I waffled on whether or not I would share this story here. It’s rather personal and doesn’t put me in a particularly good light. On the other hand, if it is my goal to encourage people to try new things and create positive change in their lives, it’s incredibly important to not just share the successes but to share the challenges as well. And so, onward.
I am sixteen years old and I’m at my first ever party on my first weekend of my first year of university. A few students I know and other folks from my dorm are here. I sit in my chair feeling like a spectator at an event, watching everyone having fun. Every time I think of something to say or contribute a voice inside me tells me it’s stupid or boring and so I just keep quiet. In the centre of the table are a large bottle of orange juice and another bottle of peach schnapps that we’re all sharing. I’ve never tried drinking but everyone seems to be having fun – nothing like how my parents are when they drink. Nobody is arguing or crying. They’re all just happy. After three drinks my inner critic is gone. I’m talking about our professors and what my hometown is like. I’m even making jokes. After six drinks I am so confident that everything I say is at a volume that makes me the centre of attention and I’m thrilled to be there. After a few more drinks two of my new friends stand up, cross their arms under my legs and carry me back to my room. They tell me I said that I thought I was going to be sick and they don’t want it to happen at the party. I don’t remember saying it and feel fine but I take their word for it. They tuck me in and remind me to sleep on my side just in case I’m sick in the night. I’m not sick but I do fall asleep almost instantly thinking of what a great time I’d had with all of my new friends. What was wrong with my parents? Why are they arguing and saying stupid things when they could be having fun like I just did?
One night just before Christmas break, I walk outside and see our neighbours Bill, Tony, and Dan on the balcony above. They’re having a party.
“Hey!” Bill calls out “If you can climb up here, we’ll give you a beer!”
I’m a weedy six feet tall and 142 pounds but somehow manage to jump up, grab the bottom of their balcony railing and then pull myself up, swing over the railing and shout “Pay up!” at him. He laughs and pats me on the back then takes a can, cuts a hole in the bottom and hands it to me. I put the hole to my lips, open the lid and the contents of the can are gone in about ten seconds. My stomach lurches at the sudden arrival of more alcohol and carbonation. I take three deep breaths and everything seems to settle and I’m feeling good again. I just climbed up a wall like spiderman and I feel invincible. A little stomach upset isn’t going to stop a superhero, is it?
Inside, Judas Priest is playing at top volume while Tony and Dan take turns throwing empty beer bottles at the cement wall, enjoying the sound and cackling madly as they explode. When I walk inside the glass crunches under my shoes. A few minutes later that last drink takes effect and I start to lose focus. Minutes at a time are completely forgotten and my life turns into a slide show. It’s kind of fun and like teleportation. When the next slide comes, what will I be doing? Where will I be? Who will I be with?
One minute I’m watching Tony and Dan, later I’m throwing bottles, Now I’m across the hall with our RA pouring my soul out to her. Now I’m outside in the quad half a mile away. I’m sick in the washroom of my dorm. The tile floor is so cool and soothing that I close my eyes.
Now it’s 10:00 AM and there’s a knock on my door. It’s my mom, dad, and grandmother coming to pick me up to go home for the holidays. My head is pounding and my stomach is still really upset. My dad takes me aside and tells me I smell awful and he thinks I’m still drunk. How can I be so embarrassing to him in front of my grandmother. I go to the washroom, am sick, then take a shower and some Tylenol and ride home in a silent car. I alternate between feeling embarrassed at my state and feeling satisfied. Hey mom and dad, how do you like being embarrassed by a family member?
I’m back at school on a Friday night with my friends. At midnight I will turn eighteen and friends have brought me ice cream. After having that we go to our usual haunt where we know a waitress that has no problem serving underage people. Tonight, though, we have a new waitress. She asks us for ID and all together we pretend to have left ours at home and have a round of cokes instead. Five minutes later a plan is hatched. We’ll just drive an hour and a half to Montreal and celebrate my birthday there.
We roll into Montreal just as I turn eighteen, the legal drinking age in the province. I go into a bar, order my first drink and follow it by many more. By 2:00 AM we’ve been to five different bars and had several drinks in each. Back into the car we go, our sober designated driver begging us all to just shut UP for a little while. But we’re having none of it. We’re feeling obnoxious but also aware of how obnoxious we must seem and so as we leave the city we roll the windows down and yell obscenities and rude comments out the window. Literally, the words “Obscenities!” and “Rude comments!” Once we get to the highway I think of Fred Flinstone and start laughing hysterically to myself. I open the passenger side door and set my foot on the pavement shouting “EMERGENCY BRAKE!”. The driver is yelling at me to for chrissakes stop being stupid so I bring my foot back inside. Smoke is billowing from the sole and I can’t stop laughing even as the driver glares at me. I fall asleep but have to wake up to go back through US customs. The officer asks me if I have anything to declare, and then glares at me when I say “Nothing but a belly full of beer, sir.” We reach our dorm at 4:30 AM and I sleep until well into the late afternoon when I wake up with a massive headache and sick stomach. My friend Cindy is taking me out for dinner for my birthday. She raises an eyebrow when I tell her I can only eat a small bowl of chicken soup but laughs at all my ridiculous stories from the previous night.
