Yankee on the Wagon

On June 4th, 2021, I went to a party at a dear friend’s house. It was a fun party, that which I could remember of it, but unfortunately that would not end up being a lot. I would black out, late at night, after going to a local bar, and awaken the next morning with hours of blank memories and a huge gash on my leg. The hangover was… memorable and I did not feel well at all. I couldn’t remember how I’d even gotten to the point I was at, and unless you’ve been there, you couldn’t understand.

John Mulaney, a comedian I love, has a bit about his history as a blackout drinker: that when someone says something strange has happened, there’s one phrase only blackout drunks and Steve Urkel can say– “Did I do that?” I heard a lot of stories about myself from that night, including seeing a video of my stammering attempts at speech. I was told I had fallen, and that’s where the scar had come from. This particular party was not my first blackout, but I suddenly realized I wanted it to be my last.

One of the first things people do when I tell them I quit drinking is to shrug and tilt their head a few times. It’s a “well, we’ve drank together plenty of times and you seemed fine,” kind of head-tilt, but it never betrays any ill will towards my decision to give up alcohol. Now, I’ve never been to Alcoholics Anonymous, but I know they always say that no one but the drinker themself has the right to decide if they’re an alcoholic. On June 5th, 2021, I decided:

I’m an alcoholic.

That’s what they have you say, right? Hi, I’m Avery, and I’m an alcoholic. For a long time, that phrase was sort of a bit of dark humor for me. Both sides of my family have a long and tumultuous history with alcoholism, and anyone who knows the Larkins knows that sick joking is simply how you cope with the whole thing. “I’m Avery, and I’m an alcoholic,” I would say, but for the longest time that was the joke. The joke was in the idea that I was actually an alcoholic. Because how could I be, when I didn’t cause problems for other people in my life?

For a while there, I was drinking a lot. Drinking alone. Drinking with friends. Never any fewer than two or three drinks a day, and those were the good days. The bad days were the two or three times a week I would binge drink, and the following mornings, even into afternoons, I spent hunched over a toilet. It’s fine, I said. I throw up all the time. I have plenty of chronic GI issues, and that much is true. But since the day I quit drinking, I haven’t thrown up even once, and I can’t remember the last time I’d gone more than a month before that.

Sunday morning? Perfect time for a whiskey on the rocks. Morning before my 8 AM class? Surely one beer couldn’t hurt. For the longest time, this was how I thought of alcohol, and for the longest time, I didn’t realize just how much it was hurting me. How that one time I woke up feeling different than I had the night before and couldn’t place exactly what had happened wasn’t normal. How waking up not knowing how you and your friend who didn’t drive had come into possession of a few corner store snacks was deeply horrifying. I never realized just how abnormal my normal was, because as far as I knew, alcoholics were always destructive.

I didn’t take out my anger on people. My stress. My sadness. My confusion. When I drank, there was never any epic blowout or lasting consequence. At least not on those I loved. The only person who ever paid the price of my alcoholism was me, and it took one seemingly-mundane binge drinking episode for me to suddenly realize I couldn’t afford it anymore.

I’ve talked to a lot of people about my experiences blacking out, and I’ve found that a lot of people have never, or rarely, ever experienced it. I can’t count the number of times, but that’s even assuming I could remember them. The scary part of blacking out is that it’s not how it is in the media. On a sitcom, you’ll have the blackout episode: so-and-so gets plastered and wakes up the next day with the strangest situation in front of them, so of course, the idea is they need to figure out what happened. As the motley crew of characters pieces more and more clues together, the drinker will say, “Right, right, it’s all coming back to me” and explain another tidbit they remembered. That doesn’t happen. It doesn’t come back to you, because it was never there to begin with.

There are two types of blackout one may experience when drinking. The first is the more common fragmentary blackout, or brownout, which is the kind most people have experienced a few times in their life. During a brownout, you lose snippets of time and memory, but there are still chunks you remember. “En bloc” blackouts, or complete blackouts, are a different story. Typically occurring at blood-alcohol concentrations of over .16, or twice the legal driving limit, blackouts are caused by alcohol inhibiting the brain’s ability to transfer memories from short term storage to long term storage– the hippocampus. Memories do not “disappear” during a blackout, and they cannot just be recovered in an attempt to further a sitcom plotline. They cease to exist at all. It’s as if they never happened.

But they did. And sometimes, what happens during blackouts can be cruel, unthinkable, or even unspeakable. I do not believe anything truly heinous happened to me during any of my blackout states, but the unfortunate reality is that I will simply never know. Sure, there are other reasons why I’ve decided to put down the bottle: my stomach is sensitive to alcohol, for one. But I think, having known many alcoholics, both recovered and not, I realized that even if I was lucky enough for no life-altering events to take place during my alcohol binges, I did not care to find out what might.

It wasn’t easy to quit drinking. I have a lot of friends who still do, I love dancing at clubs, and I engage in other lifestyles (medical marijuana– but that’s another blog post) that often coincide with alcohol consumption. But after a few months of being able to be around open booze, be at clubs without drinking, and reject drinks when directly offered to me, I was absolutely sure I was in the clear. I’m cured, alright, I thought, but I hadn’t realized just how much that was a lie until New York.

My fiance and I took a weekend trip to NYC in September to visit some friends, and one night, I went alone to a gay club. It was a totally different vibe to the goth clubs I go to up in MA, and despite knowing there’s an alcohol problem in the queer community, I wasn’t prepared for the level of pressure and questions I would face for not having a drink in hand. I knew a coke would cut it, just to keep up appearances. If I had to, I could lie and say I was drinking a rum and coke anyway, to avoid scrutiny.

But I didn’t just want a coke. I wanted the rum.

I remember how the thought process went:

I’ll have one drink. Just one. Almost four months is a good run, fuck it. I was bound to drink again anyway. Everyone else is having fun, why shouldn’t I? But you know what, it couldn’t possibly hurt if I had two. One won’t really do anything anyway, so if I’m going to drink, I might as well get drunk. Honestly, would two even get me drunk? Maybe I’ll have three. You know what, three is fine. I’ll definitely cap it at three.

I realized my head was spinning. I realized I was thinking like an addict. I remembered that the whole reason I quit cold turkey in the first place because I knew I couldn’t have just one. A band I love, Rat Kid Cool, has a simple but potent lyric about the matter.

We can’t have just one, that’s the thing
cause a bird never flew on one wing.

Thankfully, with the external help from some loved ones I had texted in my frenzy, and my own realizations that I didn’t actually want what I thought I wanted, I was able to shove my way to the bar counter and get some water into me. Once my breathing was regular again and I could think straight, I told the barman I wanted a coke. And that’s what I had.

Here I am, over a month from that day, and I can say with pride and joy that I haven’t touched a drop of alcohol in five months. I still have the scar on my leg to remind me why. I’ve never been to Alcoholics Anonymous, but you can bet your ass that on December 5th, 2021, I am going to one of those meetings, because I want that fucking six month chip.

Hopefully, I’ll have earned it.