I don’t drink much. Really, I feel uncomfortable writing about alcohol, because it feels a little like I’m a twelve-year-old writing about being a teenager. I have observed some things about alcohol and drunkenness — I’ve flirted with it — but I have no authority at all to write about it. My observations are things like, “Whoa. Alcohol is so WEIRD. Things get kind of spinny, and you can kiss people with less reservation!”
Some cursory research yields the following scientific information about alcohol. The kind of alcohol you drink is made through a process of fermentation -- which is basically just letting something edible go bad for a while — and distillation. The alcohol found in beverages is called ethanol. When you have a drink, about 20 percent of the ethanol is absorbed in the stomach, and 80 percent is absorbed in the small intestine. Then, the alcohol enters the bloodstream and dissolves in the water of your blood. The way alcohol affects you depends entirely on your Blood Alcohol Concentration (BAC). And this is where it gets a little more interesting.
People pretty much experience the same set of physical reactions, based on how high their BAC is. Until I looked it up, I had no idea that science could explain this. I thought that I had a perfectly UNIQUE tendency to giggle and make out, and then three drinks later cry and try to sleep on my own feet. Nope. If you BAC is 0.03 - 0.12 percent, you’re euphoric. A little higher and you’re excited; then confused; then emotional (this is where you get either angry or cry-y, depending); then you pass into stupor. After that, if your BAC is higher than 0.35 percent, you fall into a coma. So alcohol is not magic. It’s like basically any other drug.
I wish that I could say my reason for not being much of a drinker was noble. It's not. Really, it’s that I don’t do moderation well. You know when you order a pizza and you say, “I will eat just one slice of this pizza, and save the rest for lunches throughout the week?” I feel physically incapable of not eating the entire pizza. I can’t be allowed to have snack foods in general; I’m a bottomless pit. With alcohol, too, I get to the euphoric place and want to experience MORE of it, so I drink more. This is boring. It’s boring because it’s true for just about everyone.
I am writing about this because my relationship with alcohol shifts significantly in New Orleans in February. Mardi Gras changes everything. It seems like the whole city is suddenly drunk, hanging out, making out, playing loud music, and disregarding non-Mardi-Gras-related obligations. Everyone kind of gets a pass. If there’s a time to drink, this is it.
Case in point: Saturday night; Krewe de Vieux; the first major parade of the season. I have never done a great job at watching this parade. I started trying to catch it a few years ago when I started being friends with hipsters. (Believe in or not, I had no hipster friends the first few years I lived in New Orleans. To be fair, I didn’t really have any friends at ALL the first few years I lived in New Orleans.) Krewe de Vieux originated as an art parade (it’s an offshoot of a huge ‘70s parade called the Krewe of Clones, which had its roots in the Contemporary Arts Center), but now it seems like it’s basically just about penises. I’ll probably get in trouble for trivializing the parade, but there are a LOT of penises in it.
Two years ago, for all intents and purposes, I fell in love at Krewe de Vieux. It was the beginning of a wonderful relationship with a man that lasted exactly one year; the last time I saw him was at Krewe de Vieux LAST year. Then the relationship kind of quietly died, in one of those knife-twisting ways that leaves behind a long-winded list of questions.
This year, I went to a party. Just writing “I went to a party” gives me a particular thrill, because I’m not the kind of person who goes to parties. I don’t really get invited to them, because I vocally don’t really like them. I mean, honestly, what is good about a party? You have to be in a room where the music is so loud that everyone has to shout; you can’t move around easily; you are supposed to make conversation with people you don’t know and will never see again; and it’s not socially acceptable to nap. Parties are dumb. But also, secretly, I know that they are cool. When other people tell me that they have gone to a party, I think, “Whoa. That party-going person is COOL as ICE.” So writing here that I went to a party makes me feel secretly a little proud. I went to a party. I am a cool person.
The party was hosted by my friend who is a comedian and her roommate, whom I have always had a crush on. He made a huge pot of coffee-cooked greens (I don’t know that he’d describe them as “coffee-cooked,” but he cooked them in coffee instead of water, so I’m going to describe them that way). My comedian friend made a giant pan of oven-baked Macaroni and Cheese. Someone brought fried chicken. Also, there was a whole table JUST FOR ALCOHOL. (I know that this is typical for a party, but you have to remember that I really don’t go to parties. Everything about this situation was totally novel for me.)
I brought face paints so I wouldn’t have to talk to anyone. People kept bringing me strong drinks in plastic cups, and I kept thinking, “This will all be easier if I have a lot to drink.” There were moments when that was true. I hit the euphoria stage pretty early, and my face painting compositions got suddenly AMAZING. I was doing eye-swirls on peoples’ faces with a sort of artistic recklessness that I think made me look a little like a genius. When we went to watch the parade, my coffee-cooking crush (who was wearing a wedding dress, obviously), pulled me to the front of the crowd. I could hear the less drunk, timid people in the crowd begrudging us for pushing, but they got over it. I had never been so close to the floats! Women in pink glitter and drooping penis regalia (I told you!) handed me dirty playing cards; rulers; flowers; condoms. Everything felt swirly and beautiful and impossible to puncture.
And then, at some point, I started to cry. People who recall stories of themselves being drunk always include a line that begins with “at some point,” or “somehow, and I’m not sure how.” I’m not sure how, but I ended up lying in a bed, sobbing, feeling like the world was ending, with a pile of emotional baggage so huge I wouldn’t be let on a plane with it.
The rest is embarrassing. I cut my hand (somehow), I rode my bike home like a wobbly chimpanzee, I ordered a pizza (somehow), I cried on the floor of my room, I cried into my roommate’s pants, I texted three ex-boyfriends, I called my sister and hung up on her multiple times, I called a few other people I loved and yelled at them, and so on and so forth. The "so on and so forth” here is more pitiful and depressing than you can possibly imagine.
And then I woke up the next morning and had to repair all the bridges. I wanted to understand how things had gotten so bad. I wanted to know the science behind my meltdown. I researched alcohol, drunken behavior, and bipolar disorder (which I suffer from, as you know if you read my blog often). I found answers, but they weren’t good enough. Shouldn’t I be old enough and wise enough to know how to not get so drunk that I screw up all my relationships and eat 1500 calories while sobbing in my bed?
But we make mistakes. Sometimes we make the same mistakes we’ve made before. Being a grown up doesn’t mean we stop making them; it means we stop beating ourselves up so much for making them. It means we forgive ourselves faster and recognize that we will need to re-learn what we have un-learned. We live with what we have done, and we get up, and we start again.
I apologized to my sister and the people I’d called on the phone. I didn’t apologize to the ex-boyfriends because honestly, that was just going to make things worse. (To one of them I had just texted, “Erika! Erika!” To no reply.) Then I tried to rest in the knowledge that I’d had an adventure, and my life would be richer for it. Science be damned.