I was a teenage boozehound — until age 48
Growing up in San Francisco, I don’t remember much sun. We natives were born into the fog and loved it as our own. To go to the beach you had to go to Santa Cruz. I think back and I can clearly see the blowing grey wet, not quite rain but enough to darken the streets and drip from the trees. This was normal, every day, how it was, the breath of the Pacific blowing through the avenues. Far from grim, I love this maritime landscape.
You get good at what do you. As kids here, we got good at bong hits, bombing hills, buying booze, riding MUNI, finding parties, skipping school, and climbing the many dark hills of nighttime San Francisco. Every hilltop — and this is famously a city of hills — was our midnight home, a high lookout over the glowing city lights, the bay, our streets. We all knew the city from above, where the smooth pavement was, the metal curbs, the smoothest and most gravitationally efficient ways to get from X to Y. We would often skate from one side of the city to another and back, much faster than what I have always heard to be the average speed of MUNI: 7 miles per hour.
The first time I got an alcohol buzz was in third or fourth grade. My mom packed a bottle of apple cider in my lunch and by the time I opened it, it had gone off; fermented and produced enough alcohol for me to feel it. I loved it. Not long afterwards, I stayed over at my friend Zack’s place one night when his parents went out to a movie (North Dallas Forty, and I recall that pretty clearly) and left us on our own recog. We raided the liquor cabinet and drank three (that’s what I remember) bottles of some sort of sweet white wine. Zack puked his guts out and pissed the bed. Feeling fine, I had an enjoyable evening playing Adventure (or maybe Zork) on his Apple I and then helped clean up the mess. Back in Noe Valley when I was nine or ten, some neighbors’ boys invited me up to their attic to smoke some weed. I didn’t care much for their company, but I took very easily to altered states, and started seeking out more interesting friends who liked to get high. By the time of my second year at Everett on 16th and Church I was regularly drinking and smoking weed with a group of friends from school. This was in 7th grade, at the age of 11 and 12. We started with beer and would switch it up with Popov vodka and frozen concentrated orange juice. And whatever else we could get our hands on. It’s hard for really young kids to buy harder drugs, but not impossible. I scored some LSD from a friend in Berkeley. A kid I met at dive camp. Went to buy it on Telegraph actually, old school — and very young. I was 13 that year.
Drugs were a major priority in high school, and everyone was holding. Some kids had real Northern California weed, and acid, mushrooms, and coke were usually available. No joke, you could buy any of that stuff just by walking down into the Pit at Lowell High. School came easily to me and I got mostly A’s except for some of eighth grade and most of ninth, because I had figured out that those years didn’t count for high school (8th) and college (9th) admissions — in those two years I got a lot of D’s and two F’s. I just stopped going to school, or only went when I felt like it, to see my friends, get high, hear where the parties were. There were a lot of parties, and there was always a lot of alcohol. Kegs of beer in the bushes at Lake Merced, house parties with whatever booze people brought (always: as much as you could afford), 40’s of Mickey’s before a show, six-packs of Beck’s in the treehouse in the Presidio, man there were a lot of parties and drinking was always involved. It wasn’t a party if there wasn’t anything to drink, and the main point wasn’t even to see your friends: it was to (see friends and) drink and get high together.
Halfway through high school, Lowell finally cracked down on the drug scene and I switched schools to McAteer. I didn’t switch schools because I thought it would be easier to get high — or at least not only for that reason. There were some interesting programs at Mac — SOTA, the School of the Arts, ALTA, and Wayne McDonald’s Urban Pioneers (thank you Wayne). In that second half of high school, we were introduced to new stuff: speed and pills. Speed and booze is a great combination: you can drink more, for a longer time — and still feel like hell in the morning. Such unique hell that we called it the “padded cell”. By this time, I had a motorcycle (thanks Dad), as did many of my friends, and we would blast all over the city going to from party to party, often high on a variety of things, kept alive, literally, by youth and the night air. I pretty much stopped smoking marijuana; my potent combination was beer, booze and some speed.
College still involved a lot of drinking, but I took the opportunity to get away from the harder San Francisco drug culture. Many of my friends had gotten deep into speed, heavy pills, heroin. Many of my friends died very young: Colin Leeds. Sandy. Doug Kelly. Curtis. Several others. Thankfully, I was self-aware enough to avoid taking that path. I only tried heroin once. I stopped messing with speed and stuck to drinking. I got good at throwing parties.
