Losing the ultimate social crutch
We were lined up and blind-folded with our mouths open. At any given point, some liquid was poured down our throats and we had to guess what it was. If we were lucky, it was as easy as guessing the difference between Fireball and Jack Daniels. The unlucky ones would get spoiled milk, raw eggs, or maybe something even worse.
A year later, it would be me on the other side, grooming the next generation of young men. They weren’t ready unless they could finish an entire bottle of liquor by themselves. They weren’t ready until they knew that Tequila makes you happy drunk, but Whiskey makes you sad drunk. They weren’t ready until they thought it was okay to run around a party pouring any random beverage down any random stranger’s throat.
These were the fraternity days.
And for awhile, it felt amazing. Girls wanted to be with us. Guys wanted to be us. And all we had to do was scream random chants, drink lots of alcohol, and force other people to drink lots of alcohol. No party was complete until we finished off 5 kegs and there were strangers passed out in every room in the house.
And for me, it was all fun and games until it wasn’t…
I’d rather have a death sentence
In the summer between my junior and senior year at college, I was going for a routine annual health check-up.
These were always harmless conversations where my doctor each year would inevitably tell me “everything was fine”, “enjoy life”, and “stay in school”. I almost looked forward to these conversations — to see my health results which would show all my metrics right smack dab in the middle of the “healthy range”.
That year, it was different. I could tell because when I entered the room, my doctor didn’t have that normal smile on his face that I had gotten used to. My first reaction was to ask if he was doing ok.
Before I could open my mouth, he told me to sit down because we had something important to talk about. Over the next 5 minutes (which felt like 5 hours), he would go on to tell me that my liver enzymes had spiked to the point where liver failure was a potential reality. Some diagnostic imaging of my liver had shown some lesions, benevolent for now but were at risk of turning cancerous.
I was only 20 years old.
The most shameful part of this experience. I wasn’t even thinking: “what does this mean for my long term health or life?”
The first thought that came to my mind was: “I hope I don’t have to cut my drinking too much”. Because after all, is life even worth living if you’re not able to drink?
The answer was that I, indeed, needed to cut my drinking “too much”. In fact, I had to cut it to 0 if I wanted any chance of making it through the next year alive.
At this point, there were only 2 weeks left of summer. I would just be sitting around at home anyways so getting through those weeks without drinking weren’t going to be too tough. The real challenge was yet to come…
Everyone in college is an alcoholic
The first week back on campus is usually a wild one. There are friends who haven’t seen each other for months reuniting. There’s new freshmen on campus who are excited to drink for the first time and let loose without their parents nearby. There’s all the excitement that a new school year will bring.
Those conditions bring about a lot of parties. And with parties come alcohol. Getting through those initial weeks were going to be tough.
It was tough because there are only two things to do at a party — drink and talk to people. And I was quickly coming to the realization that I didn’t know how to talk to people without a drink. I was retreating to the corners of the room because I didn’t know what to do with my empty hands or how start a conversation that didn’t involve drinking in some way.
It was tough approaching women because I only had one and only one move that I had used for the last three years — walk up to a girl or group of girls and say something along the lines of “let’s get a drink” or “you look like you need a drink” or “let’s play [insert drinking game here]”. Well, it’s hard to do any of that if you’re not drinking yourself.
It was tough to turn down drinks because every time I said “no”, I would inevitably have to answer the next question of “why?”. And no one wants to hear some sad sob story about how I need to stop for “health reasons”. And if they didn’t bother to ask “why”, sometimes they would just say “loser…” and walk away.
All of this happened in MY OWN FRATERNITY HOUSE. I felt uncomfortable despite the home-field advantage.
As I looked around the room during these parties, I could see two different types of people — those who looked like they were having a good time and those who didn’t look like they were having a good time. The ones who didn’t appear to be having a good time also happened to be the ones who weren’t drinking. It was at this point that I realized not only was I an alcoholic, but also that everyone else was an alcoholic.
One way to define alcoholism is a condition in which alcohol controls your life rather than the other way around. If you need a drink in your hand in order to be confident enough to talk to someone, then you’ve allowed alcohol to control your life. If you feel ashamed to say no to a drink, then you’ve allowed alcohol to control your life.
It was a sombering truth that I had to come to terms with.
My personal rehab
The year eventually got better. I never (even to this day) learned how to be the center of attention again at a party without alcohol. But I did learn how to reject drinks without feeling awkward. And I began to learn how to socialize with others without having the initial discussion be focused on drinking.
But to get to that point, there were a lot of personal challenges that I needed to overcome.
I needed to overcome my immense fear of being judged. I had to let go of the fear that I wasn’t worth socializing with unless I was drinking myself or had a drink to offer.
I need to to overcome my own personal insecurities that I couldn’t talk to women unless they were in some mildly intoxicated state. A severe insecurity that there was no one way anyone would ever want to talk to me if they were completely sober.
I needed to overcome the scary feeling of being vulnerable and exposed. That just being myself was enough to offer at a party. And that I had value even if I wasn’t the person running around and pouring everyone else shots.
I needed to come to terms that for years, I had just used alcohol to escape these painful realities. Sure alcohol made me a more social and confident person in the short-term while I was drunk, but it did nothing to solve the underlying issues.
I needed ultimately, to be able to define my own self-worth internally rather than seeking external validation with the help of alcohol.