originally published September 21, 2014
I had my first drink when I was around ten. My parents were having a party and I sneaked out of my room and watched them through the bannister on the upstairs landing. The adults all seemed so much more sophisticated than they did when I saw them during the day. The women, in their little black dresses and high-heeled shoes. The bursts of laughter from various corners as people told jokes or funny stories or made a clever remark. I watched a neighbor slip a kiss to a man who wasn’t her husband. There was music playing, and the sound of ice clinking in glasses. People danced and snuggled on the couch. They were happy. I couldn’t wait to grow up and be part of that sophisticated world.
It was late when the last guest left. My parents ignored the mess and went up to bed, leaving the cleanup for morning. Once they were in their room, I tiptoed downstairs. I could still smell the mingle of perfume, cigarette smoke and human pheromones.
I picked up a glass that had an inch or so of some kind of liquor – I’m not sure what it was. I sat on a high stool near the small bar in the corner of the living room and in my pajamas, imagined having a conversation with several sophisticated people at once. I imagined them all laughing at something witty I’d just said. I picked up the glass and had a sip.
The taste was awful but at the same time, it was as if a key had slipped into a lock and opened something inside my head. A rush of chemistry surged through my blood. I felt complete in a way I’d never felt before. It was as if I’d been missing this but only now just knew it.
This was a secret the adults were trying to keep from us kids! It was a rite of passage, an invitation into adulthood, to finally be legally old enough to drink sometime in my late teens.
I wasn’t going to wait nearly a decade to be able to feel that way again. I didn’t want to live without it.
From that point on, to drink was both an act of pleasure and of defiance. I wanted it and I was not going to let any rules get in the way of my having it. I wondered what other secrets the grownups were keeping from me.
It was around then that I stopped trusting what others told me about “good” and “bad.” Who decided which was which? Why did I have to go along with the rest of the world, anyway?
I started the way many alcoholics do: I raided my parents’ liquor cabinet. I started at the back, with the weirder stuff that they rarely touched. By the time they got around to it, they would never remember how much had been left in the bottle. So it was crème de menthe, peach schnapps. Pretty awful stuff, especially straight up.
From there, I moved up to the gin and vodka which I replaced by volume with water. If they noticed, I never found out. I was careful not to replace too much.
I did the same with my friends’ parents’ liquor cabinets. Some of them had bottles I’d never seen before in my parents’ bar. Foreign, unpronounceable names. Years and numbers, as if they were something special. They seemed exotic.
I had a French teacher when I was 15. By the end of the first week, I knew she was an alcoholic. I recognized the signs. I’d see her around in the morning and she’d seem normal, but by the time I sat in her class in the afternoon, she was already a bit drunk. She’d slur her words; lose track of her thoughts; bob and weave a bit when she walked. I quickly figured out this meant she kept a bottle close at hand.
I watched her classroom, and when it was empty, I crept in in and searched her desk. There it was, in the lower left hand drawer — a small bottle of vodka.
I took it. I had no fear of being caught. I knew she would never, could never, report it stolen. Anyway, she was an adult. At worst, for her a missing bottle was an inconvenience and the loss of a some pocket money. I told myself I was doing a service to my fellow students — she’d be sober for at least one afternoon’s classes.
I knew she’d replace it; I knew she couldn’t be without. Several days later, I stole it again. It took her a week or so to realize someone was taking her desk bottle; that she hadn’t just misplaced it or finished it and forgotten to buy more. When I went to look for it the next time, it wasn’t there. I figured she’d hidden it somewhere else. She needed a few shots to get through the afternoon, and she needed easy access to it. It took me a couple of days to locate the new hiding place, and that was only because I didn’t have much time to search.
It became a game. She would find a new spot, and I would look until I found it. (It rarely took me more than a week.) I drank and entertained myself for the entire school year playing cat and mouse with that one teacher.
As I got older, I became more creative about finding ways to drink. I also started to know more people who were above legal drinking age. I was able to exchange favors – sexual and otherwise – for a bottle or two.
Beer would do in a pinch, but I’d developed a preference for vodka which had the benefit of not really smelling on the breath. I realized this was why my French teacher preferred it.
By the time I was of drinking age myself, I’d learned quite a few tricks about how to drink for free. Mainly, it helped to be funny and charming, to know a lot of good stories and jokes. That’s how one got invited to all the parties. And when you’re entertaining, people always want to ply you with liquor.
I was The Drunk at every party. Sometimes, I was the only drunk guest. But I never got sappy or obnoxious. Even in my alcoholic haze, I never lost control. I was still able to be funny. Sure, I slurred my words and occasionally knocked things over, but I never vomited on anyone’s rug (or in anyone’s bathroom, either, for that matter.) I never said or did anything that was hurtful. I would often get very affectionate. Liquor made me happy; it made me love the world and myself and all of mankind. Sometimes, I’d lose track of others’ conversation and became confused about what they were talking about. I’d make a comment about what I thought they were discussing when in fact I had missed the point entirely. In turn, they were confused by my remarks because to them they made no sense. Of course they made sense to me, based on what I believed they were talking about. I developed a reputation for saying these crazy, off-topic things. But they made people laugh, so they kept me around.
This was how I lived my life.
I had a decent career which enabled me to support myself. Ultimately, however, it was always about the next drink. I never loved anyone or anything as much as I loved the feeling I got from liquor.
I only dated other alcoholics because the sober ones always pushed me to quit. Yes, I was an alcoholic, but quite a functional one. I saw no need to stop something that gave me so much pleasure.
But just because my life was relatively functional, didn’t mean there wasn’t damage – to my body, to my brain to my resistance. I got old, fast. The best thing that could have happened to me would have been a small car accident or a crazy drunken tirade in the wrong company or an arrest for some inebriated infraction. Any one of those might have served as a wake-up call.
Instead I managed to live in the no-man’s land of functional alcoholism. I never fully acknowledged to myself how my craving for liquor was stronger than anything else inside me. My entire life, I chased chemical spirituality. I was beneath any true understanding or enlightenment. And that was the tragedy of my life.
addendum: I should add that I, myself, do not drink nor have I ever. None of the people I knew growing up were like this. None of my adult friends are like this. This is definitely not coming from me!!!
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