Straight out of college I moved to Ann Arbor Michigan to take a job. A dream job really, and I had done well to find and land it. My girlfriend Julie and I moved out there together and, after living in a farm house a few miles outside of town for the first several months, we moved downtown, to be closer to our favorite bar, the 8-Ball Saloon. A fucking cliché, I know, and it’s true, that’s what we did.
In my mid twenties I took a job as a traveling consultant. It was like being at sea. Making money, and not spending any — of my own. I had a per diem. I could eat and drink whatever I wanted. Fuck it, I was on the road! I went to a wedding in Minneapolis, got hammered, met some chick named Lori, and she was naked, screaming at the top of her lungs (of her own accord, out of sheer enthusiasm — and we weren’t getting it on), in the car heading back to my place. I very quickly got tired of traveling so much and took a job at WIRED in San Francisco. After a few years of what Mark and I called “Thursday night whiskey night” in North Beach, I got my own apartment on Hayes and Lyon where I hosted Rammstein-and-wine parties and “Russian breakfast” (buckwheat pancakes, Pavel’s yogurt, and cold vodka). Fuck yes.
In my thirties I left that job, gave myself a sabbatical at grad school, and started a business. I fell in love with a girl in Madrid, and another in New York. I had had some episodes of depression in my late twenties (and probably before that, but it was then that I started to get to know it). It started before I went to grad school actually — when I blew a disc in my back. And got sued. And lost! Rough enough. In grad school, I developed a serious taste for bourbon and spent a lot of nights in a dark place there in Madison (thanks L). Mornings were often pretty rough. I dropped out of grad school when I ran into an an ex-girlfriend in San Francisco and proposed on the spot. We got engaged and stayed together less than a year. I knew it was a mistake from the start. She tried to give me an early out. Thanks J. When we split up I really went downhill. I knew that I had fucked up, and I didn’t have the clear vision or judgement — or the courage — to see my way out of it. This is when I came to experience serious depression.
Without going into depression too deeply here (that’s another piece), I’ll say a few things: 1) Like anything else, at the end of the day, depression is my own responsibility, not something to throw up my hands about. I don’t like how people say “my depression”. It’s only a thing if we give it a name and invoke it. It’s a collection of ways of feeling less than good that can be caused by many things — and feelings can change, and can _be changed_. 2) Feeling down enough to say yeah “I’m depressed” means you are definitely not fucking happy. I don’t know exactly how happy other people are, and I know that’s not really supposed to be the fucking point of life anyhow (really?), but I have not been a very happy person for most of my life, and I have to say, I feel like I have missed out a bit. I am happy, even very happy, like ten or twenty percent of the time. In between, I am neutral, and sometimes, or often, below neutral. This has improved in recent years and now I know what it’s like to be above neutral. It’s a very very notable difference. Even so, I can still always see the possibility of falling through the floor. 3) Depression and alcohol went hand in hand for me. I don’t mean that one caused the other, but when you’re down, you sure want a drink. And as we learned in drug class in high school, alcohol is actually, literally, a depressant — which makes you, literally, depressed. I guess I never really thought that “depressant” meant “depression”. Like it was just temporary. That’s the hangover. I mean the more subtle downer that is fewer hours in the day, less energy, pain in the body, slower thinking — all of those things that sound like depression, because they are depression. Whether one leads to the other doesn’t really matter. They make each other worse.
It was around this time that I got into therapy. I had seen a couple of therapists in the past, but I wasn’t in a stable enough place to do it on a consistent basis. At least now, back in San Francisco, I was in one place for a solid number of years. I had figured that much out: that I needed to bed down in one place without moving for quite a while, to gain some stability, to get to know my friends and my City again. I had come to feel like a stranger in my own home town. I was living in Potrero Hill and met a guy who became a very close friend who worked as a psychoanalyst. He was a new kind of friend, an adult male friend, a peer, and not a peer through business. He suggested that I get some better help with how I was feeling, and I did. Thanks Pete.
I did ten years with that analyst, and it helped me a lot. I graduated myself from that relationship just two years ago. I had come to feel that we had reached the end of our work. I didn’t think of this at the time, but by two years ago, I was getting more frequent messages about alcohol. That it would be good to drink less. What do I mean by messages? I mean like, I thought “I should probably drink less” in various ways. To me, some thoughts are clearly messages though. Some stick out. And even though I mentioned some of these messages, this analyst never asked me about drinking or suggested that there might be a connection between drinking and depression. I’m sure I was hiding it, but so what. This is a major mental health issue. I didn’t learn how strong that connection is until after ending that analysis. Looking back now, I suspect that part of the reason that I knew it was time to move on was because, unconsciously, I knew drinking was an issue, and I resented her for not bringing it up. Just like my parents didn’t bring it up. So that’s how therapy goes. Helpful, but it’s a winding road.
