mean, nothing that bad had really happened back then. Perhaps my teetotaling was overly-responsible and as a result, I was missing out on the essence, the promise of my twenties. Was I old before my time and missing out?
The first time I got drunk was over Memorial Day weekend when I was seventeen, a senior in high school. I’d held out until that May night at the bitter end of high school partly because of my parents’ strictness with my social life and partly because of my dad’s thorough dialogue with me about the risks and realities of drinking. But there was another part too, that liked to differentiate herself from others by not using alcohol. I dealt with the social isolation that came as a result of not joining the party scene, except occasionally on the very margins, and the terrible curse of looking “lame” in front of ones peers. The truth is, I could have got drunk when I wanted to, any time. I could have found a way to hide it from my parents. Alcohol was around and offered, but I said no, time and time again. I said yes that time, I think because I felt like I was old enough to make my own decisions, and because I felt college looming, a place where I would be free to do anything, a place where socially, not drinking wouldn’t fly.
Did it happen this way with you, your first time? Did you feel as I did that something clicked into place and made you complete? Did you run to the bathroom mirror over and over again to examine your drunk face, talking to your reflection, saying, I know you. I get you. Did you, upon awakening the next day, believe you had found your missing piece, and through alcohol all things might be possible? The unrelenting social isolation, the search for identity, the loneliness, the awkwardness all washed away by four wine coolers and a shared bottle of pre-mixed mimosa?
The struggle that was tearing me apart, the need to fit in while wanting to appear utterly original, remitted. I joined the crowd by drinking, which allowed unfettered access to my outrageous personality, and a total ease with putting it on display. It was brilliant. I was brilliant. Alcohol was my thing. These beliefs and feelings, my friends, are what they call genetic predisposition. The deck was stacked against me before I ever took a sip.
I charged head-long into booze the summer before college, sucking it down as hard and fast as I could. It made me dance, it made me walk confidently into the party, it made me feel deliciously sexy, it made me the person I wanted to be. It disconnected me from my conscious mind and all its petty anxieties and rules. Sober, my head was an amplifier, screeching out distorted feedback, and booze snuck up from behind, yanking the plug, creating blessed silence into which I disappeared.
The first blackout came a few weeks into my freshman year, starting with two shots of gin on an empty stomach and ending with sitting bolt upright in my bed at midnight, totally disoriented, hell to pay outside the door for my bad behavior. The blackouts continued, sometimes a soft brown where flashes of memory remained, and I embraced them. They allowed me to walk outside myself, the sweet relief of not being myself. They gave me that all-important street cred. I was hardcore, did you see the shit I got into last night? Shit, I black out every time I drink. I’m hard like that. Wild like that. An identity far more comfortable than that of the lonely, innocent girl hanging out alone in her room, apart from the group, the person I’d been before alcohol.
Nothing could stop me, until I stopped me.
I know you wonder how I did it. I know you wonder how I do it. You try “dry January”, that month popular for a post-holiday-binge detox, and you express wonder at the prospect of 31 booze-free days. I ask you how you feel during it and you tell me it’s great! You’ve lost a little weight, you have more energy, more edge. Totally. That’s how I do it. Because it’s great. I get to live inside my own experience, and shape it consciously. My mind is clear from the mass confusion, shame and angst alcohol stirs up in me. I’m bursting with energy most days, no hangovers. I’m tuned in to my perceptions and I get to make choices, and neither are influenced by alcohol. It comes down to quality of life, that term we use when writing a living will or making a decision about euthanasia. On alcohol, mine is very low.
You see, I’m not like many of you. I can’t have a glass of wine with dinner, or a cocktail at a reception, or a beer at the game. Once that warm, fuzzy feeling starts pumping through my veins, I’m on a desperate quest to feel it more, harder, longer, forever. If I use, it will end with my death, that is certain. I have no control.
I was up in Seattle last weekend and went to a house party replete with bartender and craft cocktails. I stuck to club soda with lemon, which the hosts made sure would flow in abundance for me. The house was full of friends, and new acquaintances, and I moved about with ease, knowing I’d not make a fool of myself. I looked good and felt good. My head was clear, and I knew I could be a little wild, the privilege of the teetotaler–it’s not like anyone’s going to remember. I stayed up past 3 a.m. with the last guests, absorbed in conversation, happy that I’d not been the woman on the floor crying about a fight with her date, or the guy who tripped down the stairs, spilling his drink and looking bewildered, or the woman who desperately draped herself across each man in her path until her friends put her in an Uber. Had I been drinking, I would have been all three of these people in one–crying, falling, crawling, pawing, making people uncomfortable and killing the vibe.
Post-party I awoke in the dark, just a few hours after I’d gone to bed, my body trembling, my head full of fuzz. In the pre-dawn I experienced a momentary panic: I’d done it again, fucked up, poisoned myself and here began the first act of a five day hangover. But then my head cleared and I oriented myself and smiled with relief, a wave of gratitude flowing through me. There was nothing wrong that couldn’t be cured by a few more hours sleep and a tall glass of water. There would be nothing to piece together, no apologies to be made, no lost days in bed. I’d had a lot of fun the night before, and the next day belonged to me.
This is how I do it.