My first drunk New Year’s brazenly betrayed my parents’ trust.
“No drinking,” my mother emphatically reminded me over the phone. I struggled to hear her above the revelrous noise of her friends in the background, beckoning her outside to the makeshift shooting range in their backyard.
“I know, I know,” I chided back, my voice sharp with an edge that read, “I’m an honors student with a laundry list of extracurriculars and big dreams. You know I wouldn’t do that.”
I clenched our cordless house phone between my chin and shoulder while my best friend and I soundlessly debated which bottles we could skim off in concocting our celebratory jello shots. We ended up with a piss-colored measuring cup comprised of various whiskeys, liqueurs, cheap diamond-clear vodka, and old brandy. We poured it into the red powder and stuck our final product in the fridge, eager to enjoy.
We had one other friend on the way. A relentless fear of missing out governed my life, and at 17 years old, that fear reached a fever pitch. I absolutely hated the idea that wherever I was, there was something infinitely more vivid and important going on elsewhere. To be anywhere other than the heart of the action haunted me, suggesting that I wasn’t properly utilizing the gift of being alive. Finding myself alone on a Friday night implied that I was at the mercy of circumstance rather than dominating the reality surrounding me. Drinking mitigated this fear’s grip, because when I was drunk, everything felt extremely important. That New Year’s Eve, we would make do with what was available; three friends, an empty house, and my parents’ alcohol.
We removed the jello before it had fully solidified, too impatient to wait any longer. “It tastes like Hitler’s intestines,” one friend remarked, but we gorged anyways, straight from the measuring cup, messy hands and ruby lips. When the jello’s meager buzz proved insufficient, we turned to my parents’ beer. We didn’t do anything at all, just talked, then yelled, then danced. I made my obligatory drunk calls. After midnight, we decided to make pasta. I remember one friend sticking her hand directly into the pot of boiling water while we cackled cruelly.
The first day of the year I was set to graduate high school, I awoke to the familiar sound of my mother’s enraged rebel yell. Though it never felt like we had made a huge mess while drinking, the truth told a different tale in the sober light of day. Spaghetti water had crystallized into a crust across the stove, and at some point our Christmas tree shifted, scattering antique ornaments on the floor below. As if the debauchery wasn’t evident from that, my mother happened upon the beer bottles in our recycling bin. I simply shrugged my shoulders, as if to say, “So what?” I suppose she agreed, and we moved on.
Adult life, as it had been demonstrated to me, unquestionably revolved around drinking. My family’s stories involved countless misadventures, drunken tumbles where wine spilled and glasses shattered. Distant relatives earned infamy for their covert car beers, concealed in sippy cups, hidden from curious cops’ questioning eyes. Every family trip started with a drink at the hotel, and my restless pacing while my mother insisted, “just one more minute.” Sitting at my makeup table, my aunt recounted her struggles losing weight, how drinking always made a sandwich sound good. I counted calories like a penance to the Lord and glanced at her through the mirror in front of us with horror. “Why would you drink if it makes you fat?” I throughout in my childhood, more times than I could count. In the half-decade that followed, I woke up every day with a surrender, “I guess this is just my life now.”
Returning home from my first semester of college, I gathered my high school friends for a New Year’s party at my house. That was the year I became obsessed with decadent wealth for wealth’s sake, aspiring to embody my own Kardashian image. The gathering’s theme was “Victoria’s Secret Angels.” We meticulously adorned our hair and makeup before donning robes for the occasion. I set out a spread and several oversized bottles of wine.
Earlier that day, coked-up on stolen ADHD medication, I’d ordered my ex-boyfriend to meet me for coffee to discuss the end of our relationship. I don’t know who I was expecting to explain themselves to whom, but I was angry and someone had to pay for it. Confronted with the reality that someone could simply lose interest in me, my mind found itself utterly baffled. I’d be damned if I would let a scab turn to scar tissue, I picked it open until it bled again. By evening, my face was white with blood loss, but the drinking helped me recover some color. It confined my confusing emotional conundrum to a mere twinkle on the horizon. One friend ran through the screen door that opened to our back patio, where my mom sat with us, smoking a cigar while we passed around blunts and cigarettes.
We spent the next year at a house party in an upper-class development of the neighboring municipality. I wore a spandex mini skirt, wedged heels, tights, a brand new gold necklace with a triangular amulet. I stuffed half a bottle of sugary blue instant-release Adderall into my crumb littered coat pocket, arranging three lines to rail in the bathroom as soon as we arrived. Old faces I hadn’t confronted in two years crowded the cozy home. Sipping a screwdriver with proportions like a jackhammer, I tried to convince my old volleyball teammates of how well I was doing. I bumped into my younger brother, bewildered by his attendance. Were we really that old?
