Anecdotes from a Problem Drinker
By Zach Benack
Zach Benak lives in Chicago. His prose appears in GASHER, The Paragon Journal, and Sweeter Voices Still: An LGBTQ Anthology from Middle America (Belt Publishing 2021). His latest work is forthcoming in 45th Parallel and Riding Fences: Essays on Being LGBTQ+ in Rural Areas (Alternating Current Press).
I do not suppose that, when a drunkard reasons with himself upon his vice, he is once out of five hundred times affected by the dangers that he runs through his brutish, physical insensibility.”
----Robert Louis Stevenson, The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde
I don’t really drink. Sometimes I say I don’t drink, no qualifier attached, but that’s not completely true. Every couple months or so, I’ll have a cocktail when I’m at a nice restaurant. But even then, after perusing libations at the many farm-to-table joints on the north side of Chicago, I often end up ordering a Diet Coke.
I don’t keep alcohol in the house. I don’t step foot in liquor stores. I don’t drink beer or wine or gin or tequila. The first thing I ever drank was vodka and that’s the only thing I can drink now, usually drowned in something sugary or sour. Which is not to say that I don’t like the sting of vodka, the sizzle in the back of my throat and the warmth in my body.
I first felt it in a finished basement in Papillion, Nebraska. There was a flat screen TV mounted on the wall, a sectional sofa, and a bar with granite countertop. The room was crisp, vacuumed, and air-conditioned. Surrounded by older kids in college, I took shots from a bottle of Skyy and chased it with grapefruit soda. Hours later I was lying beneath a pool table, telling a boy I loved him, and begging for Neosporin to soothe my bleeding knees. When the boy gently let me down, I announced that I’d be driving home. My car keys were then hidden from me. I went to sleep under the pool table, pretending to cry for the others to hear. I left the next day without looking anyone in the eye. I drove straight to a grocery store parking lot to volunteer at a fundraiser for my show choir group, washing cars and trying not to vomit.
No one warned me of the physical excruciation I’d experience that next day. As a kid, when I’d go camping with my family at Ponca State Park in the northeastern corner of Nebraska, my uncles didn’t complain of churning stomachs and body aches after a night of drinking beer around the campfire. My dad didn’t mention a dull pain that pervaded through the top of his eyeballs and worked its way down his jaw after one too many Jägerbombs. This suffering seemed to be mine and mine alone, scrubbing dirty truck tires in silence while my classmates sang an SATB cover of a Natasha Bedingfield song.
“It’s in your genes,” my mom used to say about addiction, casually and oftentimes unprompted. Leslie Jamison’s father provided her with a similar warning about drinking: “It wasn’t dangerous for everyone, but it was dangerous for us.” In The Recovering: Intoxication and Its Aftermath, Jamison goes on to cite the Collaborative Study on Genetics of Alcoholism’s research linking characteristics like alcohol dependence “to specific DNA regions on various chromosomes,” meaning that “the evidence supporting a genetic basis for alcoholism is pretty much indisputable.”
But my genes seemed to be missing something. The night of my first drink and the morning that followed, in addition to the physical sickness, I felt overwhelmingly sad. Yes, I’d stumbled out of the closet far too soon and embarrassed myself in front of older friends, but I didn’t just feel shame. It was moroseness that sat in my throat and welled in my eyes. When I thought of my family sitting around that campfire, exchanging stories and laughing boisterously, they seemed joyful. And just as well the next morning, eating chocolate chip pancakes and eggs cooked to order by an aunt at the stove. I didn’t understand how my drinking led to outbursts and spilled secrets and misery while everyone around me just seemed happy.
But then I met the right people to drink with: people my age from my show choir group. I stopped talking to the college kids. Drinking was an activity for them, while my new friends did activities while drunk. We played Mario Kart, taking a swig every time someone fell off of Rainbow Road. We scribbled down answers ridden with expletives during Scattergories. The booze we got our hands on—sour apple vodka, cinnamon whisky—was sweet and more palatable. We drank a little bit at a time, pacing ourselves for intoxication that didn’t end in a hangover. We spent weekends laughing until we cried and sleeping together on basement floors.
Happy drinking didn’t last though. Our group, a stable five, expanded throughout the school year. Basement hangouts turned into parties; there were too many people to play Scattergories or Mario Kart. The fruity liquor became harder to swallow, but I drank more of it. I screamed at people. I told them to go the fuck home, and to go fuck themselves. My friends carried me down flights of stairs as I aimed my middle finger at random targets. My car keys, once again, were confiscated. I blacked out.
The mornings after, I’d text out apologies that wouldn’t be accepted. My friends would ask, “Where does that anger come from?”
What I know now, what I’ve seen and pondered and meditated upon, is my lineage of alcoholics and rageaholics alike. I’d been warned of the former, but the latter didn’t have meaning until later on, when I remembered the screaming in traffic and the living room tirades about a missing remote control, or when I learned about the physical altercations that occurred over money. I descended from many generations of happy drunks and angry sobers. It was no wonder that I was a cross between the two.
There was a fall down the stairs my freshman year, a thrown pillow and shattered clay pot a few years later, but that was the worst of it in college. I made no attempts to obtain a fake ID. I enjoyed a single Mai Thai at the Cheesecake Factory on my twenty-first birthday. That was it. I’d bring a six-pack of hard ciders to house parties and couldn’t even finish one. Just a few sips would incite my gag reflex and build a heaviness in stomach, like my body was sending warning signals of the pain and anger and depression that could break through if I kept at it. I’d leave half-full bottles on kitchen islands and tell other partygoers that there was free booze in the fridge. Taking the train back to my apartment, I’d sit quietly amongst other late-night passengers, some drunk, some not, but all of us looking disheveled and unflattering beneath the Chicago Transit Authority’s fluorescent lights.
Now, in my mid-twenties, the occasional Moscow Mule results in all-consuming heartburn. An Aperol Spritz gives me a migraine. A flute of champagne sits in my place at every cousin’s wedding, bubbles flattening through each bridesmaid speech and Cupid Shuffle, my mind and stomach in agreement that it’s best not to partake.
“Maybe you’re allergic to alcohol,” a friend suggests. I don’t have the common symptoms (itchiness, rashes, reddening of the face), but I think she’s right. The same way I don’t pet cats because they make my throat scratchy, or why I don’t eat anything with tree nuts because they give me hives, I avoid alcohol, aware that the bodily and psychological consequences will deplete me, depress me, and unleash something in my chromosomes that I can’t control.
I worry about what people think, that I’m boring or prudish or judgmental. I once prided myself on occasional cigarette smoking—something that seemed edgy—but that doesn’t happen anymore either. I chug water at house parties. I drink Diet Coke at restaurants, letting its mystery ingredients remain sacred. I drive home, listening to songs about sobriety that make me cry—“Sober” by P!nk, “Hate Me” by Blue October—watching the dark teal waves of Lake Michigan whip against the rocks and coast of Lake Shore Drive.
I’m young and know things can change, but I feel resolute right now. I feel untroubled. And I feel luckier than most, having recognized at a young age that I have problems when I drink, before my drinking became a problem.