In my earlier forties, I still loved talking about booze: beer, wine, spirits, bourbon, gin, tequila, grappa, mezcal, amaro — all of it. So many varieties. So many delicious and beautiful things. I’ve had them all. I came to prefer a tequila old-fashioned made with some nice reposado — a lot of it. Still, it wasn’t like I was drinking bottle of the stuff.
I had come across this fantastic mail-order outfit called Garagiste. This guy, he is a wizard. A very talented writer, and the way his business worked was sheer genius. I really admire the guy. In fact I went and met him, in Seattle, some years ago. A very generous and humble person, he took two hours to show me around his entire operation, met his wife, amazing. And the way his thing works is that he just sends you an email. Just text, no pictures or anything. And all you have to do to purchase some of the wine that he’s talking about is simply. to. hit. Reply. It’s too easy. I mean, it’s already too easy, and then there’s his writing. His stories about the wines are like dreams. He hypnotizes you, romances you, sings you to sleep, the super cool young French biodynamic winemakers spring right off the screen and kiss you hello on both cheeks. You hit reply, you buy the wine. A charming elf of a man, and clever.
You know when you have that certain kind of problem that you know is a problem, but you want to believe is not too big of a problem?
I crashed my car, and told nobody. Too often, I would choose to stay in, and enjoy a cocktail and a bottle of wine by myself. I had 15 cases of wine in the garage. I drank a lot of beautiful (and I don’t mean expensive) wine. I told myself that I was enjoying myself, but I knew I was hiding. When I moved house, it sort of stuck out to me. Moving all those boxes. I stopped buying from the just-hit-reply guy, and slowly drank down my stock.
I wasn’t planning to stop drinking, but I did get messages about it. The first (we all know this one) was: I never want to have another hangover. I also started to feel that I don’t have any time to waste, and that it’s always good to quit while you’re ahead. And, I started to feel like I just looked sort of lame with a drink always in my hand. I had had a drink in my hand at every party and every bar, since I was kid.
I took 40 days off drinking in mid-2016. I felt great — and then resumed, but with some restraint. I started to notice the conflict between wanting to enjoy one or two cocktails and/or some nice wine, and other things I wanted to do. I thought clearly for the first time about how alcohol had been part of my life, and my relationships, for so long. I started to talk about it now and then with friends.
That dry spell was actually right in the middle of the time that I was getting to know Kate. When we started dating, a few months later, one of the first things I said to her was that I didn’t want alcohol to be a big part of our relationship. Not invited to the party. And although our first kiss did taste of tequila, alcohol was not the fuel for our attachment, and with some exceptions it hasn’t featured heavily in our time together.
I was getting more messages. Sex is better sober should be obvious. I started to feel that I wanted to set a higher standard for myself, and that I don’t want to celebrate with alcohol. Kate and I moved in together, to a beautiful apartment in Sausalito, with a view of the bay.
In December 2017 I had just returned home after a series of overseas trips: a couple of weeks on a sailboat west of Papua New Guinea, a couple of weeks in Japan with Kate, and then two more weeks guiding kite trips in Brazil. I came back to my golden home of California and the approaching new year and found myself feeling like crap.
I had been thinking the boat trip would be a good opportunity to not drink. When I arrived for a layover in Hong Kong I had a monstrous backache from the flight. The hotel that I had booked was characterless and over-priced. I was ashamed at not having made a more adventurous and less expensive choice. I had wanted to re-visit HK since having been there years ago with my father, and I felt the weight of that history on the busy, rainy streets. I felt like I needed to relieve my pain. I was alone. I spent the next day and night holed up in my hotel room, taking whatever Ibuprofen I had, drinking and trying to knead my back into working order. By the time I left for my flight to PNG I had given up on the idea of not drinking on the boat. A couple of beers and some rum every day sapped my energy, and I got a nasty infection that left me with a scar. On the way home I had a layover Manila and went into a bar that I know there. They saw the bandage on my finger and asked if I was on antibiotics? I lied and said no. They said, good because if you are we can’t serve you. Good people that they were, I had two drinks and got back on the plane to California.
