The first time I blacked out from binge drinking, I was 20 and living in London. I woke up with a swollen eye (from falling into a metal gate), a belly full of scrambled eggs (six to be exact), and in bed with a man I’d met the night before (the friend of a friend, both visiting from Edinburgh). Somehow, my bra was on the floor but my shirt was still on, and my pants and underwear had been tossed into a corner near the toilet.
My chest began to constrict. “Did we…?” I asked. I was still a virgin. I didn’t think it would happen this way.
“Don’t worry,” he began, and paused to laugh. “I’m gay. But I did jerk off in your shower.”
I laughed with him. This was a funny story, one I could tell to my friends when I returned from studying abroad. The time I didn’t lose my virginity to the hung-over gay man who lay naked in my bed.
Then I put my hand on my head.
“I think I’m going to be sick,” I said.
The second time I blacked out from binge drinking, I didn’t think it was as funny. It was the following semester, back in Oberlin, Ohio. I went to a pre-party where I drank rum and cokes and ate handfuls of pistachio nuts, and then went to a party, where I continued my binge with PBR. I remember sitting on a couch and puking over the side. I remember being taken back to my dorm by two friends, an arm around each of their shoulders. I don’t remember sitting in the hallway and crying, “Why won’t anybody love me," but they made sure to tell me about it the next day. By the time they’d been able to get me in my room, it was close to three in the morning. People had been trying to sleep.
The following year, I blacked out several times. I was a senior and living off-campus with four other women in a house we called “Little Red.” We each paid 200 dollars a month and wore sweaters year round because the windows didn’t shut and there was a hole in the roof, covered by a license plate.
The first week of school, we hosted a “T” Party. I dressed as a Tiny Dancer, utilizing ballet slippers I hadn’t worn since I was 13. I found myself talking to a man with a towel wrapped around his neck. I asked what he was. “I’m a towel boy,” he said. I was disappointed in his lack of creativity, but I was drunk and he was good-looking, and so I grabbed onto that towel and danced around him in my tutu and leotard, and then I danced to the bathroom on the second floor and he followed me upstairs.
The next morning, I woke in my bed wearing nothing but a single ballet slipper. A towelless boy slept beside me.
“So, we had sex last night?” I half asked, half answered.
“You don’t remember? We had sex twice.”
I only spotted one condom. I didn’t know what else to say. I let him leave, and the only times I saw him again on campus, he was walking with his long-term girlfriend.
And, days later, when the nurse at the Oberlin free clinic gave me a pap smear, an STD test, a banana flavored condom, and a card for the local AA, I tried to find it funny.
“How judgmental,” I told my friends, throwing the card in the trash. “She wishes she was still in college. I’m just having fun here.”
What I know now -- and I couldn’t possibly understand then -- was that this nurse had a right to express her concern. And when it came to my drinking, nobody was having any fun here.
Recently, the American Sociological Association conducted a study on the relationship between binge drinking in college, and student’s satisfaction with their social lives. The researchers concluded that those who binged had higher levels of social satisfaction than those who didn’t. Granted, the study found that wealthy, white men in fraternities had the greatest level of satisfaction in their social status. I’m far from that demographic, so maybe that’s why, when I reflect on my college experience, my binge drinking episodes made me feel worse about where I stood socially, and not better.
Several media outlets covered the ASA study. I’ve read most of their takes. The research is new and the study is small, so there’s not much yet for reporters to say. But the online commenters are having a field day. Many people responded that four drinks (considered binge drinking) was nothing. "That's a happy hour, more sober than a Thursday night trivia and far less of a drunken mess than any house party I've ever been to," one commenter said.
I'm a five-foot-two-inch 125-pound woman, and four drinks can put me in a very dangerous situation.
I wish I could count the number of times I blacked out from binge drinking, the way I can still count my lovers, but I can’t. I’m scared some black outs were so bad I can’t remember anything about them at all, as if I’ve been alive 10,635 days and only 10,629 nights. Recently, I asked my therapist why I blacked out so much, when my friends often drank much more than I did. She told me some people are more inclined to black out than others -- their brains are just set up that way. My brain was configured that way.
After I graduated, binge drinking was “reliving the college experience.” Once I started working full time, it was “releasing the stress of a long week.” When I had a boyfriend, it was “acting single” and when I was single, it was helping me meet men.
In June of 2011, I was at a party at a friend’s house in West Hampton. It was an intimate gathering and the group of us danced in the kitchen and out on the deck. I remember thinking: I never want this night to end.
And before the sun rose, I had sex with two men, one over the arm of a couch and another in a bed, only a wall and an hour between them. Man One was the roommate of a close friend. Man Two was a fellow writer I’d been on a few dates with, though we’d never had sex. I remember being alone in the living room with Man One and him bending me over, asking if he should get a condom. I remember saying yes. I remember when we were finished he told me he was sleeping on the couch, and I should go to bed.
I stumbled into the next room, and crawled into the arms of the man I once dated. I remember saying “Hello,” and then I woke up, wondering where my underwear was. I asked if we had sex.
“We started,” he said. “And then I stopped when you said ‘I don’t know where I am.’”
I asked if we used a condom. We hadn’t.
In the weeks that followed, Man Two got tested and sent me the results. I’m grateful to him for this. But before he had sex with me, I wish he had looked me in the eyes and asked if this was what I really wanted. Because then he’d have known I was in no condition to give consent.
And then there was bottom. I was stuck alone on a roof at a housewarming party in Crown Heights with a man I met that night. I was 28 years old and about to start teaching full-time. We were kissing against a wall. I stopped. He asked me if I was all right. I told him, “I don’t know what I’m doing,” but I didn’t mean I didn’t know how to unzip his fly. I was so drunk I couldn’t understand the physical movement of my body.
Something broke inside. I couldn’t stop crying. He said, “We don’t have to do anything.” I cried on the roof and I cried as we found our way back in the building. I went out in the hallway. A stranger came to console me but I continued sobbing. Finally, a friend from graduate school entered the hallway. She was someone I was close with; we had a co-birthday party the previous year. I reached out to her. She smelled of perfume and weed. She threw 20 dollars at me.
“Nobody wants you here,” she said.
“I don’t know where my stuff is. I don’t have my phone.”
“Get out,” she said.
Now, I can see the snapshot of this moment, her body and mine. I understand I am a burden to this party; this cannot happen again. I also understand after this night, she and I can no longer be friends.
I found my phone and called my sister. Later, she will tell me how I said over and over I wanted to die.
We went back to her Brooklyn apartment and she laid me on her couch. I closed my eyes. All I could picture was the horror in the man’s eyes when he realized how far gone I was.
“But I thought you almost died?” I hear this being asked. This was my bottom, and I was safe. Everything was fine. And yet, everything was not fine, the line between what happened and what could have happened so thin I could barely make it out. I saw myself staring over the ledge of the roof, and then falling over. I saw myself, asleep in an alleyway in Crown Heights, and never waking up.
The morning after the party, I called my old therapist. I hadn’t seen her in years. It was all I had energy to do. Over many sessions, she helped me realize I was drinking in social situations as a way to manage my anxiety -- just as I had when I was in college. I developed strategies to curb my destructive behavior. She helped me realize I didn’t have to drink to be fun at a party. I didn’t have to drink to be desirable to men.
This week marked a year since that last binge-drinking episode. Since that time everything -- from my sex life to my career to my relationships with friends and family -- has improved. And though I cannot say I haven’t had a drink -- because I have -- it is rarely more than one. I don’t take my chances. I know I was lucky.