24th January, 2021
by Maddie Rogers, art by Caroline Cash
Like any relationship that ends, it's difficult to find the point of no return.
One of my favorite places in the world is a dive bar in Chicago called Cole’s. As a three star Google review put it, “I go here all of the time for the cheap drinks. I mean, the drinks are so cheap, I don't mind the fact that it always smells like urine. Oh, and the bar staff are about the friendliest in Chicago.” Cole’s feels authentic in a way so many bars don’t. It doesn’t need MCM aesthetics or string lights to attract people to it; it has a genuine authenticity that stands on its own. It's smelly and crowded, but it’s a place I feel the most comfortable being myself. I learned to drink there, play pool there, not take shit there. The first time I walked in, I felt like an absolute loser. I was 21 and pretty sure that if anyone looked at me too long I would die. It was a time when I was scared to go to bars alone and to drink alone and to be alone long enough to think about anything. I felt sure that everyone would see how out of place I felt, sitting at the bar with a book I wasn’t really reading and a drink I ordered wrong but was too scared to say so. That was three years ago, before I realized no one is ever really looking at you half as much as you’re looking at yourself. It was before I found a sense of liberation in drinking and being alone at bars. It was before I felt like the version of myself that I wanted to be: full of confidence and possibility.
The first time I got drunk, I was sixteen. My friends and I combined triple sec, tequila, white wine and vodka in a green Superfood Odwalla; you could say I was something of a prodigy mixologist. I don’t know if I actually got drunk or was just experiencing placebo, but I know I felt alive and dangerous. All we did was dance in my room and listen to American Football or something equally embarrassing, but to this day I’m shocked at the lack of ceremony to it--there was very little decision making involved when I got drunk for the first time, even though it’s a moment that shifted so much about my life. Before I had sex for the first time, I spent so long fixating on what sex means and why I do it. In reality, I think a talk about drinking was in far higher order then a talk about sex. The time in my life when I started really drinking in my early 20s was such a pivotal moment. My romantic relationships, my friendships, and my relationship to myself are inseparable from my relationship to drinking. Unlike those relationships, however, I never went into drinking with intention or understanding about how drinking changes you. No relationship can work without communication, boundaries, and intentions. This includes our relationships to other people and ourselves, but also things like sex and drinking. I set myself up for failure because I never really asked myself why I started to drink. I suppose it’s for the same reasons anyone does: to feel less alone, to feel beautiful and hilarious and untouchable. I drink because there’s something in me that feels empty and while I’m drunk, I forget about that thing. It doesn’t go away, but it's able to live less immediately in my brain. I drink because I’m just looking for something to take the edge off. What do you do with an edge that has nowhere to go?
Like any relationship that ends, it's difficult to find the point of no return. There isn’t any one moment I can really point to that tipped me over the edge with drinking, but if I had to pick one, it was probably a month before quarantine even started. I was going out after working my new bar job. I was so excited working there, feeling like I was a part of the great ecosystem and community of working at a bar (I’ve spent too much time around philosophy majors, can you tell?). I felt like I was a part of this history and this community that had done so much to form who I was. I can’t remember exactly how much I had to drink after I left, but we’ll say around 7ish beers, 6ish shots, 4 mixed drinks and some champagne. I was one of those assholes who bragged about just “having a good tolerance”, but due to the fact that I am 5’2” and do not weigh the same amount as a UFC fighter, my body didn’t take well to it. I left my third bar at 3am and got in a bike crash, running into the bumper of a parked car. I hit my chin and wound up in the emergency room with eight stitches. A few days later my jaw started locking up and I couldn’t open it enough to let so much as a spoon in for about a week. I had a bruise that covered the majority of my thigh, which took weeks to fade. Looking back, the craziest part of it all to me is I wasn’t really embarrassed. I think I was looking at it all like a bit that I would laugh at later, because if I thought too hard about how stupid I’d been, I would be too embarrassed to handle it. I felt bits of it, looking at my friends after I crashed, blood pooling out of my chin asking if it “was really bad”. I felt it while they gave me stitches, trying to tell the nurse jokes to alleviate the dread slowly forming in my stomach (her response being “this would be a lot easier if you didn’t talk”, as is the case for most things). I felt it because I was drunk the whole time I was in the hospital and on the ride home. I felt it seeing the look in the eyes of my partner at the time, like I was this completely different person. If I let myself think about how small and childish I felt, sobbing like a baby in the car, then I would never drink again. But I wanted to drink again, because I didn’t want to lose what felt like an essential element to who I was. So I pushed it down and carried on.
