My mother is still terrified that I'm going to become an alcoholic, apparently. When I was growing up, she made it very clear to me that alcoholism was something that ran in the family, that my father was an alcoholic, and that I should never ever start drinking myself. That fear, which she passed on to me, was a big part of the reason that I didn't drink at all in high school. I was convinced that if I took one sip of any alcoholic beverage, I'd like it, and that I'd immediately lose control of myself. Thirty years later, I would still be a slave to the substance - my relationships would fall apart, and I would let myself slip into depression. This fear was paralyzing, and it took me most of college to get over it.
“Will I make it through college without drinking?” I wrote in my journal, anxious and alone one Saturday night. I was in my third week of college, and trying very hard to ignore the inebriated shrieks of my female classmates on the stoops of the frat houses outside my window.
It would only be a few months before I started. I went to college in New York, and, as a result, had a fake ID before I ever even touched a drink. My friends went to bars on weekends, and I had decided early on that I should at follow them there, even if only to sip on water and seltzer with lime.
Somewhat surprisingly, my friends didn't pressure me to try alcohol. At least not directly. I was never explicitly excluded from social gatherings, only kept at the edges by virtue of my inability to fully relate to their exploits. Sure, I was physically present when they drank, but my sobriety kept me from joining them in all aspects of their revelry.
At the beginning of my second semester, I decided I was ready. I wanted to have a real drink. To this day, I'm not sure if I was subconsciously succumbing to the pressures of College Life, or if I was finally beginning to question the assumptions I had always made about alcohol.
Of course, I could barely stomach a real beer, so when two of my friends threw a “99-bottles of beer on the wall” birthday party (and required guests to tape their empty beer bottles to the wall in recognition of said theme), I was drinking Mike's Hard Lemonade.
Two hours in, after three whole bottles of the stuff, I could feel the alcohol starting to pulse through my veins. Intrigued by this unexpected sensation, I sat down on my friend's sofa. The room seemed to take a second to follow. I started laughing. This is it, I thought, I'm drunk! I did it! And I'm having... fun? Where was the rage, the loss of control? I feel so giddy! No wonder people think this is great.
Over the next several months, I did what most American adolescents do when they begin to drink. I tested my limits. But I did it carefully, each time still fearing that one more drop might push me over the edge, that I'd fall into Alcoholism. I tested myself almost methodically, counting drinks (and subsequent cups of water) with determined accuracy. If I was scientific about it, I reasoned, maybe I could break the spell.
For an entire year, I walked around campus like every other sophomore, with the smug satisfaction that I knew what was up. My particular feat? Though I drank regularly, I had never once been hungover. I saw alcohol as something to master, like my schoolwork. I had to do it right, and I did.
It wasn't until I studied in Paris for my junior year – what I like to refer to as my real freshman orientation – that I started to do it wrong. Free from the weight of a full academic course load, I was able to stay out until sunrise, take up social smoking, and even throw up in a subway platform trash can at the end of one particularly grueling post-shift party with my coworkers from a local pub. I even failed a class.
I didn't know it at the time, but I didn't need to learn my limits in order to realize I had them, I needed to learn them in order to break them.