Bottoms Up

The first time I got drunk was when I was 16 and it was a terrible experience, but I hung in there.

I don’t count falling asleep after tasting some horribly sweet and totally repulsive Manischewitz wine at Rosh Hashanna dinner.

It was a Saturday afternoon, I think, and I was at Freds and decided it was the right time to get loaded. I drank a concoction of apricot brandy, scotch and vodka, really anything I found in the liquor cabinet beneath the sink. I think it is the same combination that doubles for the electric chair.

After getting my fill, I began the walk uphill with Fred and a third person whose name I can’t recall. I began to feel dizzy and asked out to anybody within ear shot if I was drunk because I didn’t really know what drunk felt like as I was weaving like a snake up the street. But I was most definitely getting drunk and it did not feel like a very nice thing.

Made it to Peter’s house up the hill and after he let us in I asked for food and he gave me a peach which I promptly threw on the floor and I asked for another peach which I also threw on the floor at which time Peter quickly ushered me outside because his mother was coming home. I moved quickly, slamming my shin into a low cinder block wall along the front garden and then stumbling away before collapsing on the grass a block from home where I puked and peed great amounts shortly before blacking out. My friends carried me home, bouncing my head on the street along the way until they dumped me on my front steps where my mother immediately appraised the situation and asked my friends to place me in bed, which they did. I wasn’t allowed to go out after school for a few days.

And that was it, except for the screaming hangover in the morning and it was not fun, at all. The experience was so bad that I swore off booze and my friends mocked me. But there was absolutely nothing redeeming about the experience and I could not for the life of me understand why people drink.

But I was determined to understand and after a year of sobriety, I was ready and that began my real relationship with alcohol, whether it was Gallo port under the bleachers or Boone’s Farm apple wine, prepared screwdrivers, bloody Marys, or the reliable, low-cost Schlitz or Ballantine beer.

Through the high school years, I drank with friends at the Brau House, a bar in upstate, Suffern, N.Y., where they accepted phony proof. And there were parties and parties and parties where the booze flowed freely. It never got in my way, although I guess I was somewhat lucky that I didn’t kill myself and/or someone else while commonly driving approaching blind drunk at night when the double white line tended to waver.

I wanted to eventually see what life was like without booze and I went to Alcoholics Anonymous meetings for a period and didn’t drink for seven years. I had a sponsor at first but I didn’t really like prostrating myself to another person and admitting I was an alcoholic because I didn’t feel like an alcoholic and was told that one of the first signs of alcoholism was denying I was an alcoholic. It was logic that I couldn’t refute.

But I went to weekly meetings on Sundays and religiously went up to the podium and introduced myself as Phil, “I’m an alcoholic,” to the applause of the other confirmed alcoholics. People talked about their prior lives drinking and for most, it seemed like sheer hell. I couldn’t really identify because my worst experiences couldn’t hold a candle to these real drunks. They said that honesty was the key to living sober so I faked it as well as I could and said I was an alcoholic even though I didn’t feel it.

A New Year’s Eve party by the local AA chapter was an eye-opener as nobody was drinking and it seemed everybody was having fun, including me, as contrasted to my belief, pre-sobriety, that everybody drank. Even today, I see people at parties have one beer and I can’t figure out why stop at one.

Toward the end of my self-imposed alcohol drought, I began drinking something called Kaliber, which claimed to be non-alcoholic beer while it offered none of the benefits of real alcohol and about the only thing in common with real beer was the carbonation. Soon it was time to drop the Kaliber and get back to the real deal because I was grown up and knew I could handle it.

So through the years, the worst side effect of drinking were the hangovers. But I never missed work, well almost never, and I didn’t total a car or do something irrevocably stupid. I had many a brilliant thought only to realize in the morning that the brilliant thought was ridiculously unimportant and likewise I had many a deep and emotional conversation to find in the morning that it couldn’t have been more trite.

As I have gotten older, the hangovers are few and far between and I can’t even remember the last one. I don’t know if that’s because a few beers a night is not a lot or because my metabolism has changed over the years.

Now, the problems of drinking involve primarily cost and weight gain. Sometimes I don’t recall what I had for dinner the prior evening but I tend to scratch that up to getting older as there are lots of things I forget, like the plot of a movie, even when I haven’t been drinking. The benefits are the same as always, a vehicle to escape from my sober insecurities, a quick fix to relax and feel the false freedom that alcohol brings. In other words, it feels good.

I still drink, probably too much and I think about quitting sometimes but then I try one night and can’t sleep and that’s when I think about reducing my input and I do but gradually work my way back to the prior levels, inevitably.

I’ve met people who have never had a drink and I can’t imagine living without that chemical escape, life is just too hard to take sometimes.

Journalist for 40 years and now a creative writer