Before quarantine, it felt easier to regulate my drinking because there were social boundaries I felt obligated to. I didn’t get super drunk on a random Tuesday because I had a job, a life with structure that didn’t allow me to throw caution and dry heaving to the wind. Over the last 10 months, however, with no job and little motivation to get up before noon, the days have blended together so the weekend never really starts or ends. There is no ceremony to my drinking; there is no intention or special nature to it. It’s not like my reasons for drinking before quarantine were so noble, or like I didn’t delve into these tendencies, but there certainly was more purpose to why I drank. Drinking felt like a destination. It involved leaving my apartment and seeing people and having visceral experiences. It took a lot longer than it should have to realize that my relationship to alcohol had shifted into something unsavory, because I’ve always treated each incident where I got too drunk like some isolated thing. The more I look back the more I see the lines connecting it all: The bike accident, the first few weeks of quarantine buying $200 worth of booze to make cocktails, only to realize it’s a hell of a lot more efficient to just drink straight from a bottle. How every time I’ve gotten anxious over the last few months, my instinct has become to get drunk, in a way it never was before. I’ve wondered a lot if COVID and quarantine hadn’t happened if I would be in the same spot I am, if I could have been someone who knew how to stay full on two beers. I think it would have taken longer, but ultimately my drinking days have always been numbered. Being stuck inside for the last 10 months might have caused a shift in priorities (many of which I didn’t want to shift), but I think it also pushed forward the things about myself that were true all along.
What has amazed me about the last 10 months of drinking is how aimless they’ve been. I used to gussy myself up to go out and drink, when it was an occasion and destination. As of late, the nights I have spent drinking have mostly been alone, dancing in my kitchen at 5am or rewatching movies with an almost violent fervor. Sometimes I make it two-thirds of the way through the night before remembering that I’ve been here before, that this isn’t really a different night or moment. I like who I am when I drink; I like what a little liquid courage does to me. At a certain point, however, the shift happened where I didn’t like who I was when I wasn’t drunk. I had always been married to this idea that a drinking problem can only happen when you’re constantly blacking out or drunk all the time, and I didn’t realize how differently it could manifest itself in me. In some ways, it still feels like my best drinking days are ahead of me. It feels difficult to call myself an alcoholic or say I have a problem when what I defined as a problem before now was miles away from what I’m experiencing. The nostalgic in me is grieving over a lost, hazy future that I had imagined for myself where I was still able to drink. In my sadder moments, where I think about the things I will lose by not drinking, I convince myself of a grand reunion in the future. I convince myself that someday drinking and alcohol and I will reunite like old friends. The past will be forgotten and we will both be ready to be with each other again as though no time has passed. While I know it could happen, ultimately I think I was not built to drink. It's no one's fault, but I do not believe I will ever be someone who knows how to draw that line in the sand and follow it.
I’m two weeks in and I can tell you that my body feels better then it has in a long time, and my mind feels more focused and motivated. Drinking has taken on a foreign place in my brain, like it was years ago that I stopped. I can also tell you that I would love nothing more than to smash a tall boy and a shot of whiskey. Every time someone drinks in a movie or show I’m watching now, I’m overcome by a new and strange nostalgia that I can’t yet place. Like so many people, every day I wake up and wish quarantine would end so I could escape the walls that have contained so much of my drinking. In so many ways, it feels like the worst time to be so fully aware and awake. Every time I tell someone new that I’ve stopped drinking, I’m still surprised by the waves of shame and disappointment in myself that I’ve felt. How frustrated I am that I can’t be someone who knows how to drink in a healthy way. How sad I am that a future I had always imagined with drinking is now shattered, forcing me to reimagine life without it. How embarrassed I am about the times I was too drunk, the person I became that was a shadow of who I really am. Despite all of that, I know I have to proceed into 2021 (and the foreseeable years after) dry. I’m scared that I’m not nearly as interesting and exciting sober as I am when I’m drunk. I’m scared that the sense of confidence and self I gained from drinking will vanish, that the very foundation I laid for my life will crumble without it. I’m also excited to see who I am without alcohol, to become reacquainted with myself. I think 2020 has taught us all a lot about relationships: the ones we realized we needed, and the ones that have run their course for now. Ultimately, the most important relationship I have neglected for the longest time is the one I have to myself, and it’s the relationship that matters the most.
Maddie Rogers is a photographer / writer / bookmaker currently based in Chicago. Through found objects, textures and experiences, she's interested in making the small things feel big and the big things feel small.
Caroline Cash is a Chicago-based cartoonist. She's recently finished streaming the latest season of "Riverdale"