I opened my eyes in a strange room.
I was lying on a couch in a dark basement.
My skull felt like an eggshell.
A wound covering nearly half my face had dried to the upholstery and peeled off when I lifted my head to look around. My pockets, which might have contained evidence of what I’d done, or where I’d been, were empty.
I put my hand to my face, which had started to ache, dully at first and then in hot stabs. I felt the warm stickiness where I’d thrown up on the cushions before passing out again.
I’m now 26 and seven years sober. But that morning in April 2008, I was a college freshman with a serious drinking problem. Six years earlier I had followed my older brother into our parents’ liquor cabinet and discovered how unafraid and sociable I could be with a little alcohol in my system. Before I even had a driver’s license I was blacking out nearly every time I drank. Drinking made me someone I was terrified I couldn’t be otherwise: the gravitational center of the room.
In my mid-teens I would drink faster and faster, trying to reach an apex of euphoria. Then I would wake up in harsh morning light with a night of amputated memory. It felt as if someone else had been in possession of my mind and body: “He” had taken over. I often gauged the severity of his rampage by my nakedness: The less clothed I was, the worse he had been. If wallet, keys and cellphone remained in the pockets of my pants, the episode had surely been mild. A black eye meant it had been particularly bad.
By junior year of high school, away at boarding school, I was no longer the friend to put in a guest bed after a night of binge drinking — because I’d pee in it. But beyond that, the consequences of my behavior were nil. To my friends, these episodes were just part of who I was.
At home, my brother and I, and our rowdy friends, secluded ourselves on the top floor of our house where we couldn’t be heard. We were sneaky, cunning and good liars. When we did get caught with bottles here and there, my mom wasn’t sure how much drinking was normal for high school boys. She was an only child, and for most of her bookish childhood she had lived alone with her mother.
Three days before graduation, I came to in my mom’s week-old GMC Denali, which I had crashed into a stone wall abutting someone’s garden. Blue flashing lights were coming up the road. That first scary consequence — a night in jail and thousands of dollars in property damage — did nothing to slow my drinking: I lost my license, did my time in court-mandated classes and went on with a young man’s willful disregard for the consequences of my drinking.
After the DWI, though, I kept a low profile around my family. A graduation party I had planned was canceled, and I was grounded all summer. My mom bought a breathalyzer. At gatherings, she watched me like a hawk to make sure I wasn’t drinking. To my parents, the incident was the first major red flag that my drinking wasn’t normal. But I just became more elusive.
Our fraught family history with alcohol motivated my parents. When my dad was 8, his mother, who was an alcoholic, died in her mid-30s after falling in the bathroom. His older sister died of alcohol poisoning and cirrhosis when she was a few years older than I am now. My maternal grandfather, a pathologist who had several martinis a day for decades, had been a functional alcoholic, according to my mother. But who’s willing to say his or her kid is an alcoholic at 18? Maybe my parents hoped I would grow out of it.
My brother, a year older than I, had quelled his partying when he got to college, where he’d matured a bit. He’d begun telling me I had a problem, either out of sincere concern or because I embarrassed him nearly every time we were out together, or both.
To me, college seemed like a great place to party. After my first night as a freshman, I woke up in an Adirondack chair in the middle of the college quad, freezing, wet with dew and with no idea how I’d gotten there or what I’d done the night before. What would become regular blackouts amused my peers and became fodder for cafeteria mythmaking, an unwavering celebration of college excess. The stories followed my name like accolades.
Most of my friends seemed to be able to drink while causing less trouble; they just danced or ended up in a girl’s bed or their own. I couldn’t understand why I always did something I regretted — how “he” was taking over more and more of my life.
Medical science has an answer. Studies identify two types of blackouts: “fragmentary,” in which one can remember bits and pieces, and “en bloc,” in which one remembers nothing.
Until the early 1970s, researchers believed that someone who experienced en bloc blackouts was an alcoholic. But more recent studies have found that those blackouts are likely a function of how quickly one drinks and whether one has blacked out in the past; if the drinker is young, blacking out frequently can damage the brain’s frontal lobe and lead to lingering problems with memory and attention. Regardless of whether or not a college-age drinker is an actual alcoholic, college drinking is conducive to blackouts.