After nearly an hour of tenuous catching up and feigned smiles on my part, the host huddled us into a back room and turned out the lights. 40 or so underaged kids clung to each other with bated, sticky breath while she talked to the cops, who’d arrived for a noise complaint. When she returned, I waited in the beat of silence before she said, “Run.” Like that, the back door slid open and we poured out, throngs of exhilarated, reckless children. I had bowed down to authority my entire life but fueled by amphetamines and bottom shelf liquor, I hardly stopped to evaluate the picket fence before me. Adrenaline eliminated the chaos all around. I stood alone with the wooden boards that separated me from freedom. “I just have to throw myself over this,” I rallied in my fervor, incurring near-sphinctal splinters in the process. Wedged boots be damned, I sprinted up that hill until the disco flashing spotlights could no longer be seen.
A block away, I encountered my brother’s friend. “Have you seen him?” I asked. Miraculously, we stumbled upon my brother, three lone mavericks solely out for themselves. We stalked the neighborhood, looking for a place to hide until reconnaissance agents could pick us up. I swallowed the remaining pills in my pockets, just in case, before guiding our trio to the next development over, where we would quietly wait in an abandoned cul de sac. Safe in a grownup’s car, we laughed upon learning that our idiotic cohorts had stuck together in a raucous mob and been ambushed by police.
I was too spooked to drink the night we rang in 2016, with last year flickering in my memory like a warning. Besides, by this point, I had come to rely on the trustworthiness of pills. Adderall, Ritalin, Vyvanse, these faithful fortifiers gave me the confidence and artificial happiness I sought in drinking, with a much lower likelihood of negative side effects like oversharing, boorishness, or crying. Before commencing, a close friend and I went to get our nails done in one of the many desolate corporate plazas littering our town. Hers gleamed sharp and red, mine black and square. We arrived at a house party in the swankiest neighborhood in tight dresses and fur coats. A stoner from our high school lauded our success in faraway metropolitan beacons. “Damn, you guys are really doing it,” he wondered, “and look at your nails!” It still wasn’t the spot where all the things were happening, but this exact brand of praise was the trophy I wanted more than anything else in life.
As an addict, I’d become well acquainted with that point in the night when things lose their shine, the palpable shift from shiny party to tired hangout. I had been charming people with accomplished sweetness all evening but turned sour when the change became evident. As I played pool with a few men in the basement, I turned to one, talking to him about the merits of suffering for creativity. “I mean, look at Amy Winehouse. I don’t think she could have done all that without her vices,” I said, a girl struggling to justify her own demise. He turned to me and replied, bluntly, “That wasn’t glamorous. That wasn’t artistic. She destroyed herself.” When I pushed further, he told me his brother had died of a heroin overdose. I didn’t know how to respond, it was my first brush with reality.
If I could tell you about 2017, I would, but I had turned 21 that year and all the nights blurred together into one mass, rudely interrupted by the daylight hours where I was forced to work.
I’d relinquished the false pretense that I required a situation to rationalize my drinking. The drinking became both the means and ends in itself, as I finally capitulated to my base instincts.
This year was my second New Year’s sober since starting my recovery. The first year, I was barely out of the ravaging days, so utterly robbed of any fight or energy that I easily succumbed to an evening in with my Italian landlord’s family and near-endless trays of home-cooked food. It was freezing while we welcomed in 2018, and I enjoyed the comfort of returning to my own bed just two floors above promptly after midnight. I spent the next day in the company of strangers, on a first date with a man who would help me more than I’d ever let anyone else, and then in a recovery meeting afterward. The year ahead loomed full of promise, hope.
I am fine most nights. I am a 23-year-old street art journalist living in New York City. I anticipate the struggles of sobriety, which seems to allow them less power. But as 2019 arrived, I entered the subway sweaty from exercise and frizzy from the rain and found the car full of polished strangers in their holiday best. Anger rose in my throat until my jaw trembled, enraged by these people who were obviously going to try their novice hands at my most refined skill. I hated the way these people would drink, thinking three shots was “a crazy night, bro.” By age 17, Bacardi 151 was my liquor of choice. What did they know? How dare they? I buried my face in my damp cheetah print coat and felt the rain droplets tango with my hot, angry tears.
When I told my editor TK I would soon arrive at his shindig, he tempted me with the promise of a present. “What could it be?” I thought to myself, slightly lifted up by the attention. Food? No, that wouldn’t work, I’m on an endless diet. It seemed unlikely he’d endeavored to buy me beauty products or clothing, the only earthly pleasures remaining at my disposal. When I arrived, he presented me with a bottle of sparkling cider. “That’s still calories,” I thought to myself before the warm glow of kinship washed over. I was touched by the sensitivity, especially after the subway’s apathetic assault. I can keep myself sober through sheer force of will, but only the support of my closest friends can make it enjoyable.
It’s infuriating in retrospect, all those New Year’s Eves spent gloating only rang in years where I fell further. Common wisdom taught me that only humility can bring glory, but I always thought not me, a blind trope of terminal exceptionality. I didn’t know anyone with an apartment in Manhattan when 2018 began, but I ended it over bubbly juice and video games with close friends who have precisely that. My story is no different from anyone else who discovered the intimacy they sought in bars outside, in genuine human connection. Still, it is mine, and I had to run through screen doors, jump fences, and reluctantly watch the sunrise, to find a relief that still feels like torture in the wrong moment. •
Images illustrated by Barbara Chernyavsky.