I can measure my age by what I was drinking. If there was some sort of scrapbook kept of the dive bars and glitzy clubs I've been to, with sad pictures, and happy pictures, and bar receipts I couldn’t afford pressed between the pages, I would know the years immediately without being told. In the beginning, it was whatever I could steal. One beer or wine cooler at a BBQ, taken when the adults weren’t looking, shared among 4 pre-teens, while we passed around our few cigarettes and hoped no one else could tell that we had no idea what we were doing. I didn’t even inhale then, I wanted all the glamour and none of the side effects. When I was 15, I started with the hard and cheap stuff, like most of us do. Stolen out of liquor cabinets and paid for with collections of singles and five dollar bills, hoisted onto someone’s older sibling with a fake ID.
At 16, I split a bottle of Captain Morgan with two friends. We didn’t have Coke, so we mixed it with fruit punch. It was a casual night and no one meant to get raging drunk, but somehow I did. It was the first time I remember being keenly aware that the alcohol was running out and I hadn’t had my share. Of course, I had had more than my share. I was the reason it was running out. I drank fast and had no filter, it was my first blackout. The only thing I remember is crawling up my driveway after my friend drove me home. I had thrown up red all over her carpet and couldn’t stand up straight. My parents were furious.
I went to my job at a drugstore the next morning to load up on Gatorade and Advil, and escape a talk about how I clearly had a problem already. That year I started drinking in class. Never before driving, but once first period AP Biology started, I would crack open a water bottle full of some shitty brown liquor and Diet Pepsi and have at it. As much as I can blame anything, I blame the Coyote Ugly culture of the early 2000s. The movie had just come out and those girls were my idols. Instead of being awkward and never quite skinny enough, and constantly worrying about what was cool, I wanted to wear crop-tops, dance on a bar, and drink liquor with a name. Jose, Jim, Jack, Johnny.
The summer before college, was cheap beer and card games designed to get us all drunker, faster. When we walked to someone's house at night to keep drinking I remember there being a haze of intoxication mixed with infatuation and I thought that my small suburb was the most beautiful place in the world. I was grateful to be drunk and bold enough to think I was falling in love. The night of our final summer party, I got bad news and I drank till I blacked out. I went to college with a photo album full of pictures of that night. I am only in one, at the very beginning, because I spent the remainder of the night passed out, upstairs. That whole summer before college was a blur of people and booze and insecurity dressed up as bravado. No one had any idea who they were and so we played at personas we thought we might like. They never lasted long. They were flimsy, like cardboard versions of people. We never thought past the surface dimensions. But we drank though it all because, though we had known each other as very, very small children, none of us knew how to know each other as adults.
College, it turns out, was no better. I actually drank less my freshman year, and I gave up smoking after my first semester. Mostly because I couldn’t afford it, but I didn’t tell anyone that. It didn't fit my story. The drinking was kept at bay by my general lack of trust for the people around me who I had just met. I became the caretaker, but I made sure to always have a drink in my hand, so I would still be the girl who drank. It was scotch then. The next year, that changed. Maybe I was comfortable, maybe I had just stopped caring. I was a sophisticated glamazon paper doll. I drank to earn what I thought was respect and then barely make it out of the party before collapsing. I would be sick and then go back to watching the basketball game. I drank in the morning through fever shakes and through class on multiple occasions. I got Slurpee cups banned from campus, when they found out I had talked my classmates en masse into adding booze to them on the quad. Talking people into things without them noticing became my strong suit. It meant I was never alone. I was young enough to deem this an accomplishment.
I also learned to play into societal expectations for women, feeling that they kept me removed and safe. I wore heels to the house party, I straightened my hair. I put makeup on before walking the dorm halls after a shower. I was a willing participant in crafting a grand idea of me and making sure that everyone bought it. I tanked my GPA and my body and my life and still did not see a problem. I thought that empty feeling afterwards was just me. I had everything I had ever thought I wanted. People wanted to be me but I didn't actually want to be myself.
One night, when a friend got in a drunken fight, I got my cheekbone crushed. I iced it with a bag of frozen peas at my boyfriend’s apartment, feeling like I deserved every bone shard. It was the beginning of the end, I remember thinking that the physical pain made sense, it was everything else that didn’t. I thought that this was the way my life would be forever. I left college and on my 21st birthday stayed home and drank two large bottles of wine. My life had been so full that I didn't even notice it was empty. I came out of that haze and tried to be better. I starved myself and worked out twice a day, I became small in every single way. I cut out booze to keep myself that way, and for awhile, it worked. Still, every time I had a few, I would want more. There was something in me that never felt sated or content.
I am almost a year into sobriety now, and I feel like I've lived multiple times. This is the very first one I haven't wanted to escape. The very first one that I would call a life. Not because it's easy, but because I know what I am capable of now. And I regret nothing because it brought me here, even if it did take it's damn time. I show up for people now and have filled my life with people willing to show up for me. And I don't hide who I am anymore, regardless of how that is received. And it feels something like grace.