Alcoholism Pt. 1: In the beginning…

When I turned fourteen, I started smoking a lot of pot. I loved getting high. It was like entering a new world where everything sounded better and smelled better and felt better. And food tasted so good.

If I had a bag of weed on me, it was like security. It was a gateway to freedom from anxiety and depression and boredom. I’d smoke a bowl, listen to music, and write in my journal. I’d smoke a bowl with friends and we’d talk about life. 

I met new people, fellow stoners like me. We’d load up the bong and idle away the afternoons watching Pulp Fiction and emptying cereal boxes.

it was my first taste of freedom from the bondage of self.

I started drinking, too, which I also loved from my very first drunk. I didn’t entirely love the taste of hard liquor and keg beer, but I loved the way it made me feel. Luminous. Smart. Pretty. Connected. Peaceful. I remember thinking to myself the first time I really drank: I want to feel this way for the rest of my life. 

Getting stoned and drinking alcohol were like spiritual experiences at first. I remember being in my room at fifteen years old, in the throes of one of those delicious and perfect drunken highs, and feeling as if I had found the secret to life. The magic key. The golden ticket. They stripped away that stale heat I’d had within me since I was eleven years old. They melted depression and kicked anxiety to the curb. They eased tension and lubricated conversations with others. They created connection and joy and camaraderie. For a while.

You learn in the rooms of Alcoholics Anonymous that alcoholism is a progressive illness. It starts out fun and carefree and then slowly turns ugly. Problems pile up. Over time, it only gets worse, never better. There is no way of undoing the progression or stopping it once you’ve crossed that invisible line. And it’s insidious like that – you think it’s your friend until it bashes your head into the wall.

My alcoholism progressed quite rapidly. Almost overnight, in many ways. I never drank normally. From my first real drunk, I was always seeking more more more. I liked the effect produced by alcohol, and it was unbearable for that effect to wear off. The more I drank, the more I wanted to drink more. My tolerance became increasingly higher. Beer didn’t do the trick – I needed my own bottle of vodka. Sips took too long – I needed to chug and gulp. Waiting until 9pm for the party to start was a nightmare – I needed it now. And man, could I drink. By sixteen years old, I could put away a fifth of liquor easy. I could drink an eighteen pack of beer, no problem. I could polish off two or three bottles of wine in a few hours.

I started to black out a lot. Especially when I drank liquor. I would wake up in my bed and have absolutely no idea what I’d done the night before or how I’d gotten home. My hangovers were terrifying. My hands and chest would tremble and I’d often dry-heave into the toilet. My head would pound for hours unless I swallowed a handful of aspirin. I was filled with anxiety and fear and despair and shame, and the only thing I could think of to make all that go away was to drink more.

I was also a people-pleaser and highly sensitive, and I cared about doing “the right thing.” I wasn’t a balls out rebellious don’t give a fuck chick who raised hell and didn’t feel a thing about it. I was concerned with my behavior. I was concerned with how I might be affecting others. I was scared that something was really wrong.

Sometime around the spring of 2002, when I was a junior in high school, I was at my friend Kat’s house and I saw a memoir on her desk: Drinking: A Love Story, by Caroline Knapp. She loaned the book to me and I read it in one sitting. It was essentially a memoir about Knapp’s own alcoholism and her journey to recovery. I identified with nearly every single thing she wrote about. The circumstances were different, but the thoughts and feelings were identical. It was like someone had finally expressed what I had always felt, even before I started drinking. There was even an “are you an alcoholic?” quiz within one of the chapters, and I answered yes to every question. I was sixteen.

I chose to ignore it. What sixteen year old is an alcoholic? What sixteen year old gets sober? I honestly thought that was the craziest and most absurd thing ever. It wasn’t like I was shooting heroin into my eyeballs. (Luckily, there are thousands of teens getting sober each day and a whole movement of young people in recovery all over the world, heroin in the eyeballs or not.)

But I couldn’t ignore it for long. The blackouts kept increasing and I was beginning to grow paranoid. My mental state was not great. I decided to stop drinking for a while. Just, you know, to give my body a break. After a weekend of wanting to crawl out of my skin, I started to feel better physically. Much healthier and more energy. Not so much fear. I still smoked a ton of pot and occasionally took other drugs, but for about six months, I didn’t touch a drop of alcohol. My friends were mostly supportive, and others didn’t seem to notice or care. But I cared. I missed it. I thought about it all the time. I wanted to drink with all of my friends. I hated that it would always turn so terrible. Surely there had to be a way I could drink like them and have it not be so scary!

