It’s strange how many things I remember so vividly from that night, when there are so many other things I can’t remember at all. For example, I can perfectly recall standing at the vanity in my friend’s dorm room, pouring shots of Bacardi Limon while Lady Gaga blasted in the background. I remember what I was wearing: a fuchsia American Apparel figure-skating dress, black tights, and black flats that I haven’t seen since. I can remember everything that I drank later at the party. But then at some point, a black curtain descends and my memory clicks off.
Freshman year was a great one, but with it came challenges. I was suddenly independent of my parents, in a new group of friends, in a new place, with a previously unknown type of freedom. I was never sheltered or overly protected as a kid, and I did my fair share of rebelling in high school. Drinking wasn’t new to me; drinking to get drunk wasn’t either. But at college, I no longer had to worry about being sober by the time I got home to my parents or lie about sleeping over at my boyfriend’s house. There was nothing holding me back and I ran with that freedom.
I came to college still in the final grips of a relationship that I now know was extremely emotionally unhealthy. I was desperately trying to get away from an ex-boyfriend who made me feel responsible for his self-destructive habits, claiming he turned to them because I hurt him first. Stupidly, I threw myself into a new relationship with someone else, a sophomore named Alex* who was so rational and stable that I thought I could be happy with him without addressing any of the old issues that still hung over my head and made my stomach turn. I was having a hard time shaking the mental image of my ex cutting himself because of our fights – being with someone who would never act like that seemed like a great way to move forward. Alex was safe and steady, older and more mature. But it didn’t matter – when you’re in a relationship with someone, your emotions are linked, and I wasn’t ready for someone to be dependent on me in that way again.
On this particular night, Alex and I were in our usual rough patch. He wanted a normal, committed, happy relationship and I wanted an open one, free to do what I wanted without having to be responsible for his feelings. For over six months we’d been in this tug-of-war, constantly pulling at each other, both too stubborn to give in, and both too attached to walk out. I had invited him to the party, but in truth, I didn’t want him there. I didn’t want to spend the night tied to his side, acting like a girlfriend, pretending to be part of a relationship I didn’t want. I wanted to be myself, talking to everyone, flirting with whoever I wanted, and having as much light-hearted fun as possible. Alex wanted to have a serious discussion about our relationship and “where this is headed,” all of which was way too heavy for me to think about.
So I drank Bacardi Limon shots in my friend’s dorm room beforehand to get my spirits up. Then I had a rum and coke at the party to be social and drink with my friends before Alex arrived and wanted all of my attention. Then someone proposed a drinking game, and I jumped right in.
It wasn’t much of a game, really. It consisted of a circle of people, a passing bottle of Goldschlager, and some sort of chanting-clapping pattern. When the chanting ended, whoever was holding the bottle chugged. I ended up holding the bottle last at least 3 times. I remember the burn of the cinnamon flavor sliding over my tongue and down my throat. It was disgusting, as if someone had liquefied a pack of Big Red gum, but I’m competitive, so I kept drinking. When the game ended, my head felt as if it was floating above my neck, and a pool of fire was sitting directly on top of my brain.
I ran out of the room, feeling a panicked urge to get to the bathroom and spit everything back out before it became part of me, but before I could make it down the hallway, I crashed directly into Alex. Suddenly I was thrilled to see him, colliding into his chest and burying my face in his neck, eager to have him hold me and make everything ok. I was always expecting him to make things okay, things that wouldn’t have needed fixing if I hadn’t made bad choices. He peeled me off of him and held me at arm’s length, taking in the sharp smell of cinnamon and booze.
“What’s going on?” He looked a bit wary, as if tensed and ready for a fight. He had every right to be – we had a history of drunken arguments.
Immediately I blurted out the entire story, proudly telling him how I held my own in the drinking game, beaming at him brightly, trying to show him how happy I was to see him. His expression didn’t change other than his skeptical raised eyebrow arching a little bit higher.
I left him and ran to the bathroom, where I stared into the toilet bowl for a few minutes, breathing in the stench of stale water, listening to girls screech gossip at each other in the mirror, and hoping the cold tile floor would somehow cool the buzzing burn spreading through my head.
