Today is my birthday, and it is my first sober birthday in a long, long time. My birthday slogan for many years was, “No one should remember the day they turn a year older,” and boy oh boy did I make sure that was the case. I threw huge, booze-soaked parties almost every year, and almost every year, I blacked out well before the night was over. I thought this was really funny. I mean it. I genuinely thought it was hilarious that I would get blackout drunk and do incredibly stupid, sometimes even dangerous things that I didn’t remember at all the next day. I would laugh the next morning as I tried to piece together what had happened the night before. My “birthday shenanigans” often became stories I would tell for years afterward. In my mind, it was the stuff of legend. How drunk is too drunk? There was no limit in my mind at the time. I figured I could handle it.
I searched “How Drunk is too Drunk” online and the first answer on the feed was this informative blip from an article in Healthline :
A BAC of 0.08 is the legal limit of intoxication in the United States. A person can be arrested if they are found driving with a BAC above this limit.
The legal limit of intoxication? We have a legal limit of intoxication, an actual number for how drunk is too drunk. The article in Healthline What Does It Feel Like to Be Drunk? covers all of the bases on what it feels like to be drunk, drunker, and dangerously drunk. It’s an interesting read. Because a little further down the page if you search “How drunk is too drunk” you’ll find this – Is Your Friend ‘Sleep It Off’ Drunk or ‘Call 911’ Drunk?
How often have I, and how often have my friends and even my family, been somewhere between “sleep it off drunk” and “call 911” drunk at these legendary birthday celebrations.
Here’s the thing: I grew up in a family of drinkers, in a culture that celebrates drinking, but I also grew up with all of the appropriate “alcohol awareness” education in school.
If we know better why don’t we do better?
I knew that getting blackout drunk was not a safe or wise decision to make. I went through the D.A.R.E. program in elementary school. I had been to the drug and alcohol awareness assemblies in junior high and high school. I saw the endless posters and email campaigns about the dangers of drinking when I was in college. I watched both of my parents struggle with, and ultimately die from, drug and alcohol abuse. I was very aware that it was not “recommended behavior.” The thing is, though, that no one (myself included) really seemed to care. It was tradition.
It was a tradition that began on my 21st birthday when a group of very decent, respectable, hard working people whom I trusted took me out to the bar and got me stinking drunk because that’s what you do when someone turns 21 here in America. It was a family tradition, and if we look closely it is also a cultural imperative that we drink to celebrate and somehow mature into drinkers that know how to draw the line between drunk and too drunk.
I was so proud of my entrance into the adult world of legal drinkers that after my 21sy birthday party, I even made a photo album starting with a snap of the group cheering as I walked up to the bar, a photo of me drinking every shot that was purchased for me, and ending with the final two pictures of the night: in the first one, I am sitting in a booth with a black and red feather boa draped over my shoulders, leaning heavily on my arms (which were folded on the table in front of me because I had been sitting with my head down for quite some time) while attempting to drink one last shot through a straw. In the second, I am walking out of the women’s room with the boa in one hand and wiping my mouth with the other. Everyone who had been at the party thought it was great. My elegant entrance into the adult world of “one shot shy of alcohol poisoning”.
After that, regular drinking, which included regular binge drinking, just became “normal.” All those awareness campaigns (not to mention my personal experience) served to do one thing and one thing only: make me aware that I was behaving in a way I probably shouldn’t. When I felt uncomfortable about it, I brushed it off. I pushed that feeling down and then I went out and partied, because that’s what everyone around me was doing. Almost everyone I knew drank the same way I did, and it wasn’t until those people started settling down that I realized that maybe, just maybe, I had a problem. As it turned out, it was a problem I needed ten years to solve.
When I became a parent, at first, I was a “gray area” drinker, and didn’t think too much about the effect that it might have on my son. He was tiny back then and even though a little voice in the back of my mind kept telling me that it probably wasn’t a great idea to drink so much, he was in bed by 6:30pm and I was “on my own” to do as I pleased. Even when I became uncomfortable with my alcohol consumption for myself, I always thought I had plenty of time to stop before my kiddo got old enough to know the difference. Thus, I soldiered on. Drinking, sometimes drunk, but not too drunk.
Of course, as time went on, he grew up. My alcohol problem did the same. Where I had once started drinking around 7pm and going to bed by 9pm, by the time my son was six years old I was cracking a beer as soon as I walked in the door from work at 5:30pm and drank until I ran out of alcohol or passed out, whichever came first. His bedtime wasn’t until 9pm and by then I’d have knocked back at least four beers, if not more. He started to notice the change in me when I had alcohol in my system and would sometimes ask me what was wrong with me. I brushed him off, told him it was nothing, and sent him off to play or back to bed. Still, I reasoned, that didn’t happen too often. I had time to stop before it had a negative effect on him. I was alcohol aware. Not that bad yet.
