No One Judges You, but Everyone Wants to Know Why (Or Basement Sobriety)

I. My Parents Drink Enough for All Three of Us

“Did your parents host a rager last weekend? Your recycling bin was overflowing when I drove by this morning.”

--neighborhood boy from my calculus class 

If neighborhood boy had been more observant, he might have noticed this every week. I can list the bottles: Beaujolais, Dos Equis, Miller Lite, sometimes Jose Cuervo, sometimes Gosling’s—all sitting curbside in the sort of green bucket most people reserve for newspapers. Last time I went home for break, I was relieved to find that the neighborhood switched to single-stream recycling—the shift meant big blue trashcans with lids, so no one could see inside.

I should say this about my parents: they aren’t sloppy. Despite these quantities, they rarely get drunk. Sometimes tipsy, sometimes glazed over, but most times it isn’t noticeable. I’ve served as their designated driver on no more than twenty occasions, and even those were mainly a precaution.

DARE week in elementary school was the first time I heard about alcoholism. They never told us what the threshold for normal drinking was, and I didn’t ask. My seven-year-old self was scared of the answer. My twenty-one-year-old self does not think her parents are in danger of dependency. She worries about cirrhosis anyway. Her parents keep a state-of-the art electric bottle opener sitting on their kitchen counter: the Rabbit Electra.

II. Scenes From the Basement

Fraternity basements baffled me as a freshman. Nights seemed to work like this: sit through pre-game in friend’s bedroom, wait for tipsiness to set in amongst friends, form shmob, descend on fraternity whose distance from your dorm is proportional to nighttime temperatures. Upon arrival in basement, get beer. Watch friends try to get on table. Watch friends fail. Stand around carrying on less than coherent conversations, and wait until friends get bored. Leave fraternity. Relocate to new fraternity and repeat. In case of a dance party, stand awkwardly at the perimeter of friends’ dance circle. Wish fervently that you had lessened inhibitions. Pretend you are moving to the music. Stone cold sober.

I felt young, so young. Less than. Naïve. I was scared of big weekends, of being responsible for other people if something went wrong. Like a little girl babysitting her mother. Things seemed backwards, confusing.

I was: insecure. I was not: an athlete, religious, gluten-free, on a diet. I did not have: a good reason for sobriety.

When people asked, I said I was afraid of losing control of my brain. It happened anyway, sober. Lights seemed to blur with sound, music to bind to walls, floor to nail to feet. My body would press against other people, and somehow I would not.

III. Decadence and Degeneration

I am taking an English class this term in which we read Frenchmen who are bored, perverse, elitist, depressed geniuses. Some of them are alcoholics. Some of them drink to see visions. Sometimes I wonder if I owe it to myself as a writer to drink, if alcohol might unlock my words. 

IV. Drowning

I sometimes imagine that being drunk would feel like drowning. I keep thinking about what happens when I swim, skin shrinking, folding in on itself. The mild itch—cloying, too deeply embedded to scratch. Things underwater are too ethereal, hushed. A few moments of slow-burning lungs and then I’d start dissolving. It would not be enough, not enough sense could fall away to uncover the self-loathing. Float for a while and the inside of my mouth would start to taste sweet, and I would watch my skin wrinkle and think about the irony of the bloated bodies that come after dissolution. I would wait for the itch to become unbearable, to match the pitch of inner pains. And when it stayed muted and dull and escapable, I would feel its pulse crawling under my skin and my lungs would burn and I would like to tell you that I wouldn’t think about the bodies but I can’t. And there would be the sweetness, still, and nothing would hurt enough to fix anything.

V. Little Miss Independent

I perform slam poetry on campus, read my secrets to large audiences. Example: “9 things you know when you’ve never been kissed.” The controlled exposure gives me agency—I choose when to reveal my flaws, my secrets. My confessions function as moments of reclaiming, less as personal eruptions.

I’m scared of the eruptions, so I do not drink. I’m still scared of losing control, of inadvertently revealing the inside of my head. Drunkenness seems to exaggerate everything, and I am repulsed by the idea of my hyperbolic self.

VI. Scottish Whisky

When I was younger, I accidentally picked up a gin and tonic instead of my water glass, and I spewed my sip all over the sink. The only other time I’ve tasted alcohol was on my FSP in Scotland when our group went to a whiskey refinery. There was a sampling afterwards, and I remember tilting back the glass slowly, waiting for the liquid to make its way out. I swallowed exactly one drop. It tasted like peat and barrels and kerosene.

Later that trip, we were eating dinner at my professor’s home when a visiting Dartmouth student consumed almost an entire bottle of wine, staggered down the hallway, and promptly passed out on the professor’s bed. She was still unconscious when we left, and I remember thinking about what it must feel like to be so vulnerable in front of strangers, why I felt simultaneously horrified and jealous.

In my English class, someone mentioned that the impulses we bury the deepest are the ones we most wish to realize. I want complete surrender. Total collapse. I am not afraid of alcohol. I am afraid that I cannot get to complete dependency without it. I am afraid that if I started, I would drink myself to helplessness. I am afraid of myself, of what it means to feel most tempted by my own need. Sobriety becomes at once self-denial and denial of self.  

VII. EANABs

My sophomore year at Dartmouth, a friend invented the term EANABs: Equally Attractive Non-Alcoholic Beverages. I drink these instead.