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There was a moment in my freshman year of college, just near the end of the first semester, when I decided to stop drinking.
I, like many other sheltered girls who feared their mother’s wrath too much to do any real partying in high school, went big once I moved out of the house, burning bright and hard and drunk. There I was, in New York City, barely 18 years old, living in a 5th Avenue dorm room and developing a taste for the economics of four back-to-back Long Island Iced Teas. There was a lot of screaming, the occasional ending up in the strange bedrooms of stranger men, and too much waking up at the end of the day, only to do it again.
And so, after just four months, I quit, beginning what turned out to be a nearly a decade of voluntary sobriety -- something that was beyond comprehension for most of the people I would continue to party with throughout my 20s. Armed with an energy drink and the enthusiasm of youth, I danced, talked, and dated without alcohol.
I didn’t need it, I thought. Until I did.
Over 10 years later, I met a boy. Or, I guess he was technically a man. At 39, he looked incredibly young, despite the fact he was going through a divorce, something that you would -- in this case, mistakenly -- assume would qualify a person as an adult.
We met on Halloween last year. It was 3 a.m. and I was, as I so often was at that point, sober. A week later we would meet “for a drink.” And I actually drank. A lot. Because he made me nervous. Because of the way he rolled his cigarettes. Because of how much I wanted him to like me. And, highly intoxicated by the end of the night, I ended up going home with him.
This pattern would come to define our every interaction over the course of eight months. Get drunk, have sex, go home, repeat.
Throughout my 20s, all of the dates that I had been on were sober ones. I was young and confident in my choice to not drink, and wholly unsusceptible to the intoxicating allure of a few drinks to take the edge off. There was no whisky on the rocks to make a guy funnier, more interesting, more attractive. There wasn’t a vodka soda to calm my nerves, make me more adept at flirting, make me stuff down a world of self-doubt. Reality was reality, and there was no avoiding it.
Dating without drinking is like standing in front of someone with all the lights on, with no place or shadow in which to hide, every horrible wrinkle on full display. But drinking lends you plenty of flattering angles and dark corners. And trust me, I went dark.
Getting drunk, we were both lent some nice little masks, each drink making the temporary façade more convincing. He could pretend he hadn’t just crawled out of a 10-year relationship with nothing to show for it aside from loans to the IRS. And I could pretend a whole host of other things, like that I didn’t notice when the ashtray in his living room was filled with lipstick-stained cigarettes from other girls, or that I didn’t care that he couldn’t really look at me when he talked.
I would be drunk enough to convince myself that maybe he would like me eventually, if I stuck around long enough, if I was fun enough, if I was a remarkable enough lay. But the truth is, if you’re not enough for another person sober, you’re not going to be enough for that person drunk.
Reality always came in the mornings, when I would wake up in his bed, both of us clinging to opposite corners in subconscious fear of the other. Sometimes I would try to wake him up to say goodbye, standing above him, repeating his name as quietly as possible with a lack of intimacy that I knew would make him nervous.
He rarely woke up, maybe because he wore earplugs, but more likely because he didn’t want to. In the eight months of our hanging out, I was never invited to brunch or breakfast after staying at his apartment, I was never offered a toothbrush. Three times, he made me coffee. I never stayed long enough to finish it.
My hangovers were a one-two punch, a confused combination of self-loathing and physical anguish. Halfway through our dating, I gave up gin, which had become my go-to drink. I was convinced it was making me depressed. I would take the subway home from his apartment wearing my clothes from the night before, always sad. I blamed the gin. Vodka sodas, I thought, those won’t make me depressed. Like the root of my problems wasn’t just this wretched, dragged-out relationship.
So I switched to vodka.
Unsurprisingly, my emotional hangovers remained unchanged.
The months proceeded in a fog. Days I once spent waking up early and getting things done were more often wasted in bed, nursing bottles of water and trying to keep down food. After a night with the boy, the day that followed was like my karmic punishment, each hangover worse than the last, as though my body was trying to force me to wake up and get away from this person who wasn’t good for me.
Though there were many over the course of knowing him, the last nail in the coffin was this summer, when -- in nervous anticipation of seeing him somewhere he was supposed to be -- I kept knocking back vodkas. One, two, four. I lost count around 9 p.m., after sending him a few lame and unanswered text messages.
My friend took me home, stone drunk, at 10 p.m., where I proceeded to throw up in the planter of some million dollar home I was staying in, just before calling the boy up and slurring something mean and useless into his voicemail. I fell asleep in my underwear on the living room sofa, covered by a white bath towel as a blanket. In the middle of the night I woke up, vomited over the edge of the sofa, and went back to sleep.
The hangover that followed was an emotional exorcism, one of my worst on record. You can only treat yourself and your body so badly for so long. Embarrassed, I blocked the boy on all available channels, not wanting him to have access to me and no longer willing to convince myself that I had any access to him. Because I never did. I was done with drinking and I was done with him. But mostly, I was done with the toxic person that I had become, one whose reserve of self-respect had dwindled down to nothing, like the shallow, lukewarm dregs of an empty bottle of beer.
It was time for my liver to dry out, taking the tears along with it.