In Japan, Kate and I enjoyed the local beer and sake quite a lot, and we would sleep in to sleep off the grog. We ended our trip in Kyoto with a serious bender, a night out at coolest local sake and yakitori place where we kept pouring it in, and a stumble home that we didn’t quite remember in the morning.
At the new year we went out with neighbors. Neither of us wanted to drink much, we didn’t, and it felt good. We celebrated her birthday shortly afterwards with a weekend away with friends. At a big group dinner one night, I got way too deep into the wine. I woke up feeling physically terrible and remorseful for being in such a negative state in such a beautiful place with good friends. Soon after that we went to a friend’s 40th birthday party. I was in good spirits in my zebra stripe pants and Sasha Grey LOVE tee, and I went straight to the tequila bar and had four or five. Very tasty. I got pretty loose, and and I really felt it the next day. I realized that I had showed up, drank up, and then, feeling deadened and not much like trying to talk while drunk, split. I hadn’t gotten as much out of the occasion as I could have, and I was aware of it. Not for the first time, but it hit me again that I want to experience things fully and that adding alcohol doesn’t add to my experience.
The next day Kate mentioned that she had been thinking of taking a week off from alcohol. It seemed like a great idea. I still don’t know whether she was subtly leading us in that moment; I’ll have to ask her. Thank you Kate. At the end of that first week I felt so good that I decided to continue indefinitely. It began as an open-ended experiment, but clearly, I already had the strong sense that it was time to end my relationship with alcohol. I was hopeful — hopeful that I would feel better without it, and hopeful that I wouldn’t miss it too much. I knew that I would feel better, but I was afraid to give it up that old friend.
That was a year ago. I went from drinking 99% of the time to not drinking 99% of the time. In the past year, I’ve had just a few beers, no more than several (which includes seven, but not eight, so not many) glasses of wine, and two cocktails. I know it sounds like I am, but I’m not counting exactly — it’s just there isn’t much to count.
I feel so much better. I have a lot more energy. I sleep perfectly well, almost every night! I wake up clear-headed. I have more time to do things. I never have to worry about drinking and driving. I never have to worry about liking the idea of a party, but not the reality of the experience. Now I can just go to the party and enjoy myself — or skip it and know that I chose that with a clear mind not to isolate myself, not to avoid drinking, and not to drink alone.
I’ve already tried all the delicious wines and beers. It’s sometimes hard not to be enticed by the idea of the beautiful variety a wine list, but for the most part I just skip that part of the menu now. There’s lot of art to eat and drink that doesn’t contain alcohol.
I feel more determined. I feel like I passed an intelligence test. People are drinking less, especially younger people, and I think certainly that we’ve passed peak alcohol consumption in the United States. With the ongoing spread of greater health consciousness and self-awareness, more people are realizing that, like preservatives, plastic, smoking and sugar, alcohol is obsolete. I still have a nostalgic love for it, but it’s a thing of the past, of the 20th century.
For me, it wasn’t hard to stop drinking. I know it’s not easy for some, but that’s been my experience. I have been cultivating increased health in many ways over the past several years, and once I started to see clearly, it was easy to stop. I learned that most of the addictive nature of alcohol comes from the initial rush and the relief of escape from reality, and then the high going away, leaving me not just wanting more, but at a lowered emotional, physical and mental state that made me feel like I needed to do it again to relieve the ever-greater pain. Stopping stops this cycle. Reality is still there, and I still want to escape that sometimes, but once reality wasn’t being made _worse_ by alcohol, it felt like such an improvement that it has been pretty easy to stay in the cycle of positive feedback. I have did have a few drinks over the past year. It’s good to know what it tastes and feels like from the other side, and I’m happy that I don’t have to be totally militant about it. When I have had a drink I haven’t ever felt: wow, yeah, give me more. It’s more like: ok, I remember what that’s like, and I don’t want more of it.
I’m still depressed. I would say “although” only mildly, but it’s not ‘although’ for me. It’s still not how I want to be. Quitting alcohol has helped a lot. I’m not in a constant cycle of feeling bad–need relief–have a drink–feel worse, but I still have work to do to raise my baseline to where I’d like it to be.