When I woke up the next morning, I could barely open my swollen eyes. I had an IV in each arm and one in the back of my hand. White circular heart monitor patches covered my chest, connecting me to a beeping machine by my head. All I could smell was vomit, tinged with a cinnamon edge. Next to the bed, Alex dozed in a chair, but as I slowly moved to sit up, he jumped awake.
Bit by bit, he filled me in. The party had gotten broken up by campus police, so Alex and my friends had taken me outside, knowing I was too drunk to be seen by them. Outside, I went nuts, refusing to leave, and actually biting and kicking my best friend while she tried to make me move. Later, she showed me the bruises of my teeth marks – I have never felt so terrible. They loaded me in a car and took me back to my own dorm, where they tried to bring me to my room. I collapsed in the hallway and refused to move or speak, eyes not focusing. A girl in my dorm called campus police who came with EMTs and evaluated me, and quickly called an ambulance. Alex rode with me. In the ambulance, I finally got sick, but screamed any time the EMTs tried to treat me. At the hospital, four nurses had to hold me down so they could insert the IVs. A large burn was still forming on the back of my hand from spilled fluid during the struggle. I kicked and screamed, and I even bit one of the nurses. Finally, they sedated me and I passed out. At that point, my blood alcohol content was 3.17, meaning 3.17% of my blood was alcohol. At 4.0, most people die. By the time he was done speaking, I was crying.
I immediately called my parents, sobbing to them over the phone at 8 am on a Saturday, definitely still drunk. They handled it well in the moment, something I have forever been grateful for, but even now, years later, the subject still comes up in fights as an example of how irresponsible I am and how dangerously reckless I can be. When the bill came, a whopping $3000-something, I spent a summer giving every cent I made to my parents, which didn’t even begin to cover it.
Alex took me home and helped me into a shower, where I tried to scrub the stink off me and wash the vomit out of my hair, but I swear I still smelled it for weeks after. We curled up in my bed and he stroked my wet hair while I stared off into space, hating myself more than I could comprehend.
Eventually, the bruises from the IVs faded, Alex and I stopped talking about it, and my parents began to ask me about things other than my drinking habits. I finished my alcohol abuse courses with the school counselor, and I began to drink socially again, although cautiously. One of the things my counselor stressed was the importance of building a healthy relationship with booze – cutting it out completely would probably not work for me. There was a problem here, and I couldn’t ignore it. Instead, I needed to learn how to drink within my limits and without seeking emotional relief from alcohol.
For a while after that night, I stuck to one or two beers at a party. Honestly, the appetite for hard liquor and a crazy drunken night was gone. I wasn’t nervous, I was repulsed by it. But parties, friends, and time eventually brought it back, although this time I was different. Before this, I was the first girl on the beer pong table, a champion flip-cup player, and even down to do an occasional keg-stand. Not anymore – I could still drink, but I knew that a personality like mine, one that verged on reckless, needed to keep a safe distance. I finally had realized that it wasn’t the alcohol that ruined that night; it was me and the way I chose to use it. Alex and I struggled through the rest of that year, and I ended up loving him a lot more than I ever thought I would. In some ways my alcohol poisoning triggered the beginning of the end for us, but it helped us reach a new level of honesty and transparency in our relationship, too. It proved to him just how unprepared I was for the commitment he wanted, and proved to me that even a guy as wonderfully reliable as Alex couldn’t make everything perfect for me. By the time we called it quits for good at the start of my sophomore year, I’d reached a new level of emotional clarity that he was partially responsible for. He treated me well in spite of that night and all my other shortcomings, and I’ve always been amazed by that.
Soon enough another friend got too drunk and was shipped off in an ambulance one night, and suddenly the focus was off me, and I found myself happy to be able to call on my own experience to comfort her. I told her that I felt lucky to have had an experience like this, because it had saved me from something much worse. I also told her that the intense regret, embarrassment, and disappointment in herself would fade, just like it had for me. But some things will stay with you for a long time, maybe forever. Three years later, I still can’t even look at a bottle of Goldschlager without feeling nauseous. The spotty memory of that night and the heavy, brutal shame of it still creep up on me at night as I try to fall asleep, and the back of my hand still shows a scar that will probably never fully fade. But I’m glad it’s there – it reminds me that I almost died because of my own stupid choices. Now I see it every time I reach for a drink, and it makes me think twice about whether or not it’s truly worth it.
*Name has been changed.