It was morning again, in America, and our movie-star-turned-real-life-leader-of-the-free-world president was basking in the glory. The economy was humming, interest rates and inflation were low and I had no understanding of any of that grown-up gobbledygook. I was in my first decade of life, and my family was content and comfortable with worries so few I can’t remember a single one.
Weekends were particularly enjoyable because my sister and I were given a well deserved respite from the seemingly arduous routines of learning stuff, and our dad was home from work. It was many a Saturday that my family would lounge on the back deck as the afternoon shadows grew long and we recapped adventures of the day. “Grab me a beer and I’ll give you a sip,” my father would say. The screen door would bang behind me before he completed his request. I would return quickly but carefully, as the foamy taste from a jostled can of Budweiser was far less desirable than the crisp and nose-tingling sip of unshaken lager. I don’t really remember liking or disliking the taste of beer at that young age. What I remember was experiencing a glimpse of manhood – sharing a sip of my hero’s refreshment of choice. His beer tasted divine, no matter what my taste buds said.
My attraction to beer was emotional long before it was physical or psychological. I looked up to my dad, and my dad loved beer. So, I loved beer, too. You can imagine my enthusiasm when a couple of middle-school friends and I found a six-pack of beer concealed high in the limbs of a tree in our neighborhood. It must be the stash of a high-school kid on the street. That thought made our found treasure doubly inviting. Not only was it, due to our beer-drinking fathers, our forbidden carbonated passion, this six-pack was also the prized possession of an older kid who would surely thump us if he found us in that tree. With so much at risk, we had to steal it and drink it immediately!
And we did just that. I don’t remember the buzz we felt, although it must have been significant with six beers split three ways among pre-teens. What I remember is that even though the episode took place in a single afternoon, I seemed to grow-up quite a bit that day. I felt older, more refined. I probably checked my armpits and upper lip for hair. With a beer in hand, adulthood seemed right around the corner. We didn’t brag about our hops-and-barley adventure for fear of parental repercussions or getting pummeled by a high-schooler. But we did revel silently in the maturity of that adventure for weeks.
As I reached high school, my experiences with alcohol were sporadic and thrilling. My best friend, Brad, and I buried a Styrofoam cooler about thirty yards into the woods that started at the edge of his backyard. We glued leaves and twigs to the lid of the cooler making it indistinguishable from the rest of the surrounding ground. On the rare occasion that we found ourselves in possession of alcohol, into the cooler it would safely stay until it was the right time to enjoy it.
One winter, we became the enthusiastic owners of a case of Heineken bottles. I don’t remember where or how we came into possession of those classy green European delicacies, but I remember taking them to the pond where we played ice hockey that winter. We laced-up our skates and gave the appearance of a serious game between neighborhood boys, but athletic pursuits did not hold our attention that afternoon. We took frequent breaks from the game to quaff Heinies on the edge of the frozen pond. We were not seasoned enough to think to bring a bottle opener for our sophisticated bounty. Instead, we knocked the bottle tops off with a rock and a snow boot. We chipped the glass on several of the bottles as our method was rather caveman-like. The golden booty was far too precious to let a few shards of glass get in the way. Down the hatch went all the Heinekens.
Experimenting with alcohol was exhilarating. It provided just the right combination of risk and reward on which teenage boys thrived. Our experiences were not, however, without glimpses of the negative repercussions that come with drinking. Brad and I drank heavily one night at a party thrown by Brad’s older sister. Our drunken teenage minds turned a disagreement between two best friends into a fistfight in his front yard. After a brief display of uncoordinated and rarely landing haymakers, I retreated down the street toward my house and Brad rejoined his sister’s party.
My parents expected me to spend the night at Brad’s house as planned, so I hid in the woods behind our house and watched my dad watch TV before bed. I decided to wait for him to go to sleep, then sneak into the house and into my room. It was cold and raining, and I was very drunk. I laid in the wet leaves and underbrush and waited for the lights to go out in our family room. Before it was dark inside, I passed out in the wet woods. I awoke in the morning shivering, disoriented, dehydrated and in a panic. I pulled myself together and somehow (I honestly don’t remember the details of what happened next) escaped the incident unscathed. Brad was pretty mad, however. As I recall, I was the less rational one on the previous evening, and he failed at his attempts to shake me from my brief alcohol-induced lapse in sanity. We made amends, and went on to drink together many, many more times. My foggy memory of the details of that evening left a lasting impact on me. It was the first peek, for me, into the future of disastrous results from over-consumption. It was the first indication that drinking could, at times, make a good person behave badly.
For me, the decision to drink alcohol or abstain was as simple as a weighing of the pros and the cons. During my high school years, the infancy of my twenty-five year drinking career, the pros won big. It would not be until many years later when my brain function had been permanently altered by years of heavy alcohol consumption, that the scale would tip in a profound way and the cons that resulted from drinking would far outweigh the pros. In my teen years, drinking helped me fit-in and gain the trust and respect of my peers. Drinking was dangerous and thrilling and fun and opened the door to unknown adventure on the other side. Drinking was all up-side. I could not yet comprehend the groundwork of destruction, self-loathing and shame that the alcohol coursing through my young body was slowly and methodically laying. For the budding alcoholic, the danger that lied ahead was disguised as delightful experimentation. Drinking was just a necessary component of growing-up.
It was morning again, in America. The country was prospering, unemployment was low and I was inviting my beloved drink to begin the insidious process of annihilating my self-esteem and nearly destroying my life. The physical and psychological addiction was not formed yet, but I was definitely in love with alcohol. The downward spiral into the pit of despair had begun.