My earliest memories of alcohol were smelling it on the breath of one of my neighbours, Ken. My brother and I played with his kids a lot, and it was always a bit of a risk knocking on his door to invite them to play. His temperament changed like the wind: sometimes he was friendly and inviting, other times he told us to piss off, but almost always he was wearing a white singlet, his eyes were bloodshot and there was a can of beer in his hand.
My parents weren’t really big drinkers – maybe once or twice a year, my father would have some wine or beer with a friend. Sometimes my brother and I would sneak a sip. Invariably I found it disgusting, but my brother pretended to like it so I did too. We both wanted to be grown-up, I think, and it had been made clear to us that alcohol was only for grown-ups and we thought we were ready. Childhood’s weird like that.
All throughout my life though, the message had been drilled into me through my mother’s fear: only bad people drink alcohol. It’s dangerous. It’s something scary, to be avoided in the same way that you wouldn’t want to be around a glowing radioactive isotope. No amount is ever okay: one sip is terrible, one whole glass is just a disaster.
I remember my mother’s shocked face when when I ordered a glass of whisky along with my uncles at my cousin’s wedding. I was 22 at the time, and while she didn’t outright forbid me, after every sip she’d say that I didn’t have to drink any more. After I’d finished half of glass and was thinking about stopping, she pounced on my hesitation and moved it away from me, before I could decide for myself.
I thought about rebelling: about going somewhere private with my friends and drinking a whole bottle of vodka or whatever, just to rub it in her face, to wrest back some control of my life. And I guess I did a little. I drank one or two Vodka Cruisers after graduating high school. I’d have a small glass of Baileys every couple of months, trying to acquire the taste as I sought comfort or sophistication. I’d have a sip of Jack Daniel’s and coke at a party, but the smell reminded me too much of my neighbour Ken, and I never really enjoyed any of it.
The fact is, in those environments I never felt safe. The people around me, work colleagues, people from school, my brother and his friends, they were never people that I trusted. And so, surrounded by these almost-enemies, I’d become very scared as they became more and more exuberant, had fewer inhibitions, less control over their words and actions. I’d want to leave, because the vibe of the party seemed to be about getting drunk and doing regretful things and then laughing about it in the morning. None of that gelled with me, and I started practicing telling people that I didn’t really like parties, so thank you for the invitation but I wouldn’t be attending.
I broke this rule once, taking a chance by going to an after party with people I’d come to love. I’d been volunteering with them all week to help disadvantaged kids have an amazing time on camp, and each and every one of them seemed so incredibly kind and polite and generous. Then at the afterparty, the masks seemed to fall and it seemed to me that everyone was ready to become mean and crude and vulgar at a moment’s notice. I didn’t really attend any parties after that.
The first time I really enjoyed drinking was when I went down south with a group of pretty good friends. We weren’t super close, but they were all decent people. We drank Jaeger bombs and champagne, played ridiculous hide and seek, scratched each other’s hands in a bloody game of spoons, and passed the evening in wild delight. It was the first time I ever got so drunk that my reflexes were affected, and I was endlessly fascinated by the delayed response time: I’d wave my hand in front of my face and giggle that it took a split second for my hand to react to the command.
I still don’t really know what “drunk” means, but to me, I think of it as falling over when I try to walk, or having my response time dulled noticeably. But I guess it’s true that while that may be my upper limit, there are certainly people who drink until they vomit or pass out, who have no memory of the night’s events. It’s kind of hard for me to conceptualise because I encounter such people so infrequently, and at a great distance.
But recently, I caught up with some friends for dinner, and (between the three of us) we just managed to polish off one glass of wine. I probably only drank a quarter of it, but even so I had trouble finding my feet when I stood up to leave, and decided I’d better let my friend drive. I have to say though, it was such a delightful evening. Everything seemed unreasonably funny, and I felt calm and happy and confident. Rather than changing my personality, the wine seemed to enhance my sense of self: like I could be more of myself without worrying about anything. To loosen some of that meticulous self-control I always strive to maintain.
And writing those words scares me a little. I can imagine how easy it would be for me to start using alcohol as a crutch in social situations. To chase that comfortable, relaxed high on a regular basis. I know from experience that I am prone to addiction, and I think it would be incredibly hard for me to stop drinking. That fear I have is important, because I know what’s at stake, and how easy it is to fall into that pit.
What does the fear say to me?
“Don’t drink! Alcohol is bad for you, and anyone who drinks is bad!”
“I don’t like being around people who are drunk. It’s scary, and I hate having to look after them.”
“One drink could lead to two, and two could lead to more, and then you’ll become a drunk, and that will be very hard for you and your family. You’ll be a disgrace, and no one will love you.”
“There are so many stories, from work and from the news, of people getting drunk and doing terrible things. Killing people, crashing cars. You don’t want to be like those people do you?”
(And, just while I’m thinking of it, the reasons I haven’t done illicit drugs are all of the above, plus the thought “You’ve heard of stories of people having bad reactions after using even once. You don’t want to take that chance do you? Especially if it results in a lifelong experience of psychosis?”)
Some of those fears are mine. Others belong to loved ones who have passed them to me. I don’t really know how to let go of them, but… I think I do. I want to be careful when drinking, but I also want to drink again. To enjoy delightful, maybe slightly wild adventures in safe and good company. To lean into what Cassio called the “custom of entertainment”, without ending up calling it “the enemy [that people put] in their mouths to steal away their brains! That we should, with joy, pleasance, revel, and applause, transform ourselves into beasts!” (Yes, I re-read Othello Act 2, Scene 3 just for those lines.)
I have many questions and no clear answers. If you enjoy drinking, or have overcome such worries yourself, I’d love to hear about it.