“Don’t puke now Sabia.” So the quote reads in my senior yearbook. My friend wrote that to me as what I can only assume is the thing he remembers most about me from our four years together in high school. I was a puker. I was a drinker. So, I didn’t think it was that strange at the time. (My Mom didn’t like it I remember.) I wasn’t really addicted to drinking. I was in love with the atmosphere of getting drunk. Playing drinking games, standing outside in a concert parking lot, sitting around tables in smoky rooms, swaying on a balcony overlooking some tranquil scene, pumping a keg in a muddy field, dancing in humid basements, it was all part of growing up. I thought it was what all teenagers do. What else was there to do? When I came to Korea, I actually met someone who had not only never been drunk, but also never imbibed alcohol. I didn’t know how to respond. “But, you went to college right? But, you’ve been to a party or a concert or a bar, right?” And, he just never participated in it.
It wasn’t all peer pressure for me; it was lots of curiosity and a little naïve Jim Morrison emulation. I couldn’t wait to get drunk. I liked to be drunk and I liked the feeling of inhibition. There are so many wild times and so many funny stories that I can recall of crazy things happening around a drinking event. Sure, halfway through I was vomiting, but I would recover and finish the night strong usually. I used to wonder if my life would get boring if I didn’t drink. Would my stories all involve making good life decisions and getting home on time?
I decided to stop long ago in 2006 when I woke up in a bottom bunk of large hostel somewhere in Munich, Germany. Three days earlier I had thrown up blood in the middle of the night after a fun, albeit mostly blacked out, day in the tents of Oktoberfest. Here I was, terribly hung-over, again, exiting the clean, polished German youth hostel in the early afternoon, I walked into the piercing sunlight, luckily finding a nearby fruit stand, buying a watermelon and a liter of water and consuming it all, slowly but steadily.
I knew I couldn’t sustain this level of intake. Paraphrasing George Carlin, “Eventually, with all drugs, there comes a time when the pain becomes larger than the pleasure, and you have to say to yourself, this isn’t working anymore.” My blackouts diminished into maybe 1-2 a year instead of 2-4 per month. Getting sober causes its own problems. Your old drinking buddies might still drink. Your family might still drink. Many of the activities you do might involve drinking. You start wondering how you can actually preserve your promise to yourself. I did manage to extricate myself from my cycle of ‘drink and recover’ to where I can enjoy my awareness of the world without substances. Some alcoholics literally cannot be around people who are drinking. I just had to learn to say ‘No.’ I still wanted to be able to drink a little, just not black out or feel bad in the morning.
There is a group desire to drink together. The idea of ‘Cheers’ is to induce this congratulatory feeling upon the crowd. “We can be a party of silly fools together, Cheers!” Some people are angry drunks, others philosophers, hornballs, dancers, exibitionists, pass out artists, flatterers, or stooges. Whatever category you may fall into, if you’ve drank before, someone has a story about you.
I do remember a few stories of my blackout days. I was at the Red Hot Chili Peppers concert. I had had too much and was gently sleeping on the filthy grass of the Camden E-Center hearing the anticipation building and intermittently opening my eyes to see the clouds drifting through a darkening sky backlit by the sparkling Philadelphia skyline reflected in the Delaware River. Summer concerts were romantic and beautiful if you could ignore the urine and trash.
I suddenly got an urge to stand up and be a part of the scene. When I did so, probably looking like those push button collapsing statues, when you let go, standing up quickly and awkwardly, I heard the roar of the crowd behind me. RHCP had come onto stage at that same moment, but in my drunken narcissism, I thought the vibrations of the crowd had been pleading with me to stand and when I followed their desires, they erupted in a unanimous cheer for me, “He’s back!”
Another time, I was in Portugal, in a small coastal town famous for partying and 3 for 1 shots, and playing pool with a gorgeous Spanish girl. I was feeling good, drinking, making shots and impressing her. Perhaps 8 hours later, I wake up walking down the cobblestone street in the chill of the morning cursing loudly and angrily. I’m not sure if you’ve ever woken up from a blackout while walking, but it’s like waking up from a dreamless sleep in a strange bed by an overly loud alarm and then getting punched in the face. Suddenly, you are conscious again.
I looked down at myself and was ashamed and amused. I had a strawberry crepe stain on my chest and bike tracks across my legs like Wiley Coyote after a run-in with the Roadrunner. My head hurt more than I’ve ever felt before, my white shoes were almost black and I had no idea where I’d come from or what I’d done. That should have been enough of a warning to me. But, that revelatory morning in Germany in 2006 was still a month ahead of me at the time. I thought it was a win because I had all my teeth, my wallet, my camera and knew where I was. Drinking is dangerous.
Fast forward to last Friday night when I threw a party for my co-teacher who is getting married this Saturday. It was a great night; everybody was having fun and laughing. Eventually, two people from the group starting having too much fun. They got very drunk and a strange scene ensued of one falling asleep in the coffee shop and the other cursing us for our lack of knowledge on how to deal with such a situation. I watched through the lens of an experienced drunkard and was aware of the suffering inside us all that can sometimes be evacuated through our intoxicated bodies. The stress, fear and anxiety we all feel in our daily lives can find a terrible outlet through the bottle.
And here in Korea, that bottle only costs 1$. Soju is an incredibly cheap liquor, its alcohol content somewhere between wine and whiskey and priced less than a Snickers bar. You can’t walk too far in the exceptionally dense city of Seoul after 9:00 p.m. without seeing someone staggering under the arms of his or her associates. It’s visible on the tables of every BBQ joint, kimbap house and 7-11 table from Incheon to Busan.
The world has made things that can taste good, but aren’t always good for you, just look at the donut. But, soju tastes like cheap nail polish remover. It’s not a mystery, Koreans work very long hours; and it’s a stress reliever of sorts, I suppose. But booze has never fixed any problem, it just made you forget about it until you sober up. To quote the Oscar Wilde of cartoons, Homer Simpson, “[a toast] to alcohol, the cause of, and solution to, all of life’s problems.”