My blackouts were almost always the en bloc variety. Friends would describe in vivid detail drunken exploits of which I had no memory. I hated these recaps; contemplating my doppelganger’s existence terrified me. The stories depicted me/him as someone who threw beer bottles at passing cars, insulted strangers and got beaten up. He got ejected from bars, parties and dark dorm rooms with girls. I always wondered how he had gotten into those rooms in the first place. Was anything about him likable — or was it just reptilian confidence?
On the mornings after those episodes, I would have to answer for the things he’d done. But apparently he could come off as charming: Some people claimed to have had wonderful, heartfelt conversations with him. He left behind clues: When I scanned Facebook, I’d see photos that would provide insight to his whereabouts; my pockets would have crumpled copies of citations from the police. To me, he was an abstraction, my subconscious acting out all the terrible things it wanted to do.
By November of my freshman year, the campus police started to take notice. I got cited twice for public drunkenness and possession of a fake ID, and had wrestled with the arresting officer. Facing expulsion, I took a medical leave and enrolled in intensive outpatient rehab for drinking.
I lived at home and my mother drove me an hour to the hospital and back every weeknight for three-hour sessions that continued for three months. We talked candidly in the car about our family history with alcohol and my own situation. My dad, though proud of my decision to seek help, rarely spoke about it in depth with me. He had grown up in a stoic environment in which hardships weren’t really discussed.
In the group therapy rooms I saw for the first time how addiction could ruin your life. My group included a wealthy, handsome banker who had lost custody of his children; a woman who had been arrested driving her kids to school drunk; a former construction worker who hadn’t been able to stay sober enough to hold down a job in years; a well-spoken, erudite man with a gray goatee who was so addicted to pills that when someone dropped a Tic Tac mint on the floor, he stared at it as if nothing else were in the room. I was by decades the youngest person there, but otherwise no different; it was only a matter of how much I still had left to lose.
When I returned to school in January, months sober, I felt strong. But I hadn’t prepared myself to return to loud drunken gatherings orbiting a keg. Rehab had offered no lessons on sobriety in college, where drinking sometimes seemed the only reason for existing.
I made it a month before I cracked open a Natural Light, the cheap beer so beloved by kids that they have a nickname for it, Natty Light. For most of second semester I lied to my parents that I wasn’t drinking — and I blacked out every night.
And then came the time when my face was stuck to the couch in that dark basement. I awoke with a bright light shining on me and a man’s voice behind it.
“What’s your name?” the voice asked. I didn’t answer. Three cops stepped forward with flashlights; one put cuffs on me. The other two rolled me onto my back. A cop helped me up, looked at my wrecked face and muttered, “Jesus” before taking me to an ambulance.
The paramedics asked me if I had taken any drugs. I wasn’t sure. I fell back asleep and woke up in a hospital bed with an IV in my arm. The area around my eye jutted out, puffy and swollen. The wound had begun to harden. My shirt was soaked in blood. I mined my subconscious for clues until a doctor came and stood beside me. In his look I couldn’t decipher where sympathy ended and aggravation began.
“You college kids,” he said. “Do you know what you did?”
I did not.
“You really scared the hell out of that family. The father almost stabbed you.” Wide-awake now, I asked what had happened. He explained that my blood had a nearly lethal alcohol content of 0.37 percent. I’d broken into a home in the middle of the night and wandered through the rooms, including the bedrooms of two young children, until their father heard me and called the cops. The police found me on the basement couch covered in blood, urine and vomit. My face would heal, the doctor added; he was prescribing me 20 Vicodin pills and giving me a pamphlet on alcoholism and addiction. The irony was lost on me at the time.
In a taxi I ate half the pills, hoping to crawl back into the void. I woke up in my dorm room 24 hours later. My brother stood in the doorway. Sent by my parents, whom the doctor had notified, he had driven from his school an hour down the road to retrieve the painkillers. He took them silently and left.
Hours later, I heard yelling out my window: “Face!” “Face!” My friends stomped up the stairs and jumped onto my bed. “Let us see.”
