The A-Word

I’ve always felt a duty to obey rules. Guided by a guilt complex that’s haunted me since I was a small child, I avoid jaywalking, declare every last penny’s-worth of merchandise at the border, and refused to consume the Blood of Christ at my First Communion, annoyed by the social pressure imposed by the Church and my family to drink wine as a minor. In hindsight, I recognize that it was in all likelihood unpleasant to raise such an unrelentingly conscientious kid. And yes, I regret putting my parents through that.

Due in equal parts to this rigid sense of right and wrong and to the possibility of inadvertently becoming inebriated, a horrifying prospect for a control freak like me, my first real taste of alcohol was on my nineteenth birthday, when I celebrated reaching the legal drinking age by splitting a peach cider with my dad in the Graduate Student lounge at the University of Victoria. He encouraged me to consume the entire beverage; I, being the responsible, self-aware (read: jittery, slightly paranoid) person I am, stopped as soon as I detected what I suspected might be the germinal signs of mental impairment.

And then I met my husband in Berlin, a felicitous occurrence that merits its own blog post. Before continuing, I should clarify that he is not, nor has he ever been, an alcoholic, a member of a fraternity, or anything less than a charming, intelligent, compassionate individual (I love you, baby). He does, however, like alcohol, as did pretty much every participant in the university program in which we were enrolled. Until that summer, I could count the total number of alcoholic beverages I had ever ingested on one hand. Now I was surrounded by a group of college students, almost all of them American, who took full advantage of Germany’s lax alcohol laws, which make the States’ restrictions look like Saudi Arabia’s in comparison. As every twenty-year-old male studying abroad at the Freie Universität quickly discovered, in Berlin it’s not only legal to drink in public, but it’s relatively common (and completely accepted by society at large) to see balding businessmen reading the paper and sucking back an Oettinger on the U-Bahn. This cultural difference was one of the first to be embraced, cheap and readily accessible beer making the whole immersion thing relatively easy to achieve.

If it weren’t for the man I would marry exactly four years later, my drinking habits probably wouldn’t have shifted much, even while living with five other students in an apartment whose defining feature was a curious wine-like permasmell emanating from the communal case of six 1.5-litre jugs of mediocre sangria that had been purchased for five euros. But he’s an observant guy and, having noticed my reluctance to imbibe, was astonished and concerned. He thus started me on a training regime meant to build my tolerance and broaden my spirituous horizons, giving me each night a painstakingly measured portion of whiskey, which increased daily from the initial dose of a fraction of an ounce until it reached a full shot. This strategy worked, kind of; though liquor probably wasn’t the best place to start, regularly consuming small amounts of alcohol with no horrible consequences greatly eased my baseless anxiety about social drinking. Conversely, a weekend trip to Prague, where, to my then-boyfriend’s horror, I got caught in the moment and took a double shot of absinthe while a group of old Irish men pounded on the table chanting “down in one” was a useful reminder that it’s pretty easy for a neophyte chugging hard liquor to rapidly go from sober to ridiculously drunk.

The next year, now in a long-distance relationship following our return to North America, my husband and I swapped cross-continent visits. Staying with him in North Carolina in a townhouse that was home to a total of six guys, I was further enlightened as to why people drink: so that they can play beer pong, forget about the layer of grime covering most surfaces of their dwelling, use (clothes still on, thankfully) the stripper pole inexplicably installed in their neighbours’ living room, and have Eurotrash theme parties, all wholly valid, noble reasons to crack open a bottle of PBR. Or twelve bottles, as the case may be.

This is all to say that after years of practicing near-total abstinence, I started to consume alcohol on a semi-regular basis. Not excessively—my self-imposed limit was two light beers or one mixed drink. And not without some qualms—I had, and still have, mixed feelings about drinking, especially after witnessing the binge variety first-hand. In fact, differences in attitude toward alcohol were, for a time, a source of contention between me and my husband, even after I accepted that it is, for many, an important part of the university experience, my conception of which was previously based almost entirely on my group of friends in Canada, with whom I went on hikes and discussed rocks and linguistics over lattes, not wine, and on Revenge of the Nerds-esque social configurations, which, I’ll admit, figured prominently in the mental picture I’d formed of American post-secondary institutions.

Since those first hesitant sips of Jack Daniel’s, I’ve developed a true fondness for a good cocktail. I realize that alcohol consumption isn’t something to boast about, but I’m nonetheless proud to have loosened up, to have learned how to enjoy a glass of bourbon without needlessly obsessing about potential loss of control. Unfortunately, I’ve also developed epilepsy, with has brought with it the need to carefully reconsider the ramifications of drinking. I would be less conflicted about making the decision to abstain if there were consensus among health care authorities about the influence of alcohol on seizures and whether (moderate) alcohol consumption is medically permissible for people with my particular chronic illness. Instead, the issue remains nebulous, with no medical body dictating hard-and-fast rules to which I can stubbornly adhere.  I’ve read that having a drink or two a few times a week has no effect on seizure frequency; I’ve been warned that it’s best to avoid alcohol completely; I’ve been advised to listen to my body. Though this last recommendation is of limited use to me, paying attention to my own physical and emotional cues being a skill I have yet to fully acquire, the one-drink hangovers I’ve experienced since beginning a regime of anticonvulsants are a clear signal that it’s time to earnestly contemplate cutting out my twice-monthly beers and occasional mixed drink, which I’ve grown to appreciate in a way that twenty-year-old me couldn’t have anticipated. Better safe than sorry, or so I try to convince myself as I longingly eye the bottle of Hendrick’s in our liquor cabinet. At least I’ve still got caffeine.


5 thoughts on “The A-Word

  1. Also, more than ever before I believe you and I would have been childhood best friends. I wish you had been there for my first ever drink (1/2 ounce daiquiri) on my 19th birthday!

    1. I was just thinking about our Reading Break trip to England… I distinctly recall us entering a grocery store, determined to buy an alcoholic beverage, and leaving with soda. Our version of Spring Breakers 😉

  2. Hilarious storytelling at the beginning re: childhood experiences. I laughed out loud. And then to lead us to the serious questions at the end. Very well-told. Thank you for sharing. Some day these brain disorders will make more sense………

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