April 2017: The Best Advice Ever and Giving Up Alcohol

I sit down in the window seat overlooking the front of the right wing. I’m nervous because this is my first flight by myself and I’m praying that I didn’t get on the wrong plane again. A cute girl sits down next to me. I’m fifteen, so I’m attracted to every girl between the ages of 13 and 30. She smiles and asks me where I’m headed. I try to play it cool as we talk for the next hour. I’m about to get the best advice of my life from a twenty year old woman sipping on a Coors Light purchased with a fake ID. I’m fifteen years old.

It’s two years later, and nine of us are in a circle, parked on a road that is only used to pick up and deliver oil from large, rusted tanks. I grew up surrounded by hundreds of these nameless roads, but somehow we always wind up on this one. My friends pass bottles of wine coolers and vodka shots around. But the woman’s words are still in my head. I pass every time.

I want to leave my small town at any costs. I have no destination and little direction other than away. Any action that could prevent my exit, I avoid. Drinking, drugs, long term friends or love interests were all threatening pitfalls. All relationships are temporary. Just get out. And I do.

I’m at my first college party as a college freshman, the kind I didn’t get invited to back home. I’ve never had a drink. I take a jello shot chased with a Jack and coke. I’m nervous because I legitimately have no idea what to do or say to the other people; I’ve never been around strangers before. I need a bridge.

My story becomes my identity for the night. “I’ve never drank before, what is your advice?” It’s the perfect thoughtless way to start an engaging conversation — everyone can relate because they can all vividly recall their first experience drinking. My social anxiety melts away as everyone shares their story. The room is spinning and I still beat the hell out of a new friend in chess. I’m terrible at chess. I fantasize that every party I will ever go to has board games, even if it’s always this one, even if I lose all the rest. I wake up at 7 AM, two hours before everyone else. I feel amazing. I wonder if I’ve been missing out.

I’m at DisneyWorld for my 21st birthday, right before senior year. My mom guilted me into coming on our “last family vacation”, and this is the only week available. I’ve never seen sake before, so I buy a small bottle and take a swig as I watch my sisters collect autographs from princesses. They give me strange glances. I only finish half of the bottle and throw it out. I don’t need it today.

I’m looking up the ingredients for a long island iced tea because I’ve never mixed my own drink. My best friend from high school is in town to celebrate my first job out of college. I don’t have much money so I buy us the cheapest alcohol I can find. There is a picture of a skull on the bottle of rum, which foretells its contents. I figure it’s probably all the same. Our drinks are a vivid orange. My friend offers to make the next one as he takes his first sip. I wake up at 5 AM with vomit all over my shirt. This is the first day I don’t feel lonely in the month since I moved away after college. I go to my first gay bar and laugh at my own naivety. Tonight was a good night. I move again six months later.

I’m sitting on a tree swing with my future wife. It’s our second date. She brings two beers from the house. I only drink at parties or on weekends. It’s a Tuesday afternoon, so I feel like it must be a special occasion. She hands me a bottle and her smile in that moment will be frozen in my mind forever. We toast she kisses me on the cheek and sets my world on fire. The words from the woman on the plane could not be more far away. This is exactly what I should be doing.

I’m 24 and my best friend from college is in town. We divvy up a six-pack of Shiner Blondes. We were roommates in college but we almost never partied together, because drinking was not part of my routine then. I never felt the need and I had a lot of friends that didn’t drink. We laugh and talk shit and talk real. I love this man and feel like he’s one of a handful of people in the world that understands me. I didn’t realize that it would be the last time we ever would have alcohol together.

Two months later, he calls me. He says he has a problem and isn’t going to be drinking anymore. I scoff at the notion under my breath. I’m outwardly skeptical, but I also feel sad that I lost this new activity with an old friend, right as I was getting into it. In some ways, I had to say goodbye. I don’t say any of this, because I’m 24.

I’m in my 30s and everything is colored by alcohol. Going to a restaurant, the movies or a three year old’s birthday party. Having friends over, holiday celebrations, and meeting with colleagues after work. Playing video games, opening an umbrella at the beach or putting the kids to bed. They’re all my cues to celebrate — to grab a drink without conscience consent. I think back to the words of the woman from the airplane:

“You don’t drink? That’s good, because once you start, you can’t have fun without it.”

I wonder how I arrived here.

What’s it like to give up alcohol for a month? It’s a dance of contradicting desires.

It’s opening the fridge and reaching for a beer with your eyes, but forcing your hands to stay away.

It’s pouring yourself a glass of sparkling water every night, because you’ve got to fill that void with something.

It’s sleeping better and feeling incredibly energized in the morning.

It’s laying awake because alcohol is the self-medication that quiets all the other conversations and worries and to-do lists that fill your head as you lay down.

It’s realizing you’ve been keeping tabs on all those friends who didn’t have a drink at the party like they’re on a government watch list.

It’s going to a three day music festival and only spending $30 all weekend.

It’s a feeling like you’re hiding something when three of your friends come over to watch basketball and don’t notice.

It’s feeling like you have to explain why you’re not drinking at dinner with co-workers.

It’s realizing you easily have dozens of Pavlovian triggers that make you want a beer. Fully quitting would necessitate cutting ties to your own home.

It’s being haunted by the idea that you’ve been poisoning yourself since you were 18, but also unable to imagine a life without it.

It’s being so excited on the 29th day of this challenge that you open the best beer ever and feel no remorse about it since.

It’s questioning why one random woman’s words on an airplane two decades ago still stick in your head. “Once you start, you can’t have fun without it.”