This article is the first in a series of four autobiographical essays detailing one man's struggle with alcoholism and his recovery.
For many, an unhealthy relationship with alcohol develops slowly and sneakily, over years or even decades.
Life stressors like abusive relationships, bad breakups, academic pressure and even engagements and marriages make us vulnerable.
That wasn't true for me.
My 21st birthday ended uneventfully.
Friends bought me an Irish Car Bomb (Jameson and Guinness) and urged me to "drop the shot glass in and take it in one gulp."
Having never had more than a sip or two of wine in a sitting, I had no idea what that dark cocktail would do to me.
I feared getting drunk so much that I offered it to someone else and left for the night.
A few weeks later, I grew curious.
I decided to go out drinking by myself, so whatever happened, at least I wouldn't embarrass myself right in front of friends.
It was a cool fall night, and I had walked alone from my dorm to a nearby dive bar in the basement of a sketchy shopping center, infamous for its $1 pitchers of beer on Friday nights.
A few weeks later, I grew curious.
It was early by “going out” standards, maybe 6 pm.
The stairway leading down to the bar had yellowing walls and smelled of stale cigarette smoke. The muted beat of a jukebox pop song played just beyond the darkened glass door.
When I got to the bottom of the stairs and entered that dive bar, I felt a rush of excitement. I felt like I was getting away with something.
I timidly approached the bar, which was empty except for one guy playing darts in the background.
The young woman bartender asked what I wanted, and I said I didn't know. I just stared at the backlit bottles for a minute like a 6-year-old visiting the Times Square Toys "R" Us for the first time.
“What's that bright green one in the back?” I asked.
First slightly annoyed, but then amused, she said, “That's Midori, a liqueur. People don't usually just drink that straight-up.”
Still, the glowing green and pyramid-shaped bottled called out to me.
“Well, can you make me something with it?”
“I can do a vodka Sprite with Midori on top, OK?" she said. “That'll be four-fifty, and I'll need to see an ID.”
I loved the taste, and sitting there alone after a long day in classes, I felt like I deserved it.
Despite what a dive the place was and my disdain for smoking (they still allowed smoking in bars at the time), I felt sophisticated.
Having grown up in a household where healthy habits and moral behavior were strictly enforced, sitting at the bar for the first time was liberating, a symbol that in college, I could pretty much do whatever I wanted.
As I finished the second cocktail, I still felt nothing, and then I started to feel disappointed.
I didn't have lots of cash left, and I had yet to get the job done.
"Maybe there's nothing to this," I thought. "Buying a drink is just a status symbol. It doesn't really do anything."
I reluctantly put another $5 on the bar for a third, and toward the end of that one, I started to feel it.
My concern about how much it cost melted away, and the lights got brighter. My lips tingled, and a newfound feeling of comfort washed over me.
Having been depressed since I was 16, I didn't smile often. I felt myself smiling. That felt good.
I started walking back to the dorm, but as I passed by a bar and grill-style restaurant.
I smelled food cooking and realized I was hungry.
"Is this the drunk munchies? Is there such a thing?" I naively thought. So, I went in.
This time, I took my place at the bar with confidence.
My lips tingled, and a newfound feeling of comfort washed over me.
The place was busy, and everyone was drinking beer and watching a game. That it was, I didn't care.
“Vodka Sprite with a bit of Midori on top,” I said to the buff, male bar tender. He looked at me like I was from another planet.
“A wha… ? Uh, OK,” he shrugged and made the cocktail.
He brought me the grilled sandwich I ordered as I was on my second drink there. The lights got brighter, still, and I started to feel so giddy. I couldn't stop laughing to myself.
Empty mugs on the wall seemed hilarious. I saw my reflection in the mirror behind the bar and scooted over one stool so I wasn't looking at myself.
I had a glass of water and waited awhile and then walked back to the dorm, where I flopped onto my bed. It was 9:30 pm.
I had only been out for two hours.
The next morning, I woke with a start at 5:30 am and sucked in my breath.
"Oh my God, what did I do?" I thought.
But after a minute, I revisited my memory of the evening, hazy as it was toward the end, and thought, "Wow, that was amazing."
The drink and I had hit it off. It was love after one date.
But the reality was, I was alone and would be for a long, long time.
Little did I know, my descent into alcoholic insanity began that night.
It only took one drink to set me down the road of addiction and recovery, and it would be years until I finally gained the clarity I had before that first drink.