This is an apology for binge-drinking, something nobody thinks is good.
Since before I had any kind of sense of self, I hurt myself habitually and I’ve never known why. Over twenty-one years, I’ve put my body through a menagerie of little tortures that no one taught me how to do. It came naturally to me as a toddler to rip out my fingernails, alone in the corner of the nursery. My parents would bandage me up and express bewildered panic at my grossness.
I have calm and heartfelt memories of standing on a stool in front of a bathroom mirror, looking myself dead in the eyes while I pulled my unready baby teeth out with a half-pound pair of pliers. I twisted and winced and teared up and didn’t once blink or halt. The white sink was a bed of wet, bloody blooms.
I can also remember with vitreous vividity sitting in the back of freshman biology, viciously using a mechanical pencil to cut an S into my lower left forearm. My mom saw a week later. She asked why, and I said “It’s just a little self-mutilation. I don’t know.”
She cried. I never let my parents see any of this again.
I’ve burned myself, and cut myself and bitten my arms and legs. I still lose whole nights sometimes, unable to sleep through the throbbing agony of a pair of toes from which I’ve freshly and deliberately carved out the nails with a pocket knife. In first grade I starved myself for two weeks. In seventh grade I pulled my hair out, and whenever I go five days without shaving, I pull my facial hair out. I chew out the insides of my cheeks until it stings to eat anything. I crack my knuckles, shoulders, back and hips far in excess of what feels good, until my joints ache so much it’s audible.
But nothing has ever done for me what binge-drinking does.
My first experience of alcohol was explosive by mistake. I didn’t know how you were supposed to mix Hi-C with vodka; a one-to-eight ratio seemed reasonable. I blacked out and vomited my soul that very first night. And I loved it.
Now I only ever drink to get wasted. At the end of the day, my skull’s a zoo of doubt, worry, self-criticism, nascent jokes, hopes and unwanted memories. When I drink, I flip a switch that drowns out this swarm of harpies and hallucination. Getting halfway to blacked-out is the only way to tamp down the anxiety that crawls in my ears and under my mind’s eye.
And when I drink, I almost always drink long and fast enough to vomit more than once. When I was in first grade, I contracted a stomach virus that put me in a state of booming nausea at all waking hours. I had a computer with tubes attached snaking down my nose and throat, and buttons I was supposed to press just before throwing up, which I did five to ten times a day. In those few months, I probably vomited more than anyone you know has done in their lifetime. This has been my every day again since I’ve turned 21.
I get the sense that for a lot of people, vomiting is frightening and surprising. Not for me. Thanks to my pre-pubescent mastery of the art, the whole sequence, from the nausea to the gut-clenching to the testicular strike to the esophagus spice to the tooth-eating acid spew is second nature. Vomiting is part of who I am now. In a weird way it’s comfortable and reassuring. I’ve bugged some eyes out when, in the middle of a round of beer pong, I’ve turned to vomit into a trash can, not pausing the game and returned without comment or flinch.
“Are you okay man? Do you need to drink some water?”
What’s the point? I don’t know. I’ve never had an answer, though through a few protracted warm bouts of insomnia I’ve tried to summon one up for fun.
A few weeks after I gave myself the S-shaped cut, which lingers on in my skin as a faint, cloud-white scar, I decided that if it was going to be permanent, it would to have to have some kind of meaning. Superman, I decided. At fourteen I’d read a little Nietzsche and understood it probably not at all, but I’d fixated on a quotation about his Superman and the process of overcoming oneself.
There’s something tragic about the human condition that can be spelled out in just a few words. You are a mind, but you have a body. It’s impossible to take them separately; they’re both necessary conditions of life. The worst of what we do as people comes as a consequence of losing sensitivity to the mind-body distinction. We make the body king and mind slave to carnal satisfaction. This is the nadir of unfreedom.
Or so I believe. And so I’ve lived, with the conviction that to be free is not to satisfy desire, but to extinguish it. I was moved early on by the tenets of Roman Stoicism, whose proponents ranged from a Epictetus, a crippled slave, to Marcus Aurelius, emperor of the empire.
But who spoke to me most was Seneca, an old patrician who wrote beautiful, protreptic letters to his friend, the provincial governor Lucilius. Seneca constantly urged that the body was paltry and meaningless and that we must rehearse for death to prepare for life. He suffered from chronic, painful asthma, but would often hold his breath during his worst attacks, bringing him asymptotically towards death.
There’s a famous phrase stating that pain is the feeling of weakness leaving the body. I think it almost hits the mark, but not quite. For me, incessant, self-inflicted pain is an alert that invigorates self-awareness, the first step in every ethical enterprise.
When I wake up after a late night and early morning of sinking my brain into an oblivion of gin, white wine and beer, I feel my whole body cry out in way I could ignore ad infinitum, if I’d never felt a hangover so heavy.
I self-medicate with water, vitamin C and hot showers until I can get on my feet. Then I’m instantly torn down by new nausea, headache, grogginess and violent diarrhea.
But that only lasts an hour or so. What lasts till the end of the day, right up until when I start back up with a new blitz of drinking, is the tremors. All my muscles turn to shaking snow. My back seizes up and I am the site of full-body twitches, shoulders suddenly shooting up to my ears and legs kicking out and fists opening and closing without will or warning.
You might see me drop a hot cup of tea on the floor because my body can’t bear its eight-ounce weight as I shuffle back to a table in the college cafe. Or you might see me appear to try to (I’m actually trying not to) crack my neck twelve times in a row as I stare listlessly at my weekend reading assignment. Let me assure you beyond all doubt: this is what I want. You are looking at me at my happiest.
When I’m really, truly hungover, the passive pain is universal and all-consuming. That’s exactly what I want. I feel like an angel, floating above my body, thinking my best thoughts at a thousand miles an hour. I feel like I’ve overcome the molten muck of being an animal in the world, a transient spark in an illusionary society.
The forces that be tell you that health is the greatest good. That longevity trumps lifestyle. That aging and sadness are a kind of sickness. That you should have white teeth and a thigh gap and all your limbs intact. As long as you do all the rituals and buy all the regulated chemicals, you’re doing life right.
But I wonder, when Socrates told Crito on the cusp of the most famous suicide in history, that the purpose of existence is not merely to live, but to live well, what would he have thought just then about bodily pain? He who roved Athens barefoot and poor, enduring ceaseless corporeal irritation on his way to fulfill his Apollonian mission to become wise.
I’ve just presented a lot of loose foundation in an attempt to retroactively justify a few longstanding habits I think I will never understand, nor reverse. There is no science of self that could tell me just why I will always sleep on a sheetless mattress and bite small pieces of my tongue off. But even without an explanation, I’ll count it as a happy accident that all of this hurt has made me wiser, happier, and stronger, has wrestled me to the edge of monstrosity and back, and made me capable of all the love I have imparted upon those I treasure most.
Or at least, I think so.