Each week, we post short interviews with interesting people about their thoughts and feelings on women and drinking. There is such a wide array of perspectives about this topic, and we are excited to gain insight into as many as possible and to share them with you.
Kassi Underwood‘s essays, book reviews, and author interviews have appeared in The New York Times, TheAtlantic.com, The New York Daily News, The Rumpus, Exhale’s Pro-Voice Blog, Publishers Weekly, and The Days of Yore, among other publications. She won the 2012 Pro-Voice Storyteller Award for her personal essays on abortion and recently embarked on a national college tour to show every woman who’s had an abortion that she is not alone. She is working on an investigative memoir of post-abortion therapies and cultural rituals. Say hi on twitter @kassiunderwood.
Drinking Diaries: How old were you when you had your first drink and what was it?
Kassi Underwood: Thirteen. Kentucky straight. Three or four amber bottles were lined up on my friend’s lowboy dresser. Her mother, far more lax than mine, bought the liquor for us. I poured myself a few drinks, mixing them with something classy like RC Cola, then wandered around the house in a state of oafish bliss. I felt like I’d ingested a magic potion that would solve all my problems. Emotional and social problems, at least. In my next memory, I was crawling up my friend’s slick wooden steps on all fours, with a limp smile, thinking, “Why didn’t anyone tell me about this sooner?”
How did/does your family treat drinking?
Alcoholism runs on both sides of my tree, so my extended family tends to proceed with either caution or irreverence. Most significantly, my father sobered up when I was nineteen.
How do you approach alcohol in your every day life?
I took my last drink–a bottle of Chianti–at age twenty, in bed, in my flat, in Florence, Italy. That was more than six years ago. Because many of my friends are normal drinkers, I serve wine or beer to company. I have to remember that I didn’t quit drinking just to duck out of my life again or to inconvenience people with my personal issues. Just the opposite, in fact. Last summer, my mother and I toured Napa Valley together; I still love to see music in dive bars; and as a writer, I attend a lot of booze-fueled readings. Recently, I ended up on a television segment about how to use alcoholic beverages in your beauty regime. In a sort of cosmic dialogue with my last drink, the beauty editor wiped a red wine treatment on my cheeks. It didn’t send me off on a jag or anything, but I have no plans to start regularly dousing my face with wine.
Have you ever had a phase in your life when you drank more or less?
One memorable dry stint occurred when I got pregnant at nineteen. As if there were an appropriate way to handle a pregnancy I wasn’t going to keep, I still aimed to protect the baby. Maybe it’s telling that I temporarily stopped drinking—a feat theretofore unattainable—only because there was potentially someone else to guard. Quitting for my own health had never appealed to me.
What’s your drink of choice? Why?
I was the opposite of selective. I stopped drinking before the legal age, so I did not often buy my own alcohol. Eventually, certain kinds of drinks stopped working, so I’d make an effort to switch from whiskey to wine to cheap-and-quick Gordon’s vodka. On a spree two months before my last drink, I ran out of liquor, so I broke into my newly-sober father’s liquor cabinet and gulped down the last of a bottle of gin, including the pad of mold floating on top.
Can you tell us about the best time you ever had drinking?
My memory is jammed with happy drinking scenes: sipping mint juleps at Kentucky Derby parties in my home state, out-drinking the boys in college, drunk dancing, drunk night swimming, drunk roller-skating.
I spent one evening in a Burlington, Vermont movie theatre watching this documentary called Festival Express. The film followed Janis Joplin, The Grateful Dead, and The Band, circa 1970, on tour together in Canada. I was eighteen years old, and my friends and I had smuggled Nalgenes full of Carlo Rossi in our outsize corduroy purses. Once buzzed, we migrated to the aisles and all fifteen of us started cutting rug. (See also: the Hippie Dance. See also: a gorilla skipping in place. See also: dances so god awful they should probably be illegal.) I had just reached the supreme and short-lived feeling that I drank for. Drinking gave me a sense of closeness to my friends at a time in my life when I had begun to feel otherwise bereft of sociability.
