By the time I got to college, I knew almost nothing about alcohol or how we people socialized around it. The first time my roommates said they were going to a fraternity party I responded:
Are we invited? Why would a fraternity invite more guys to a party?
Unsurprisingly, I didn’t go to that party. Frankly, I was intimidated by how eager everybody was to get drunk. Sure I was excited to be at college, but I was still a human. The people on my floor seemed like howler monkeys recently released from a decade in solitary confinement. Did I really want to start drinking with these people?
I probably could have made friends if I drank with them, but that almost seemed too easy. And in my convoluted brain, that felt wrong. I am exceptional at making things more difficult for myself. And then I got mono. I couldn’t kiss, couldn’t drink. Not exactly a whizzbang start to the greatest years of my life.
But like high school, the longer I didn’t drink, the harder it became to start. The more I told people I didn’t drink the more I felt like I had to maintain that identity. There were positives. I didn’t have to worry about getting carded or fake IDs. I could be the caretaker, could be the designated driver for the rare occurrences when my friend did drink. But I got tired of people asking me about it.
I also envied the release alcohol enabled in others; the lowered inhibitions and carefree mistake making. It felt like people who drank had more funny stories, more ridiculous experiences, more fun. My mantra had become that I didn’t need to drink to have fun. And I didn’t. But at a certain point, not drinking became a stressful thing. I felt stupid and awkward in social situations. My arms became helium-filled snakes I struggled to keep pinned to my sides.
And then came Italy.
The second semester of my Junior year I studied abroad in Florence. I mentally committed to starting my drinking when I got there. I didn’t know what to expect but I knew to do it in another country felt easier.
My very first night, my roommates and I went out to a dive bar. My first beer was a half-pint of Heineken. I remember the unimpressive taste of so many bubbles. Trying not to make a big deal of it being my first drink but unable to avoid telling everybody I had never had a drink before. I simultaneously wanted no attention and all of the attention.
I also struggled ideologically with alcohol. Specifically with why people took shots. I thought about it. I contorted my brain. I asked aloud to people I knew: “What is the purpose of taking shots?” I was way to heady about it.
But like anything in life, some things I can’t understand in advance. Some things I just have to stop worrying about and do. That is the nature of my mind; trying hard to understand something in advance through research, worrying and eventually obsessing. I did it with alcohol, and 7 years later with a girlfriend’s preference for marijuana. In those cases and others, I would try to be OK with something I wanted to understand, but would ultimately end up judging others until I acquiesced to some degree.
Slowly I relaxed into the idea of shot-taking. It endeared itself to me as a communal experience, something people did together which made it fun.
Still, I asked so many questions to my roommates about what they drank, and what they liked. Like any college Juniors, they had strong opinions about everything. I firmly believe that the reason I prefer Pacifico to Corona to this day is that one of the first things I remember them talking about was how Pacifico was so much better than Corona. My memories are so strong they defy my ability to be objective in this matter.
My time in Italy progressed and different alcohols presented themselves: Cold Tuscan red wine at the weekly school lunch outing. Wheat Beer. Wheat beer. Vodka Redbull which tasted like battery acid. Malibu and pineapple which tasted like a tropical vacation. The bottles of 99 cent chianti I bought at the grocery store around the corner. The 3 pack of Dreher beer I brought to the first house party I went to. So careful about over-imbibing I arrived unaware that showing up at a party with a 3 pack of beer is both incredibly uncool, and also just not enough beer.
All of it felt like experimentation and adventure, each experienced pushed the limits of sobriety until one night, I got drunk.
The next morning I woke up to take an overnight trip to Perugia with my roommate Ben. He decided to stay in bed because he was too hungover. I got angry and set off for the train station on my own, not yet realizing I was about to experience a wicked hangover. It wasn’t until I got on the train that I realized the headache and nausea hit. I kept saying to myself over and over, “Don’t throw up. Don’t throw up.” I didn’t want to be a cliche. I was better than this (or so I thought). I didn’t want to be just another kid who got drunk and threw up the next day. Through sheer force of will, I managed to keep the contents of my stomach contained.
And while I’d like to say that was a turning point for me, that having experienced intoxication and the deathly feelings that followed, I learned to empathize with others, I judged less and released more readily into the natural flow of human interaction.
I’d like to say that, but I can’t because it’s not at all what happened.
It took me a long time to stop worrying so much about alcohol, to stop judging others, and to just release into the moments it provided. Alcohol was a divider in my life because of the way I perceived it, and that mixed with my perception of own self made for a strange and unhelpful cocktail. Like so much in my life, it provided more than a few opportunities to learn, to make mistakes, and to relearn from those mistakes.
I wish those learnings immediately infused my entire life with their wisdom. But that has never been the way my life works. But those lessons are still there. Still teaching me. Still telling me to slow down and stop judging.
Every so often I listen.
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