I'm taking part in a cross-country writing group called Long Conversation. This month we were asked to explore our relationship to intoxication. Here's what I wrote.
I enjoy the occasional solitary drink, but most of my experiences with alcohol point to an overwhelmingly social drug. For many of us, alcohol is more than just a substance. It names a way to imagine and practice an idealized set of social relations. Alcohol is effective and attractive. It can elevate and degrade. It can help groups cohere just as easily as it can fracture longstanding relationships. As with most drugs, those of us who use it are always in danger of turning it into a crutch, relying on the substance just a little too much. In certain situations, it goes without saying. I find it far easier to be at a club when I’m a bit tipsy, and having a few drinks makes it easier to be at a party where I only know a few of the guests. The conversation flows. Big deals can become small deals, and vice versa. Unlikely friendships are made quickly and forgotten.
Another thing common to a culture of drinking is the idea of initiation. Since the early days of high school, parties and drinking have been bound together but I’m sure many of us can remember our first time drinking in excess.
Even in that first, supposedly free encounter, my attitude towards alcohol has always reflected a certain understanding of my immediate social context. My track record, in other words, has a lot to do with where and when I grew up: in a sporadically dry town—the tightly fastened buckle of Manitoba’s Bible belt—a decade or so before the opening of its first liquor store. Along with all the extra effort involved in acquiring alcohol, its somewhat forbidden nature should have made it more enticing. But unlike the teetotallers in my town, I never really saw alcohol consumption as a moral issue, and by extension I never dreamt about an end to its repression. To me, the alcohol issue seemed symptomatic of the community’s contradictory relationship with the outside world: strictly Mennonite in the petty ways but more than happy to support an unjust government hellbent on going to war and whose policies actively promoted the destruction of the environment.
My parents counteracted the puritanical nature of our town by having a well-stocked liquor cabinet and bringing me up to appreciate a good wine and cheese pairing. Early on, I appreciated the taste of wine and beer but by the middle of high school I was slightly paranoid about what might happen if I over-indulged: an uncontrollable change in personality or, worse, irreparable brain damage. Judging by all the parties I’d been to, people did really act out when they were drunk and, on a few occasions, I was no exception.
Before my first experience of real “drinking,” alcohol was a pretty neutral part of adulthood. However, it quickly assumed a social importance in my grade, and as someone who played on several sports teams, I had plenty of opportunities to become part of the elite group of kids who drank at parties. I had my first night of drunkenness at the end of grade 10. As I recall, it was plotted one evening after a baseball game. My friend’s parents were out of town. We had an older acquaintance who we knew would be willing to buy us a 24 of Coors. It was a weird night, not least because our buyer wouldn’t leave. We weren’t expecting him to actually hang out with us. It definitely put a damper on things. Not long after that, I decided not get drunk again.
In those first few experiences, I treated intoxication the way most young people do: as a way to escape or rebel, an excuse to act belligerent. My identification of booze with rebellion quickly waned when I realized that if something as easy as drinking was the most secure route to a better high school social status, it wasn’t really a status worth having. And if drinking was simply a right of passage, I could move on. Besides, there always had to be at least one person willing to look after all the unfortunate souls who’d consumed more than they could handle. I have a distinct memory of my friend passed out on a couch in another friend’s basement. He was covered in sweat, snoring away while my other friends threw Cheetos at him, trying to get them to stick onto his face. Oh, the joys of high school drinking.
Chivalry aside, my decision to no longer get drunk during this period in high school also came from an embarrassingly narcissistic fear that I wasn’t a very bright kid and I had a vulnerable brain to protect. I was growing anxious about university; I knew I’d have to rely on scholarships and I had the wild ambition to transcend my rural upbringing. So yeah, along with a threat my assets, I associated drinking with a part of small-town culture that I wanted to escape. Occasionally, I managed to romanticize it and see our group participating in something that was rustic and removed; but more often it left me feeling cynical and out of place. Perhaps without that rural association, perhaps if I’d grown up in a more cosmopolitan space, I wouldn’t have adopted such a skewed, elitist perspective about drinking. At that point it was hard think differently.
When the scenery finally changed, I changed with it. But the transition was slow. I didn’t attend any parties during my first semester at university, and when I did I noticed a small group who went to parties but didn’t drink. They were fellow first years, but unlike me they were armed with more altruistic intentions than shyness. They tried to make the point that you didn’t need to drink in order to have fun and do stupid shit. It wasn’t lost on the rest of us, but no one was surprised when these same people started showing up with beer at parties months later.
In terms of intoxication, those years were probably the wildest I’ll ever have. They allowed me the space and safety to figure out my limits and establish a relatively comfortable relationship with my own intoxication. I now know generally what to expect when decide to drink. During my first year I remember being able to count the number of times I’d been drunk. As drinking became a more standard part of my routine, I recognized that this finite number would soon become a thing of the past. I found some small comfort in knowing that. Once I lost track of my drinking escapades, my fears about its consequences would also slide out of view.
Whether you condemned it or celebrated it, drinking played a pretty significant role in my undergraduate experience and was a frequent topic of discussion both on and off campus. There were forums and committees to deal with the issue, and occasionally students involved in leadership roles would draw fire for instances of drunken belligerence. Most of us understood and accepted that it was a contentious issue, but saw no need to change our lifestyles. My university placed a great amount of importance on promoting and fostering community, both publicly and internally. Although my friends and I were at times critical of the way this idea got thrown around, we recognized that our actions did occasionally make others uncomfortable and, at times, made efforts to hold alcohol-free events (one of which I remember being quite successful). I’m glad we did. In a few short years, it had become natural for most of us to assume that social life automatically included alcohol. It even related to what we were studying. We had biblical examples of drinking (the Wedding at Cana was a favourite) and a long tradition of Eucharistic celebration to back us up. At parties, we took it as our rite to celebrate the sacred connection between booze and community, but it was equal parts profound and stupid, like most ideologies are.
The days of excessive drinking are, I hope, long past. But it remains difficult to imagine a social gathering that doesn’t bring with it the expectation that most people will be drinking and the feeling that you are strange for not doing so. The pressure isn’t as overt as it once was: no one is forcing you to drink or mocking your decision to abstain. At this point many of us just drink out of habit, often without the expectation that we’ll get drunk. Sometimes it almost feels like if drinking isn’t going to be part of a social gathering, we expect it to be unmemorable or at the very least, unremarkable. Or, if drinking is involved, new possibilities are opened up (and paradoxically, a tradition is continued); the very idea of alcohol acts to dissolve the mental barriers that prevent us from doing things like climbing onto buildings, playing dumb games, or eating too much greasy food.
As these conditions persist in certain friend groups, I’m also getting to know more people who opt out of drinking at social events, for whatever reason. In the last couple years I’ve tried giving up alcohol over lent. It’s not an easy thing to do, especially since my birthday usually falls within that forty day period. It can be quite frustrating, both for me and for the people who want me to drink along with them. By this point, some friendships almost require it, while for others it simply serves as a nice addition, a slightly different way of relating. Still, I’ve found giving up alcohol for prolonged periods worthwhile, not just for the perspective it affords, but for all the money it saves me.