I waited a long time for my first drink. I'd had a few sips, swigs and nips of Manischewitz at Passover; a wine cooler on a camping trip with friends; and whiskey at an eighth grade sleepover. Still, I never had a proper drink until graduation night of senior year.
Why was I immune to peer pressure -- a paragon of willpower who tagged along with her friends while they drank, got drunk and let loose? In high school, I mostly avoided parties and stopped kissing boys, since kissing boys was something you usually did at social gatherings with the help of alcohol. Did I enjoy standing in the corner at parties, observing the other humans at play? I was shy to start with; I could have used a boost.
But I was petrified I'd end up as an alcoholic -- like my mother. Or that my parents would send me to drug rehab -- like my older sister. As soon as my mother stopped drinking, my parents didn't let one drop of alcohol cross the threshold of our house. My mother felt that being around alcohol would cause a relapse. She told me about the dangers, for an alcoholic, of having vanilla extract in the kitchen cabinet.
How did I know I wasn't a potential alcoholic? What if I had too much and lost control? Alcohol might make a person go helter skelter like Charles Manson. It could kill a whole family, like the pair of murderers in Capote's In Cold Blood. I did not want to fall prey to that serial killer like my wild child sister, who pretty much failed high school; or my mother, who spent years trying to get her life back on track. No, I would not veer off the path, a happy idiot, tempted by alcohol's crooked, beckoning finger. All I had to do was lay low, get good grades and get into an Ivy League school. Then I'd be safe.
At my "sibling interview" for the rehab where my sister ended up, they asked me if I drank. I confessed that I'd had a "sip of beer." They told my sister, who expressed her deep concern. I remember thinking I might as well have been drinking all those years. They still suspected me. I knew if I didn't watch myself, I'd end up in Florida, too -- seventeen hours by car from our house in the suburbs of D.C.
Flash forward to graduation night, senior year: That morning, I'd cut my waist-length hair off, up to my ears. My mother cried, but I was ready to start fresh. The week before, I'd gotten my braces off. At one of the graduation after-parties, I finally allowed myself my first full drink: a bottle of beer. Hadn't I sailed through high school near the top of my class, gotten into the Ivy League and escaped drug rehab? For all that, I deserved a reward.
One beer. Just one.
The first sip tasted bitter but cool, refreshing on a humid June night. In the center of the room stood the boy I loved. I'd always loved him, but he'd never loved me back. I was tame. He was wild. He had a sexy blonde girlfriend who drank and smoked.
I eyed the boy I loved and took one sip of the beer, then another and another, until I tilted my head back to catch the last drops. The beer gave me a pleasant, floating-above-it-all feeling. My body tingled -- alive -- as if one beer had fertilized all the seeds inside me and I could finally flower. My secret thoughts gave way to impulses that could finally be acted upon. I walked up to the boy I loved and smiled: Courage in a bottle.
I must have spoken the ancient language of "beer" because somehow, he and I ended up on the front lawn, my face tilted toward his, poised for a kiss.
Just as he leaned forward to kiss me -- his eyes fusing; his face, a dizzying blur -- his girlfriend drove up in her car and honked the horn, startling us. "Come on, K!" she called out.
He shrugged his shoulders and off he went. I stood there, alone on the lawn as the car pulled away, my beer buzz crashing down. Later, at our diner hangout, I sobbed to my friends. I thought I was crying about the boy, but now I know I was probably crying about the beer. I didn't know then the merits of two beers, or that three beers might have erased the disappointment, the humiliation. Blotted it out.
That I learned with my second, third and fourth drinks only three months later as a freshman in college. Night one: I went from room to room, greedily drinking everything I could get my hands on -- gin and vodka and rum and beer -- until I blacked out.
As the daughter of an alcoholic, I had no concept of moderation. It was either none or ten.
I fell head over heels in love with drinking. Why hadn't I discovered it earlier? I could have kicked myself, thinking of all those chances I'd missed, all the unrequited crushes I'd had in high school that would have been consummated if only I'd let myself drink.
Drinking made me bold, helped me march right up to a blonde Adonis, the guy my friends and I called "The Greek God," and plop down on the ground next to him during an outdoor party. He asked me out, but when we went to his fraternity formal, I had to do a few shots beforehand with my friends so I'd stay bold and not revert back to my more subdued, sober self. It didn't last long with him--he didn't know me.
Drinking helped me come up with nicknames for cute guys at parties; helped me take those guys home and sit on my bed with them, singing "Put on Your Sailing Shoes" at the top of our lungs. Drinking gave me the swagger to pick the guys I wanted instead of waiting for them to pick me.
Never mind the fact that I woke up hungover most mornings and slept till noon. Never mind that sometimes I didn't know why a guy was smiling at me in the dining hall. Had something happened? Never mind that I graduated college lost, having no idea what I was supposed to be doing other than hanging out.
This isn't one of those cautionary tales where I say I regret all the drinking I did or ended up in AA. I needed to make a course correction; to let myself get out of control after all those years of rigidity. I don't regret the drinking at all, which continued through my twenties and thirties -- not at the same fever-pitch, but steadily, until I had children and was way too busy and tired and intent on being a role model to keep it up.
If the alcoholic's problem is denial, then the daughter of an alcoholic who doesn't become an alcoholic herself has the opposite problem: over-vigilance. I'm not complaining -- I feel incredibly lucky that I dabbled in hard drinking and escaped rock-bottom addiction. I'm merely pointing it out.
After all these years, I have finally figured out what works for me, drinking-wise. Even so, some strange quirks remain. I feel squirmingly self-conscious when I walk into a liquor store, fearful of what the people in the store and behind the counter might think, even if I'm there to purchase one or two bottles of wine. I usually make small talk to calm my nerves.
I approach alcohol with some amount of reverence, and I get irrationally angry at the jokey tone of the cocktail moms and the creators of Mommy's Little Helper wine and the talk show hosts who make it seem fun and easy-breezy to drink wine at 10 in the morning. How do the struggling or recovering alcoholics who might be watching feel?
I can't quite shake the little voice in my head that whispers, every time I take a sip of alcohol, Careful: this could change your life.
Follow Leah Odze Epstein on Twitter: www.twitter.com/@leaheps