When I turn twenty-one and legally able to drink in the states, my friend Craig and book a weekend in Boston and we drive down together. After checking in the hotel we start off at Cheers (it is, after all, 1991) and then work our way through several bars until we end up at a live music venue. A local band plays covers of rock bands like Loveboy, Bon Jovi and The Eagles and we’re both loving it. After a few more drinks the slide show is back. Let’s see what fun I’ll get up to tonight! We’re listening to a cover of Shake it Up by the Cars, I’m at the bar wondering where Craig is, I’m with Craig near the coat check and I take his cigarette, inhale a huge drag and my brain turns to elastic. My head starts spinning and I put my hand out on the bar to keep from falling over. We’re in a cab, then we’re in a sketchy neighbourhood. We’re at the doorway of a bar being told by a bouncer “You guys are too drunk, get the hell outta here.” We walk together to the main street to find a cab but before we are able to flag one down, two guys in an alley gesture to us to come over. A trunk is open behind them.
“Hey guys, wanna buy a stereo, cheap? Carver amp, Nakamichi tape deck and CD player Bose speakers. $300 for the whole thing.”
I’m a big audiophile. This should be a couple of thousand dollars. What a bargain. “Come on, Craig, let’s check it out.”
A police car goes by, one officer directing a spotlight into various corners of the alley near us. The two guys close the trunk and say “be casual” to us as we all walk in different directions, looking more suspicious than if we had just stood there talking around an open trunk.
We look it over and it looks brand new, all shiny black lacquer. A Chuck Mangione tape is still in the tape deck. These two don’t really look like smooth jazz fans but I’m going to buy it anyway. It’s too good a deal to pass up. I can skip this month’s student loan payment and pay double next month.
“I need to go to the ATM to get money.” I say. One of the guys exchanges a glance with his friend and says “Oh yeah, there’s a shortcut through this alley. Follow me, he says, putting a hand inside his jacket.
I take three steps before Craig grabs my collar and pulls me to the street. He hails a passing cab, pushes me inside and closes the door. “What the hell were you thinking last night? Those guys for sure were going to mug us – or worse.” he says, but then the slide show resumes. The city careens by, we’re in the lobby of the fancy hotel we booked, I’m drinking a beer from the minibar, and then it’s 10:00 AM and I’m in bed. Craig is eating a big room service breakfast and the smell makes me retch.
When I come back from the bathroom, Craig is still mad at me. I apologize, I am scared looking back for what might have happened, but I’m also excited. It was a fun adventure.
When I get home, I call Sage. We met on the Internet just a couple of months before but we’ve really fallen for each other. In just a few weeks she’ll be coming to meet me for the first time.
I tell her the story of the previous night, expecting a laugh at the craziness of it all. She’s having none of it.
“You could have died.”
“All my friends drink, it’s no big deal – it’s how we have fun.” I tell her.
“I’m one of your friends,” Sage says, “and I don’t drink. Not everyone does. You know how bad my grandfather was, and you know how bad your parents are. I’m not going to be a part of that. You have to choose where you want us to go, where you want your life to go.”
Wow, this is really serious, I think. There’s no question in my mind, though. Sure, I loved the adventures drinking has taken me on doing things I wouldn’t otherwise do and the comfort it’s given me in social situations, but I don’t love it more than I love Sage. I can’t imagine living without her. If I gave my parents the same ultimatum, how would I want them to answer? The same way I answer, “Of course. I promise.”
At first it’s difficult to get out of the habit. I’m lucky in that there are no physical cravings, but the social pressure feels huge. I become aware of how prevalent drinking is, social events, work events, family events all are done with drinks.
I learn that many of my friends were simply drinking buddies and once we lose our shared pastime, we lose touch. Other friendships become closer, especially mine with Sage who comes for a single visit and stays forever. We’re married four months after that and neither of us ever drinks again.
And what happened to the adventures? They didn’t disappear. Instead, they got better. Whether it’s overcoming my shyness, raising a baby in a tent in the woods, cycling across India or performing on stage, there is no barrier. There is no guardian at the gate that alcohol defeats, there is only a simple choice: do something even when I’m scared.