My husband and I began 2019 with a resolution to not drink alcohol all year. With the exception of a bit of bubbly for my best friend’s bachelorette party, and a toast on her actual wedding day this past February, by Jan. 1, 2020 I will have spent 363 days booze-free.
A year free from tipsy, buzzed and drunk.
I have learned a lot.
We walked into this resolution with the suitable-for-work reasons of “seeing how our health could improve”.
We walked into this intention knowing how heavy and deep and dark the valleys of alcohol can stretch. The Jekyll/Hyde transformations occurring in the moon-soaked morning hours. How sleeping off a hangover robs time from your health, your goals, dreams. Time from your child. How drinking in excess shields you from pain- but robs you of other emotions too- joy, disappointment, wonder, grief. Feelings that demand to be felt.
I worried if we could make it a year at all.
And what it might mean if we couldn’t.
Until this year, nearly every weekend (and many week nights in between) meant a beer or two (or six), a bottle of wine (or two). A temporary escape from the realities of life. Year after year (with the exception of my pregnancy) my alcohol consumption increased.
Drink to fit in.
Drink to feel good.
Drink to forget.
I began drinking when I was 15 :
My first time trying alcohol was a disaster- Smirnoff Ice and Screwdrivers, mixed from the cheapest vodka we could find and Sunny Delight (gag). My 18-year-old boyfriend (whom I had dated for a month after we met at the 2001 Vans Summer Warped Tour) strode out of Circle-K that night with a smirk and two bags full of booze. He was built and ornery and nary a convenient store clerk would ever ID him- that night- or in the years to come. Access to alcohol made easy. The hot summer air clung to my neck , still above 100 degrees even hours after the sun had set.
The group was made up of six- my boyfriend and I, plus two of my closest girlfriends and their boyfriends, who happened to be best friends attending a neighboring high school. My boyfriend had graduated in May and moved from Yuma, AZ to Phoenix the week of the concert. Despite not knowing one another well, we shared one common thing that night: the desire to be older than we were, cooler than we felt. To not lose face in front of one another.
We huddled in the small bedroom of my friend’s boyfriend’s suburban house in Dobson Ranch- his parents away for the weekend. A Smash-mouth CD played in the background, a blacklight illuminated the white in our T-shirts, our eager, toothy grins, the shoelaces tied on our dirty low-top converse sneakers. My boyfriend expertly mixed the drinks: three parts vodka, one part Sunny D. We raised a toast.
In a guilt-laden flash that preceded my first sip, a highlight reel of the previous weeks played in my head. My angry and defensive father. Our “roommate” Danny’s fake-surprised exclamations. The loaded syringe Mom uncovered rolled in the blankets of my little brothers’ bedroom closet. “Black tar heroin”, I’d overheard Danny say.
The angry confrontation I’d had with my mother rang in my ears, “It’s HIS!” I’d screamed, accusing my father when he wasn’t around to hear me. “Why can’t you see it? He’s on drugs!”. I couldn’t explain to her why, at nine, I’d understood that drugs were the reason my father could put us all in danger.
But my mom couldn’t see it. Wouldn’t see it.
She wouldn’t hear it, either. Her next mental breakdown occurred within a week of our argument. She was still hospitalized.
I thought about my anger, eating me alive.
I thought about my aching heart too, my first breakup having taken place at the onset of summer vacation. First love fading fast. I had gone to the Vans Warped Tour in June hoping to forget, and the rest of the summer unfolded from that night- new places, new faces. Late nights. Growing up fast.
We tilted our heads back and drank- ignoring the rancid, fiery taste. Jiminy Cricket drowned the moment the cup hit my lips. We raced to the bottom of our red plastic cups. I agreed it tasted great, nodded along like I had been there many times before. Like I knew what I was doing.
Despite downing two screwdrivers and a Smirnoff Ice in thirty minutes, I felt fine. A little toasty, but totally fine. In fact, I didn’t feel anything at all. How glorious.
I looked around the dim room, the punk-rock posters taped on every spare inch of wall. I watched my friends as they laughed and swayed, faces growing red. I locked eyes with my boyfriend briefly, before he looked away. It was just a glint- less than a second- that I saw it. Something hungry behind his eyes. I puzzled over whether all boys looked like wolves once booze hits the bloodstream.
And then, suddenly, I had to get up.
And as I stood, the world started melting. My arms and legs went numb and I knew something – EVERYTHING- was coming back up. Up and out. I raced to the bathroom with my girlfriend close behind. I reached the toilet just in time to vomit. It spurted out of my mouth, out of my nose, burning white hot as it came back up. Looking bright orange.
When the most violent heaving ended, I turned around to pee , but halfway through felt the bile rise up again. I reached for the trash can, pants around my ankles, to throw up again. This time peppered with deep shades of humiliation. Bless the world’s best girlfriend, she held my hair back and suggested I climb into the tub.
Our other friend was doubled over with laughter- shrieking hysterically at my condition. Announcing each heave and hurl like a TV reporter. I crawled into the shower to run cold water over my hot, puke-stained face. The cold water offered momentarily relief to my sweaty, messy senses. In this state, in the next moment… his parents came home.
I heard his mother screeching over the running water. In the next instant, my boyfriend scooped me up- pants-less and clinging to the side of the tub, and I watched the world spin from the top of his shoulder as we rushed out of the house. My best friend had the sense to wrap a towel around my bottom half (thank God for her, still to this day).
Once on the front lawn, he asked if I could stand, and I said ‘yes’, but it was a lie. My body and brain weren’t communicating, and suddenly I was diving face-first towards the concrete. My boyfriend caught me inches before my face slammed into the ground. He packed me into the front seat of his ’87 Honda civic while the remaining four clambered into the backseat. We drove fast and reckless into the Phoenix night.
For many people, alcohol is fun and free and topical. And as I’ve grown, I’ve certainly enjoyed times of lighthearted merriment with booze, but I didn’t begin drinking this way. I began drinking as a shield for my pain. But it’s never protected me from anything.
This alcohol-free year was a lesson in learning that it’s my responsibility to build a life that doesn’t make me want to reach for a glass of wine each night. That it’s my job to understand and move through my emotions without reaching for a band-aid. That it’s my duty to like myself enough to make friends in room full of strangers without cocktail confidence.
So even though it’s a bit premature to call it 363 days booze-free, I know we will make it to Jan. 1st. The self-reflection and healing that’s occurred won’t disappear when the clock strikes midnight on New Years, and for anyone thinking about what the next stage in healing for them may be, I highly recommend taking a year (or 363 days) booze-free.