By age eight, my child knew what the word “drunk” meant. He knew I got drunk often, and he didn’t like it. He started to get upset when I would stop to buy alcohol on the way home from work or while out running errands. He got even more upset when I drank it. When he told me he didn’t want me to drink, I’d negotiate with him the same way I negotiated with that little voice that told me I shouldn’t be drinking so much. “It’s okay, I’ll only have three beers. I won’t get drunk off of three beers.” Then, of course, I’d pound way more than that, get drunk, and break my promise. It got to the point where he could tell exactly how intoxicated I was just by looking at me, and there were more than a few times when he would walk into the room, take one look at me, start crying, and walk back out. I’m sorry to say that I was happy to see him go because that meant he would stay in his room for the rest of the night and stop hassling me about my drinking.
Not long after that pattern emerged, he started having problems in school. He missed a lot of time because I was always so hung over in the mornings. When he was there, he was so stressed out from not understanding what was going on due to all the lessons he missed (on top of the stress of living with a parent who was constantly drunk and spent zero time with him) that he would just blow up at people. The slightest problem sent him right over the edge and he’d start yelling, refuse to cooperate, and go hide in the bathroom. Then he started to get bullied because he was “weird,” and of course, that only made things worse.
By the time things reached fever pitch for him at school, I was making honest efforts to quit drinking. I was really struggling and was on and off the wagon all the time, but because I was starting to spend more time alcohol free I was also starting to think more clearly. Even though I knew that I had to quit drinking once and for all to make things right, I also knew that leaving him in an environment where he was constantly getting picked on was harmful in and of itself, so I found him a new school halfway through his fourth grade year. He was nine years old by then, and that was probably the first responsible parenting decision I had made since he was four.
The new school turned out to be a godsend for us. The principal there was much less inclined to listen to my excuses about his missed time and threatened to put us on a Truancy Improvement Plan if things didn’t change. That got my attention enough to make me try harder, and his attendance improved quite a bit. By the time COVID hit in early 2020, he had stopped losing his cool, was keeping up with his lessons, and had even made a few friends. Things were still rough at home, particularly when I was off the wagon, but I had at least taken a step in the right direction for him and it was wonderful to see such a positive change.
I continued to drink off and on throughout 2020, culminating in a horrific three week long bender in August. On the last day of that bender, my son and I fought all day long. We started fighting in the morning when he caught me drinking before 9am and it continued well into the evening. We were living with my aunt by this time, and while she usually didn’t hassle me about my drinking (having dealt with a long line of problem drinkers, she knew nothing would change until I changed it myself) on this day she intervened. She was sick of the constant fighting and how upset my son was, and she told me so. I got defensive and angry, ordered an Uber, and took off to a hotel. The next day, I took serious stock of my life and walked away from alcohol for the last time.
Since that day a little over nine months ago, my relationship with my son has completely changed. It was really hard at first. He had been deeply hurt not only by my drinking in general, but also by all the fighting we had done on that last day. I had broken so many promises about quitting drinking that he didn’t believe me at first. He told me he didn’t trust me anymore. I decided to be as honest with him as possible. I stopped telling him I quit drinking forever and told him I could only promise I wouldn’t drink that day. Then I didn’t drink. I told him if he had trouble with remote school, he could come ask me for help, and then followed through when he was struggling. I took daily walks with him so we could talk about his life and feelings, and we started to work through all the hurt I had caused. If I promised that I was going to take him to the park or to the store to spend his allowance, I did it even if I didn’t feel like it. Slowly but surely, every day that I stayed alcohol free, every day that I kept my promises, he healed just a little bit more.
This last school year was the best one he’s had in a long time. He only missed three days of school all year, and that was only because of technology issues and the remote learning setup. I was able to help him with his work and be present for meetings and conferences with his teacher. His grades improved. He started working with a Social & Emotional Learning Specialist and made huge strides in terms of his attitude. I signed him up for a spring soccer league to get him out of the house, and he’s had a ton of fun. At the end of the school year, he was presented with an award for Remarkable Improvement and was well and truly embarrassed by how loudly and enthusiastically I expressed my pride in his accomplishment. He often tells me that he’s glad I’m sober, but that he “got a little more mom than [he] bargained for.”
As much as it’s been wonderful for me to see the difference in myself since I stopped drinking, it is at least a zillion times more wonderful to see the changes in my son. When I was drinking, the denial was so thick that I couldn’t understand how deeply my actions affected him. Now, of course, it’s crystal clear. I have always wanted him to be happy and healthy, but for the first time in a long time, I feel like he actually is. Now that’s something worth celebrating.
And speaking of celebrations, specifically my tradition of celebrating with legendary black-out drinking, it took a lot more for me to become alcohol aware than those courses I took in school. It took becoming a parent and seeing my drinking reflected back to me from the perspective of my son. Any amount of drunk is too drunk. But as long as drunkenness is played off as a joke on our favorite TV shows, as long as taking someone to the bar when they reach legal drinking age and getting them blind drunk is seen as a “rite of passage,” as long as we as a society consider it “normal” for young adults to drink excessively and experiment with drugs, as long as we continue to romanticize alcohol, people will continue to ignore the warnings. I’m not saying that we should abandon the awareness effort. What I am saying is that awareness alone is not enough. Awareness only makes us aware. After that, it’s up to us to modify our behavior. That’s where things get tricky.
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