My first party with alcohol was a complete shock to me. As a teen, I was a bit of a rebellious type, but not that rebellious. My form of sticking it to my parents when I was a freshman in high school came in the types of guys I dated: seniors with tattoos and bad grades. Swoon.
But secretly I was overwhelmed and wasn't sure what I was getting myself into. So when one of those guys took me to a party full of upperclassmen and kegs on a Friday night, I just about shit myself. If cell phones had been less than 30 pounds and affordable at that time, I would've been texting "wtf do i do" to my best friend.
Instead, just to be polite and not look like a complete prude, I accepted a plastic cup filled with what I now know to be cheap watery beer when it was offered to me. It was the strangest setting. There were upwards of 100 kids crammed into this tiny furnished basement filled with smiling family portraits and arrangements of fake flowers that were sure to get trashed. It was obvious someone's parents were out of town, but remnants of them were all over the place, shaking a finger at me.
I knew what beer tasted like because my parents let me try it when I was growing up. In fact, I have very distinct memories of my father drinking a beer while he was giving me and my little brother a bath every night. I always asked for a sip and he always gave it to me. And on holidays, even though I wasn't "of age," my mom would pour me a half glass of champagne so I could toast with the adults.
But I knew it was taboo. I knew I wasn't supposed to have this cup in my hand. It felt very wrong and even more scary because I was out of my element. I didn't have any close friends there and I didn't really know this guy too well, other than he had gorgeous cheekbones and a bit of an introverted, but seemingly worldly disposition.
So I just sipped. And poured most of it down the sink when I went to the bathroom.
Fortunately for me, the guy wasn't as bad as his reputation. He sensed my uneasiness and took me home before the cops showed up.
We didn't date much after that. He shot out his left eye thinking that BB gun target practice in a brick-filled basement was a good idea. And although I went with someone else to his prom, I remember saying hello and admiring that the trim of his eye patch matched his vest.
My first real experience with alcohol came in college. I had formed what I thought to be some of the tightest bonds in my entire life with three girls who lived in my dorm. One of them had an older sister who had an apartment off campus and often threw house parties. I trusted them with my clothes, my secrets and my life. They wouldn't let anything happen to me, nor I them.
Pretty soon I learned the routine. We were good students who saved drinking for weekends, unlike many of our friends who attended parties throughout the week and got kicked out after their first semester for failing to earn even a 1.0 grade point average. My friends and I, on the other hand, waited for Friday, would "pregame" with a round of vodka shots from a bottle of Absolute my friend's sister bought for us, and then walk to the party.
At the time, it seemed like a rite of passage. It seemed like fun. Everything was under control. We had a plan. We stuck together. We took care of each other.
But that all changed one night.
I remember we made it to our favorite pizza place before the 2 a.m. closing. We each grabbed a slice and inhaled it on the walk back to our dorm. But Laura couldn't keep up. She said she wasn't feeling well. Nikki nabbed Laura's pizza when she said she didn't want it.
By the time we got Laura into her room, she looked pale and sweaty. She collapsed on her bed and started vomiting everywhere. The other girls tried to convince me not to get help. They kept saying everything was under control. They told me to get water, but I didn't listen. I talked to the night hall monitor and told him what was happening. He called an ambulance.
And it likely saved my friend's life.
The rest of us got a taxi to the hospital and stayed up all night. She was admitted with acute alcohol poisoning. I was surprised there was anything left after everything she tossed up over her bed, but they pumped her stomach then pumped her veins full of fluids to rehydrate her.
It was my first introduction to the reality of alcohol. When used in excess, it's a very scary thing.
And now that I have a little perspective on my own nights of excess, I realize that alcohol and youth is a very scary combination. Teenagers, including myself at that age, have an invincible quality. Mortality and illness seem decades away.
Add in the liquid courage that is alcohol and you can do no wrong. Ask that hot brunette out at the end of the bar? No problem. Walk home by yourself? Piece of cake. Drive a car? Sure. Other people might not be able to handle their liquor, but not me. Nothing bad is going to happen.
And maybe nothing does. Maybe you get to your destination in once piece and without getting pulled over.
But after working in the newspaper business for almost seven years, I can tell you first hand that not everyone is so lucky. In fact, the most recent story in my area involving drunk driving was a horrible fatal accident. A 22-year-old guy got so disoriented that he entered a highway using an exit ramp. He continued driving the wrong way down the expressway until he careened into a minivan carrying a young family of five from Canada on their way to Florida. They were meeting their entire extended family for a Christmas vacation cruise. And, as luck would have it, only the boy survived uninjured. Weeks later, the mother and one child are still struggling for their lives in a local intensive care unit. The rest of their family died instantly.
I know that seems dramatic. I know not all instances of drunk driving results in something so horrific. But I can also tell you that even a DUI conviction can tear a family apart. Ask my brother, who after losing his license and selling his car to pay for attorney's fees, finally learned his lesson. I love my brother dearly and I'm thankful every day that he didn't face anything worse than a field sobriety test. And I'm happy to report that he now has a clean record, a new car and a better understanding of the U.S. legal system.
As for me? I know I made some bad choices in the past in relation to alcohol. I can recall waking up a few mornings where if I had owned a guillotine, I might have opted to use it. Anything to end the devistatingly painful pounding in my head -- even permanently severing it from my body. But now I enjoy alcohol for what it should be: an occasional drink when the mood strikes. If I had to give it up, I wouldn't miss it.
I know that drinking seems like a glamorous thing. Well, no wonder with all those alcohol advertisements with gorgeous people having the time of their lives. It almost makes me want to suck the last drop of Disaronno amaretto liquor off an ice cube, too.
But it comes down to limits and choices. And if I've learned one thing, there's no shame in excusing yourself to go to the bathroom and pour a beer down the sink if you're not strong enough yet to say no.