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Why I Gave Up Drinking at 22

Why I Gave Up Drinking at 22


Many gay youth use alcohol as a salve, including this writer, who almost didn't make it to 23.

Two years ago today, when I was 22, I decided to stop drinking. Considering my history, the decision happened after an insignificant night.

It did not happen the morning I woke up in the hospital with hypothermia and alcohol poisoning or after I spent 30 days in rehab after chugging a bottle of mouthwash and a handful of prescription pills. It didn't happen after a bartender, old enough to be my father, told me I needed to kiss him to get my ID back, which somehow led to me bringing him back to my dorm. It did not happen after I almost left a fashion party in New Delhi with a man who said he was a model but was actually a pimp.

It happened after what was, for me, a rather routine, if not tame, night: I went out drinking with my friends, blacked out, and had to be brought home.

What if my friends hadn't been there? I asked myself. What if they hadn't brought me home?

Of course, I already knew the answer, but for the first time I allowed myself to let it sink in: If I didn't stop drinking I was going to wind up killing myself, either intentionally or accidentally. And it was going to happen soon.

I had been drinking regularly since I was 15. Yet the issue with high school and college drinking is the blurry line between typical -- if dangerous -- experimentation and blatant drinking problems. It wasn't that bizarre that I hid a bottle of vodka beneath the floorboards in my parents' attic, but I crossed beyond standard teenage rebellion when I'd pour vodka in my mug of Sprite as I did my homework.

As I was a gay teenager in an inner-city high school, alcohol took on an extra significance. Drinking is the great equalizer; anyone can do it. Though I loved my close friends, I always felt different, apart. In that sense, it does not surprise me that research has shown that substance abuse rates are twice as prevalent among LGBT youth. Alcohol can be used to temporarily erase insecurity, and drinking can be a means to bond with people with whom you otherwise have nothing in common.

In retrospect, the truth was glaring and obvious. By the time I graduated from high school, I had been hospitalized three times for alcohol poisoning, completed a month-long stint in rehab, and spent a night in a psychiatric center after a drug-induced breakdown.

After going to rehab -- in my sophomore year of high school -- I stayed sober ... for a few months. After each hospitalization, I would have a window of time where I essentially "grounded" myself from alcohol, but within a few weeks I would lie to my parents and find my way back out.

I made myself a victim. When people tried to talk to me about my behavior, whether it be adults or friends, I would lie, and if they kept pushing, then cry.

My biggest blessing and curse in high school was that I was able to achieve despite all of my struggles. I was the valedictorian of my class and was accepted to Brown University.

I hid my past from my friends at Brown, but as time went on, my troubling relationship with substances came to the surface. By the time I graduated, I had been hospitalized an additional time after an alcohol and cocaine binge, all the while suffering from a Xanax addiction. I'd black out a few times a week; I was aggressive and reckless. I constantly started fights I couldn't remember, both with friends and strangers.

After college, I moved to New York. My low point: After drunkenly breaking up with my ex-boyfriend at a party, I tried to run into traffic. I begrudgingly stopped drinking for a few weeks, but, within the month, I decided I was going to try drinking again with strict rules in place. I would drink only during the weekend and would have no more than three drinks spread out throughout the night.

Needless to say, I immediately broke every rule. And so on the Sunday morning of the second weekend, I woke up and decided that the only way I might ever be happy is if I never drank again.

If you're a heavy drinker, that decision can seem impossible. I always ran with a hard-partying crowd. For someone young, the thought of losing access to the social situation they've always known is terrifying. Whenever I would try to become sober -- which happened at least 10 times before it actually worked -- the voice inside my head would incessantly shout: What if I'm less funny when I'm sober? What am I even going to talk to this person about if I'm not drunk? I can't dance until I've taken a few shots! Sleeping with someone without alcohol?!

I told myself that drinking is what made my world feel magical. My first couple of drinks gave me manic energy and a sweeping sense of happiness, and I would spend the rest of the night trying to not only maintain that feeling, but make it grow.

One minute I would be drinking and dancing with my friends at the bar, and then my next moment of worldly awareness would be when I woke up completely disoriented, panicked, unsure of where I was. Whether I found myself in my dorm basement in my underwear, naked in someone's bed, or on a beach in Costa Rica missing my shoes and a wallet, I was never really that shocked.

More times than I would care to admit, I woke up in a pool of my own urine or with vomit splattered against the walls as my phone repeatedly rang or a concerned friend pounded on my door. I often didn't ask questions about what happened the night before, because I didn't want to know the answers.

Alcoholism has taught me that you really can convince yourself of anything. Instead of recognizing that I needed help, I convinced myself that my outlandish behavior was what made me interesting. Deflection was my weapon of choice.

It was only two years ago that I was finally able to admit to those I loved -- but most importantly, to myself -- that drinking wasn't worth it if I would one day wake up seriously hurt. If I woke up at all.

Learning to live a sober life has in many ways been like trying to walk when you're used to crawling. I still remember how easy it was drink and how much more effort it has taken for me to reach an emotional place where I'm strong enough to choose against it. Besides, whatever problems or feelings I would drink to escape came back tenfold the morning after.

In sobriety, I've had to teach myself how to communicate thoughtfully without poisoning my speech with the fury of alcohol. I have had to learn how to pursue romance without being a histrionic drunk, lacking both grace and inhibitions.

I understand I have a long way to travel before I achieve self-acceptance or real serenity. But what I do have, finally, is the peace of mind of knowing that I can wake up every morning remembering all that I did the night before -- for better or worse -- and knowing, in the end, I will be OK.

Seamus-kirstx100SEAMUS KIRST received his master's degree in arts journalism from the Newhouse School at Syracuse University, and has contributed to the Syracuse Media Group, The Post and Courier of Charleston, S.C., and Thought Catalog.

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Seamus Kirst