Liquid indulgence: a personal history of drinking

My birthday weekend started out so tame. A turkey dinner and a cake with candles with my family, and lots of cooking-related gifts, including this. Went home full, loved. The next day, my cube at work was filled with gifts, flowers, a balloon, and cupcakes. I was feeling all warm and fuzzy. One of my friends suggested going out for drinks. Why not? For the first time in many years, it wasn’t raining or snowing on my birthday, and the rooftop patio of the nearby Mexican place was open. Oh, happy day.

I got there early, and started off with a margarita. Harmless. Mostly. As my friends started to arrive, we switched over to sangria. We ordered chips and salsa, and then later nachos, but forgot to actually eat dinner. Imagine—me, forgetting to eat. Who am I? Then, we stopped counting sangria in glasses and started counting in carafes. Then I lost count.

I never drank in high school. I probably would have, if my friends had, but none of us did. No one believes me when I tell them that, but I can’t be the only one who waited until college to fall off the wagon. I’d seen the damage that drunk drivers can do and have family members who I worry about. I wanted to be in control of myself at all times. I was self-righteous as hell. Already, I was thinking about the fact that someday, when my kids say, “Well, it’s not like you didn’t drink in high school,” I can say “Actually Jimmy, I didn’t! You can choose to say no!” If you have the urge to slap me at this point, I don’t blame you. Someone needed to tell me to lighten up.

My freshman year of college, I didn’t hesitate to tell people that I didn’t drink. I’d hoped that people would see it as a point of pride and that my choice to be sober wouldn’t be a negative reflection on my character. But it was. I didn’t realize that at a large state school, “I don’t drink” is code for “I’m really boring and you definitely don’t want me at your party.” I didn’t keep a car on campus, so I couldn’t even earn points as a designated driver.

It was terrible. During a time when I was dying to make new friends, people couldn’t stay far enough away from me. One night, one of my few good friends said “We’re all going out to a party tonight. It’s going to be great!” I spent a long time getting ready, and was waiting on the couch when my friend came in the door. She asked to use my mirror, and I gathered up my lip gloss and keys. As I stood up to walk out with her, she said “Bye!” and left. I’d never been invited in the first place.

At the end of freshman year, I had my first drink at a party with some high school friends. It was a fuzzy navel, and I held my boyfriend’s hand the whole time. I sort of wanted to get wasted, so I could forget about how I’d lost my resolve, but I didn’t feel much of anything from the weak drink and went home empty.

By sophomore year, I’d found friends who still invited me out even when I didn’t feel like drinking. And it took them for me to realize that drinking could be fun, especially if you didn’t feel like you had to be drinking. I became an expert. I learned the rules of beer pong and flip cup and which cheap vodkas were worth drinking and which weren’t. I learned about hangovers. But I never once passed out or blacked out or vomited in public, even when I was in Spain, where we were drinking in the plaza more nights each week than I care to admit.

After all that self-righteousness, it turned out that I liked drinking. For someone as shy as me, two drinks erase that crippling self-doubt. I can make friends with strangers or do a runway walk through the bar or sing karaoke. But as a writer, I always wanted to be very, very careful. I never had more than one drink while I was writing. I was afraid of becoming dependent on alcohol to make me feel outgoing or to keep away the anxiety at the blank page on my computer screen. I was afraid of discovering that I liked my writing better when I was drunk. I was afraid of discovering that I liked my drunk self better. The person I was freshman year had plenty of valid reasons for not drinking. She never wanted to forget herself completely—only a little.

But oh red wine, thou art a cruel bitch. On my birthday, I blacked out for the first time. I don’t remember getting home, but I think I may have thrown up on the train. I somehow ended up with a glass from the bar in my purse. I was sick for hours when I did get home. I couldn’t go to work the next day. Freshman-year me is all YOU ARE SUCH AN IDIOT. Had I done this in college, I could’ve saved the story for a time when I’m meeting some people who are jerks but who I still irrationally want to impress. I could truthfully start a story with “Man, I was sooo wasted last night.” But I’m not in college. Now it’s something I’m embarrassed to write about. It’s just pretty fucking sad.

It wasn’t the first or the worst hangover I’ve had, but it’s the first time I felt out of control. That night made me think about drinking and what the point is. Sure, alcohol makes me a little less anxious when I’m out, but in no way does that make the next day any better. Even when you’re not in college anymore, drinking still makes you cool. Especially in writing circles, I feel like I need to be willing to get drinks. To get drunk. I like to say that I like to drink whiskey straight (I do, but it’s almost more fun to say it than to drink it). That glass serves as a drug to make us forget how terrifying it is to meet new people. That glass serves as a signal—I’m social. I’m not uptight. You might like talking to me. The trick is knowing when to put that glass down.

I was thinking today that perhaps I’d rather not be cool. I don’t think I was fooling anyone, anyway. In the meantime, no more sangria. Maybe forever.

10 Responses to “Liquid indulgence: a personal history of drinking”
  1. Lauren R says:

    I didn’t drink in high school either! Thanks for your post–I definitely feel the invisible social pressure to drink sometimes, too. I think a lot of young writers glamorize drinking, like it will somehow make them better writers. I don’t really get it. I’d rather not be cool as well!

  2. John J. Miller says:

    Knowing damn little about good cooking, or…cooking for that matter, I generally glaze over your columns, Jill. But this one really caught my eye. I appreciate the honesty and realistic description of what drinking does to you. One of my favorite books states simply that “Men and women drink because they like the effect produced by alcohol.” So simple, and I missed it several times, and my personal history is far, far more self-indulgent than yours. If someone had described to me years ago the way your writing just described the same, simple message, I might have looked more closely at my own drinking before it turned into a problem beyond my control. I guarantee you–cool can’t touch you. I will even look more closely at your other food-related writing now! Thanks.

    • Jill Kolongowski says:

      Hi John! Thanks so much for the kind words and for reading. I haven’t been cool for some time and no amount of sangria or whiskey is going to change that. And I think I like it :)

    • Angela Vasquez-Giroux says:

      Yes yes and yes.

  3. Anna says:

    I found parts of this to be quite heartbreaking, and also funny, but most of all….I really hope you have a son named Jimmy someday.

  4. Scott Fisher says:

    Great stuff here. I don’t think that a lot of young drinkers realize how shallow ostracizing non-drinkers comes across. I made a choice for personal reasons in my early teens not to drink alcohol again. For my senior year of high school I ended up going to a boarding school in Switzerland where seniors were given drinking permission if their parents signed off on it. Mine signed, but I decided that saying they didn’t was easier than explaining being a non-drinker. The first week I was there one of the “cool kids” sat next to me in the dining hall and introduced himself. When he asked if I had drinking permission and I said no he gave me a sad look and got up and left.

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