by Maura Kelly
The first time I got drunk was during a New Year’s Eve party my parents threw when I was a kid. I stole three unattended glasses of red wine and secretly gulped them down while sitting underneath the kitchen table. Less than an hour later, my Dad tells me, I passed out in the middle of the living room, snoring.
I was 3 years old.
Getting my lips on booze was an easy thing to do in my Irish immigrant family. As a kid, I sipped the foam off the top of my dad’s beers, or sneaked slurps of his favorite drink, gin and tonic. I liked to surreptitiously fill up on ignored champagne during weddings and holiday parties. More than anything else, I craved the giddiness the bubbly affected in me.
Though I was usually able to keep my habit a secret, I unintentionally outed myself when I was a high school sophomore, the day a distant relative got married. During the reception, as I table-hopped looking for flutes filled with toasting fluid, I introduced myself to an older man. The stranger was so friendly that I asked him if he’d give me his champagne. He not only obliged but poured me my own glass of red wine. When he saw how quickly I drank the stuff, he poured me another and another.
Trying to consume as many as possible before our transgression was detected, I drank furiously until, a few Zinfandels in, I wondered why my head didn’t feel connected to my body anymore. I glanced down to look for my nose, which I was sure had fallen off and was mingling with the leftover scraps of filet mignon and baby potatoes on the plates in front of me.
I excused myself in alarm to go to the ladies’ room. But my aunt, unaware that I was drunk, intercepted me, dragged me to the dance floor and forced me to do the Chicken with her. Eager to appear normal, I wiggled my butt as hard as I could — so hard, in fact, that I lost my balance and plowed headfirst into the dance floor.
Following my performance, I passed out in a private room. After my dad found me there, he told me we were going home. I stumbled out to his car, sat in the passenger seat and threw up in his lap before he even started the engine.
In front of my dad, I feigned shame about what I’d done, but the next day I bragged to my friends about it. Barfing meant I’d been really wasted, and I thought that was as cool as sneaking cigarettes in the school bathroom. Of course I was getting drunk in non-family settings by that point, too, and generally doing my best to develop a wild reputation. Every once in a while when I was intoxicated I did something really dangerous, like drunk driving or walking along the railing of a third-story porch. But I thought those things, while regrettable, added to my tough-girl legend.
My boozing increased exponentially during four years at an Ivy League college. I was never competitive about grades or extracurriculars, but I was competitive about partying. As an undergrad, I spent most of my hours getting intoxicated or recovering from a hangover. By the time I graduated, I was getting drunk at least three or four times a week. Most boozing nights, I would have at least eight or nine before I started to lose count. Wild Turkey and Diet Coke — a Diet Turkey — was my cocktail of choice since the alcohol content was high, the calories were low and it went down fast. But I also drank just about anything I could get my hands on except beer, because it never messed me up fast enough.
One night, a little more than a year after I had finished college, I did something I had done a number of times already: Inebriated, I took home a stranger I met in a bar. (I hooked up drunkenly as an undergrad all the time, but my campus was so small it was almost impossible to find someone I didn’t know.) The next morning, when the guy left my Adams Morgan apartment, I figured I’d never have to see him again. But he got my number from information and called every night for a week. When I wouldn’t pick up his calls or ring him back, he started coming to my window at night and screaming my name from the sidewalk. After a few nights I was unsettled enough to pick up the phone the next time he began leaving a message and ask him to please leave me alone. He repeatedly asked why I had acted so passionately that night, angrily resisting the explanation that I had done so primarily because I’d been blind drunk. Luckily, after we hung up I never heard from him again.
Though that incident seriously spooked me, I decided the problem was him, not me. So I didn’t change my ways. My next significant and inevitable scare came when I was 25. Around 10 p.m. one Saturday, I went to an open-bar party for a friend. The next thing I remember, it was Sunday afternoon and I was lying in my West Village apartment in my underwear. It seemed clear a visitor had spent the night with me, and my apartment door was unlocked, as if a person without a key had let himself out. Later that afternoon, after I had tried for hours to dredge up any memory of what had happened, I started phoning friends to see if anyone knew what I had done. No one was surprised I couldn’t recall much. They were used to my blackouts, which had been happening regularly since college. Only one friend knew anything: She had watched me getting into a cab with a guy she had never seen before.
Another friend — who was not that much of a drinker — happened to call that day and was shocked when I told her about the mystery du jour. ”I’ve been volunteering with a rape crisis hotline and it sounds like you’re a rapist’s ideal target,” she said. “Are you sure you weren’t attacked last night?”
Though I thought she was overreacting, her response helped me realize my behavior was not cool, and potentially life-threatening. I was lucky the guy, like all the other unknowns I have been alone with over the years, wasn’t a rapist or a murderer.
The thing that finally made me turn a corner was telling my therapist that I had never kissed a g uy sober in my life. Not in my whole life, and I was in my mid-twenties. The fact had never shocked me until that moment, when I said it out loud. While alcohol might have helped me get physically intimate, it was preventing me from getting emotionally intimate and from developing into a mature, healthy, normal adult. I always thought alcohol made me sexy, powerful, brave and interesting. But I started to realize that more than anything, it made me ugly, weak, cowardly and boring. It made me a loser. And that reality was scarier than the threat of death.
So the last time I got drunk was March 3, 2001. Have I missed it? Sure, it was difficult to get through the first few parties without it. And often, when I feel frustrated or unhappy, I am tempted to whiskey my woes away. But then I realize a vicious hangover will only make my dissatisfaction with life worse, and that a meaningless sexual encounter with a stranger will not provide happy memories. It’s also been great to find that kissing and all that goes with it is actually better when I’m sober. Though I never thought I would, I feel more in control of myself, my prospects and my experiences now that I’m not drinking.
I desperately wish I could be a kid again and do it all over. Instead of sharpening my drinking skills during my young adulthood, I would have read more poetry, written more short stories, acted in more plays, maybe learned to play the guitar. Maybe I would have fallen in love. And I often wonder how different my writing career might be if I had never had the handicap of a heavy boozing habit.
Getting wasted isn’t cool. It’s not courageous or tough or rebellious or bold or beautiful. More than anything else, it’s a waste of your time and your youth.
Maura Kelly recently finished her first novel and is looking for a publisher. Her personal essays have appeared in The New York Times, the New York Observer, The Daily Beast, Salon and other publications. She writes a dating blog for Marie Claire www.marieclaire.com/sex-love/dating-blog/.
(*A longer version of this essay was originally printed in The Washington Post in 2002.)