What about the worst time?
Any time I had already started drinking and ran out of alcohol, the scene turned tragic. I have no recollection of this, but the group of five girlfriends I lived with in Vermont said I used to survey our evening supply, hike up my eyebrows, and look around bug-eyed, saying, “Are you sure there’s enough alcohol? I don’t think there’s enough alcohol.” You can basically swap “alcohol” for anything else in the world (cash, love, cash, friends, cash) to gather a real sense of the alcoholic psyche, a religion of scarcity. It’s hard to choose the worst time, because there were plenty of embarrassing drinking moments: getting arrested, selling my Ford Explorer for fifty dollars, being physically removed from a stage I tried to commandeer at a strip club in Montreal (dressed in a one-piece Cat Woman suit, no less).
But perhaps my all-time worst drinking bout was in Italy, a few days after Night of the Toilet-Bed, when I slept doubled-over on a toilet seat for eight hours. At that point—living off money I borrowed from a roommate I’d known for only two weeks—I had decided that I needed to get sober, but that I first needed to really grind my life into the cobblestone. So I went to this morbidly cheesy bar called YAB Disco Club. YAB was an acronym for “You Are Beautiful,” and that’s not even the saddest part. That night, I drank three Long Island iced teas in a row, but they didn’t work. I couldn’t get drunk.
Has drinking ever affected—either negatively or positively—a relationship of yours?
I had a habit of picking guys who had worse issues than I did. The Emma Lazarus poem on the Statue of Liberty springs to mind: “Give me your tired, your poor… the wretched refuse of your teeming shore.” I had some really fantastic boyfriends, too, boyfriends I treated terribly, but I’ve always had a special place in my heart for sickly-looking addicts. Sallow skin and gangly. Working on a “Project Boyfriend”–always full of potential–was a distraction from my own drinking, but no matter how far gone they were, I always wound up with a derivative of the same nickname: Alky, Al, Little Alcoholic, you get the picture.
Do you have a favorite book, song, or movie about drinking?
I remember traipsing to and from my first sobriety groups in Florence, earbuds blasting Ani DiFranco’s “Knuckle Down.” “Whiskey makes me smarter,” she sings, and I believed that. It took me awhile to realize that relaxing makes me smarter and that whiskey promotes said relaxation.
What do you like most about drinking?
There was always a certain point in the evening when I’d feel just perfect, like how I imagined humans were built to feel: my boobs grew like three cup sizes, I felt one with my friends and the universe, I could handle anything, I could play. Without a drink, I didn’t know how to have fun. In retrospect, I think that perfect feeling alcohol gave me was presence: a brief flight from time, when I neither dwelled on bitterness of yore nor worried some fear fantasy. Only problem? That peaceful feeling was soon overwhelmed by an invisible beast who seemed to burst out of my ribcage with a mission to consume whatever alcohol I could scrounge up. Didn’t matter who was in the way.
Why do, or don’t you, choose to drink?
Choosing not to drink is tricky because I chose not to drink so many times before I was able to uphold my own decision. A big part of maintaining my sobriety is helping other alcoholics to stay clean, an honor I wouldn’t want to forfeit. (The big secret is that they’re helping me way more).
How has alcoholism affected your life?
Where would I be today without alcoholism? While my father’s alcoholism negatively affected our family during his active years, his sobriety positively influenced us as well. If it weren’t for his example, I think I would have spent many more years out there causing wreckage.
Though I wish I hadn’t hurt anyone along the way and I wouldn’t wish this disease on anyone, I’m now grateful for my own alcoholism. Alcohol saved me from the torture of my own mind before I knew how to quiet my compulsive thinking. Without it, I would have been fatally depressed. And without loud consequences. I needed the disease to beat me down, so I would become willing to seek a more substantial solution to what ailed my spirit for so long. These days, I meditate to achieve a genuine version of the artificial presence alcohol once produced. Sometimes it actually works!