My first alcoholic drink changed my life. It was the summer of my 14th year. Our town held a festival every July called The Feast of St. Anthony. It was not so much a religious event, but a raucous carnival; the kind where the normal rules of conduct are loosened.
At a booth I managed to knock down the milk cans with a baseball, and the grown-up running the booth, a classmate’s father, put a bottle of wine in my hands. Normally he would never have given me alcohol, but this was The Feast, so even though I shouldn’t have been surprised, I was startled to now be the owner of this cool, mysterious bottle. I cradled it in my arm like a football and hurried through the crowd to find my two close friends. After hacking through the cork with a pen knife, the three of us drank the whole bottle.
A happy, rosy glow overtook me. “Ohhhh, I get it now,” I said to my friends. “This is why people drink.” Until that moment it had never entered my mind to seek out alcohol. If you asked me what I did for fun I would have said going to the beach, sports and reading. I didn’t know such elevated emotions were available to me. This wasn’t merely an insight, but a discovery.
I was confused by the phenomenon of drinking alcohol because it seemed mostly negative, making grown-ups I respected act stupidly. I was embarrassed for them when they drank. Stupid was the one thing I knew I didn’t want to be. But now, having felt the buzz, I determined that the next chance I had to drink alcohol, I would do it.
That moment came about two years later at age 16. A recently graduated high school friend was able to sneak me into a college bar. The drinking age was 18 then. He bought me a beer and then left me alone, as he went off to talk with other people he knew. I stood off to the side and surveyed this bar scene in wide-eyed wonder. People were happy and having fun, Eric Clapton music was playing, and there were pretty girls everywhere. Did that one just smile at me? This was awesome. I drank my beer like water.
Pretty soon my friend came by. “Hey JJ, you gotta nurse that beer along. Don’t drink it fast.” He bought me another. I felt manly, thinking I had found an essential ingredient for a life I would really love.
The bar scene added a thrilling social dimension to the buzz. Whatever made me feel like an awkward outlier in life ceased to exist in the festive drinking scene, as long as I drank. So I sought it out whenever I could. Even when people started reporting back to me idiotic things I said or did the night before, I thought the drinking was worth it. Yes, I winced when told how I annoyed people with my argument about the merits of disco, and I didn’t even like disco. And yes, I was mortified when I woke up on my friend’s sofa, having passed out and pissed on it. And no, I didn’t like having to apologize for my obnoxious behavior the day after some heavy drinking. But drinking was great, right?
Fast forward to age 21. I was at a bar with my drinking buddies, eight of us. We were the best of friends and knew each other well, or so I thought. There were three pitchers of beer on the table. As I refilled the cups around the table, the guy next to me, Harry, said no thanks.
“Not drinking tonight?” I asked.
“No, I never drink,” he said. I was surprised.
“What do you mean you don’t drink?”
“I don’t drink.”
“I don’t care for it,” he said.
I was amazed that I had been out in bars and at parties with Harry for many months, and I never knew he wasn’t drinking right along with the rest of us. Just because someone at a social event has a cup in his hand, doesn’t mean he has alcohol in the cup, I discovered.
Ridicule is often a form of questioning and so even though I was curious, I poked fun at Harry at the time. Secretly I admired him for being so self-assured, for following his own star. The truth was I didn’t feel comfortable with the way I drank, but I lacked the self-possession and wherewithal to follow my star, or even see it.
You may be expecting me to say how I eventually stopped drinking and found a better way of life. I did find a better way to manage my emotions, and that did involve “breaking up” with alcohol, in a sense. But the road to honest examination of myself – who I was, what I wanted, and why my life mattered – was more complex than deciding I no longer wanted to use drinking as a spiritual and social crutch. I now see that from the beginning I was on a path of discovery, but for me that path led far beyond the primitive and unmanly bounds of seeking to get “buzzed.”
My path had to do, not only with the large questions of truth, goodness and beauty, but also with quotidian questions such as, “How can I comfortably interact with people and still be myself?” and “Why do I care so much about what others think of me?” and simply, “What makes a good day?” Drinking became a hindrance to me, so I merely chose to take alcohol out of the equation as I sought answers to those compelling questions.