Some books have helped a lot. Shortly after my decision to start an open-ended dry spell, I came across a copy of a book called This Naked Mind, by Annie Grace. TNM introduced me to some new ideas about addiction and alcohol, in particular that it’s perfectly OK just to decide not to drink, that we are in control, that we are at our best naked, without anything subtracting from our human-ness. How alcohol deadens the self and the intuition — one of the aspects of humanity that I hold most precious. Most importantly, TNM clued me into the close relationship between depression, anxiety and alcohol, and also “how much fun it is to disprove your false notions about alcohol,” as you learn how it really works: that what feels good about alcohol is actually just the first few minutes — after that, it’s chemical triggers telling you that you want more, because of those first few minutes. Most of all, she showed very clearly how “drinking becomes an illogical activity” once we know these truths. And once I arrived at that point, it became much more possible to consider just stopping, forever, because it is so damn bad for me. How that would be a great step towards greater freedom — my #1 personal core value. Thanks Annie.
From This Naked Mind I learned of Johann Hari’s Lost Connections, which helped me to understand a lot about depression itself. I agree with him that depression isn’t a “disease” that, somehow, 30% of Americans are born with. Certainly, 30% (sorry, I don’t have the exact figure) of Americans present with symptoms that collectively can and should be called depression. But why? It’s our culture that’s sick, not each individual person. The culture is sick, and the individual people are suffering. In my case, it was also my youth, not just the drugs but also quite literally the lost connections that I didn’t have with my peers and my parents that, together with the drugs, set me on that low road.
Amy Dresner’s great My Fair Junkie helped me by seeing through her eyes how everything can be super fucked up and also hilarious and worth telling the story of. She also introduced to me the idea that “discipline creates stability; stability does not create discipline.” and that “having a routine helps create emotional steadiness.” She’s a great example of how nothing but the truth is really interesting — and the truth is usually pretty funny too.
Drinking: A Love Story, by Caroline Knapp helped me see how much drinking took away from myself, “it’s special power of deflection,” how it felt like “insurance,” how we shared a “yearning for something, something outside the self that will provide relief and solace and well-being” — and how alcohol can seem very much like that, but just isn’t.
Some friends inspired me, those who I just happened to meet or talk to at the right moment. Thanks George, Ted, Geoff, Nick, Kit, Anni, Warren, uncle Bill. An acquaintance named Aspen shared this quotation some time ago, and it really stuck with me:
“I kept waiting for something bigger, something more profound, something that I could hitch myself to and be carried away once and for all to the heaven-on-earth that I deserved. I kept struggling for control, which was really a demand for everything I wanted―peace, happiness, love, perfection―all at once, right now, and for all time. I wanted life to be perfect, always. And when it wasn’t, which was most of the time, I got really anxious, and when I got anxious, I started thinking about how good it would feel to get high again. ”
― William Moyers
Some other friends inspired me in quite a different way. I had a superiority complex, and it got me in trouble. I thought I was smarter than those friends of mine that got involved with harder drugs, and that I wasn’t in any danger of serious addiction. And yet that’s exactly what I did, and I didn’t find my way out of it until much later than many others that survived that early period when we were all together. I thought that I was different. It didn’t really occur to me that I needed to confront my state of mind, to be determined to change it. Many of my early peers saw that more clearly. Many of them left San Francisco, or made significant changes to distance themselves from the chaotic past that we shared. I also made many moves, searching for something else, and yet I still didn’t have the clarity to have much of an idea what I was looking for. Just: something else.
I thought I was different, and so I was looking for something outside of myself. I didn’t think that I had a problem, or that I had some psychological problems, but I was unaware of how those problems were compounded by alcohol. And I’m not saying that I should’ve known that I had a “alcohol problem “– I’m still very unsure of how much potency I’m willing to ascribe to a substance. I very much wanted and still tend to believe that we have full control over our own consciousness and our well-being. I’m not sure why I want to believe that so badly. And of course I am quite probably wrong. Regardless, I feel that by ascribing too much power to an outside agent, I divest myself of responsibility for my own behavior. And so that regardless of how much absolute power some _thing_ has, it does me well to understate that power, so as to spur myself to action, rather than relying on or lamenting the presence of something else. It’s my responsibility, and I’m not different, I’m not better. I should have paid more attention to how much of a mess I was making of myself, how much pain I was in.
Some people worry that if they stop drinking they’ll lose their community — or even just their hobby. That hasn’t been an issue for me. I’ve put a lot of energy in the past several years into cultivating community and connection. As Johann Hari sums up: “the opposite of addiction isn’t sobriety; it is connection.”
I’m not against altering my mental state, but I certainly won’t do it any longer with something that robs my unique creative energy and drags me into a depressive spiral.
I’m so happy that I’ll never have another hangover.
This post appears on my own site at https://bowendwelle.com/2019/01/25/i-was-a-teenage-boozehound/
Originally published at medium.com on February 11, 2019.