Faced with expulsion or voluntary withdrawal, I chose the latter. But first I had to attend class looking like the Terminator after his human visage chipped away. My classmates sought the humor in it; it was all epic, legendary. But nothing like this ever happened to them. A friend explained between cackles that it had been a professor’s house I had broken into. She was the head of the English Department; I was an aspiring English major.
My dad picked me up. I went back to the same outpatient rehab for another three months and briefly took Antabuse, a medication that makes you violently ill if you drink alcohol while using it. I took a two-year hiatus from school, during which I worked as a garbage collector, traveled and attended community college in Santa Barbara, Calif. (because it was on the opposite coast and sounded warm).
Over those two years, moving around and meeting new people, I learned to introduce myself as a nondrinker and take whatever reaction I got. I practiced on ephemeral friends, in environments that didn’t matter, without attending meetings or “working on my recovery” in any organized way. But the circumstances of my last drunken binge left little ambiguity: I was a person who couldn’t drink. I was nervous about returning to my college, but when I did, as a junior, I found that my friends, who were now seniors, respected the change I’d made.
My first week back, at a meeting led by a dean and a public safety officer, the officer warned us not to let freshmen drink in off-campus houses “because this one time . . . ” — and he launched into my story. A few seniors noticed me and snickered; the dean recognized me and shut the cop up. I learned to laugh at myself and to own my own stupidity.
In the years since, I have drawn on the severity of that last night to fortify my identity as a nondrinker. Obviously I had help and support in getting sober — and in getting through what could have been debilitating charges and legal entanglements — that many do not. But that is only part of the equation. One’s own mind is ground zero. The isolation can be difficult; not drinking when you’re young can feel as if you’re perpetually on the outside looking in. In social situations, people express discomfort when my non-drinking comes up; they’re sorry for me. I always have to explain gently that I’m fine — that this is just my life — and why their pity or incredulity (“You’re never drinking again?”) is unwarranted. This is an especially delicate subject, I’ve discovered, on first dates.
Historically, researchers tended not to study “social drinkers,” those who manage not to get hospitalized or arrested, opting instead to focus on long-term alcoholics. As a college student, I suppose “social drinker” was the way to categorize me. I was a kid, and kids black out: Studies say that between 35 and 50 percent of undergraduates have blacked out at least once. Fifty-nine percent of those women but only 25 percent of those men said that that one blackout experience scared them enough to change their drinking habits.
That means 75 percent of guys were not put off. At college, I sometimes drove wasted friends to the very emergency room that treated me. One had punched through a window for a laugh. Another had broken his wrist in a fight, in the car while I was driving. Those incidents, now often told as funny stories, were the inevitable outcome of the games we played, the quantity of alcohol we consumed and the speed with which we drank it. Many of these friends now consider themselves social drinkers, but many still black out every weekend. The line between drinking like a normal 20-something and drinking like an alcoholic can be murky.
One incident from my hundreds of blackouts still haunts me: Late one night in high school, I woke up leaning out my bedroom window, firing an air rifle at passing cars. When I came to the next morning, I thought I had imagined or dreamed it, until I looked out my window and saw the air rifle embedded in a bush two stories below. Not until years into sobriety did I think: What if I had hit a driver in the head?
And what if on other nights I’d killed someone with my mother’s car?
As for the English professor whom I had so thoroughly scared when I ended up on her family’s couch? She eventually dropped the felony criminal trespass charges. I called the family to apologize. The father forgave me after saying that his kids still couldn’t sleep. I started to sob, the only time in my adult life I can remember doing so. His breaking voice made me realize what I had put them through, and how lucky I was: Some other homeowner might have had a shotgun.
I was finally scared. But I also cried because I felt stupid that it had taken me this long to understand. His family had given me a crucial opportunity: making it obvious I had to stop for good. All they asked for in return for that gift was a new couch.
Yeager is a freelance writer based in New York. He recently completed a fellowship at Outside magazine in Santa Fe, N.M., and is a 2014 graduate of the Columbia Graduate School of Journalism.