So I decided to start drinking again, with visceral determination to make it work. I tried desperately to control it. Like a true alcoholic, I attempted numerous laughable experiments. I’ll only drink beer. I’ll only drink wine. I’ll only drink after a meal. I won’t smoke pot with it. I won’t drink until 10pm. I’ll only have three. Or four. No liquor. Only on Saturday night. No wine. Only on Friday night. No tequila. I’ll take some uppers so I won’t get so sloppy. I won’t drink all next month. Inevitably, all of these experiments failed. They might have worked once or twice or a few times, but soon enough I was right back where alcoholism wanted me: head in hands, quaking with shame, wondering: what the fuck is wrong with me?

I always got too drunk. I usually blacked out. I regularly had soul-shaking hangovers. My panic and paranoia and depression increased. And I kept trying to control it. I kept trying to not get drunk. Sometimes I would even try not to drink at all, and yet there I’d be. It was baffling. Come on, I was only seventeen!

I told my parents about it. We all agreed to call it a “drinking problem,” and to “watch it carefully.” Remember, I wasn’t shooting heroin into my eyes. Bless them, they wanted me to be normal and easy. They wanted me to graduate high school and go to a four year college and to go to parties and have that whole rite of passage. They didn’t want me to have depression and anxiety and all this drama. They wanted me to be like them. I was not. I thought it was my fault, too, that there was something wrong with for not being able to control my drinking. I didn’t yet understand that I was suffering from a progressive illness and that I had lost all choice and power when it came to alcohol. I didn’t yet understand that I was dealing with a mental obsession far beyond my control and that once I took that first drink I had no ability to stop. And I certainly didn’t understand that, most significantly, my spirit and soul was sick.

Then came a slew of positive distractions that would cover up the reality that something was really wrong: I graduated high school, I got accepted to a couple of colleges, I was looking pretty good, I got a great summer job at a day camp. Summer brings that sweeping freedom that tends to lift us up before an inevitable fall in, well, the fall.

My dad took me to Boulder in July for my orientation. I was excited. So was he. Boy did my parents want me to have a grand ol’ time at a rah rah university like they did at Texas. It was an exhilarating weekend. I made instant friends, fell in love with the campus, and got hammered the whole time. I came in at 5am the first night and missed a meet and greet in the morning. It was the first time my dad expressed concern for my drinking. But I was getting good at being an alcoholic in denial. I brushed it off. I’m in college, dad. Come on. So he brushed it off, too.

Off I went in late August to begin my freshman year. The night before I left with my mom to drive sixteen hours from California to Colorado, I got insanely drunk, had sex with this guy, and arrived home around 6am, ready to depart at 8. (Even as I write this, I’m saying oh sweet baby girl out loud to myself. Because it all sounds wild and crazy, but there was so much suffering underneath all of that partying and appearance of being young and free. With humor, with grace, with compassion and gratitude, we forgive ourselves and move through our hurts.)

I lasted almost three months. By early November, I was suicidal. I drank every single day and did a lot of drugs. I could barely make it to class. I hated living in the dorms. I started binge eating and putting on weight, which just compounded the self-hatred and the nasty voices in my head. I cut myself. I flirted with bulimia. I threw myself at guys. I almost got arrested. I got into fights with my new friends. I was taking anti-depressants and birth control while drinking. I – I just burst into tears. Sweet Baby Girl. I love you. I am so proud of you. You are a miracle.

I sent my mom an email one night and told her what was happening. She had an inkling, based on what she had seen over parent’s weekend the month before. I told her I had to leave. That I needed help. She picked me up that weekend.

The tears that are coming right now are because of the gratitude I feel for my mother for being that loving and hearing me when I cried out for help. She drove all the way out to get me and help me pack up my stuff in front of a hall of whispering girls, wondering, why is she leaving? Where is she going? I withdrew from the school, and we were reimbursed most of the expensive out-of-state tuition. It was the first of many courageous and arduous steps I would take toward healing from alcoholism.

I wrote a poem last year about sitting in an AA meeting when I was nineteen years old and how I had no clue what was ahead of me, that I had only scratched the surface of my alcoholism and recovery. Well, at eighteen and headed back from dropping out of college, I certainly had no clue about anything. All I felt was shame and fear. Some relief, too, that I was getting the hell out of a place that would surely kill me. But underneath that I was swollen and nearly numb with shame and suffering.

It was the beginning of the beginning of the beginning. But the tornado had not yet even gathered dust.

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