I like to think I had ten consequence-free years of drinking and drugging before addiction caught up with me and those substances stopped providing me with the fun and relief that I had become quite dependent on. Those happy drinking years took place between my 15th and 25th years. The exact same years that doctors and scientists beg us to keep our children away from drugs and alcohol. If you’re going to drink, start after age 25 they advise us all. Research shows that young people’s brains keep developing well into their twenties. Alcohol can dramatically impact this development, potentially affecting both brain structure and function. This early drinking increases vulnerability for alcoholism in later life. According to the National Health Institute, adults who began drinking heavily in high school are 5.6 times more likely to become alcoholic later on in life. Well geez, National Health Institute, you might have told me this when I was a freshman in high school. Who knew? Although, truth be told, I'm fairly certain that I would have continued on my wine-soaked path into addiction no matter what I was advised. Having been raised by alcoholics, it felt somewhat inevitable. At around twenty-six, I became convinced that I had an "issue" with alcohol and by thirty, I knew for sure that I was an alcoholic. Then it took me 2 more years to finally admit that I really needed help, that I couldn't quit on my own. That, if I was serious about quitting, I had to finally give the dreaded A.A. a try. So I stopped drinking at thirty-two. When I think about the years I knew for sure that I was an alcoholic but just kept drinking anyway, thinking I might "grow out of it" or even "drink so much that eventually I would get sick of it", I'm amazed that I was able to stop drinking at all.
Sometimes people in meetings will say "I knew I was an alcoholic the first time I got drunk". Or "I went from social drinker to alcoholic in my 40s". I usually tell the truth, that I had a wonderful relationship with booze for a good decade until the ungrateful bastard turned around and bit me in the ass. That betrayal crushed me. When I look back on those "golden years" of drinking while not knowing yet that I was an alcoholic, I feel nostalgic for that time. But of course I was already an alcoholic, I just didn't realize it. Case in point is an incident from when I was living in Italy during my junior year in college. I loved living in Italy. I even went back to Florence and lived there for a year after graduating college. When I first landed in Italy, I felt like I had arrived home. Oddly, for someone who had struggled with languages in high school, the Italian language came easily to me and once I had somewhat mastered it I felt even more comfortable. "Of course I'm Irish and German", I would tell my new Italian friends, "ma, nel mio cuore (in my heart) io sono cento per cento Italiana."
There were loads of American students in Florence in the late 80s. We seemed to be everywhere. Taking over sidewalk cafes and drinking macchiatos and cortados (exotic and unheard of beverages in America in those pre-Starbucks-on-every-corner days). There we would laze away the days, speaking an alarming mash-up of English and Italian, smoking hash mixed with tobacco, and mostly getting up to mischief.
One of my favorite things about living in Italy were the endlessly available and amazingly cheap bottles of Chianti. At the time it seemed that only the lovely old-school bottles were sold. The short rounded bottles that are nestled into a "fiasco" or hand-woven straw basket. How sophisticated I thought I was. Waving my hand pretentiously in a local trattoria, calling out for the "cameriere" and ordering "un’altra bottiglia (another bottle) per favore."
Here I was, 20 years old, sitting in Europe and quaffing a fine Chianti. Yes, the only Chianti I could afford at the time was worryingly inexpensive and did stain my teeth and gums an odd shade of purple-y pink but I didn't care, I felt quite grown up and very self-assured. Little did I know that there are endless varities of Chianti. It is a wine fit for paesani (peasants) e papi (popes) alike. I was definitely drinking the non-pope vintage. I thought all Chiantis were the wine equivalent of a bauble from Cartier. They had history. Class. And drinking one, I was convinced, was a sure sign of sophistication and glamour.
Chianti may not be the Cartier of wines but it certainly does have a long-ass history. The earliest written mention of Chianti, in 1398, actually classifies it as a white wine. The first attempt to regulate Chianti came in the year 1427 when Firenze, the province of today's Florence, developed a tariff system for the wines coming into the city from the surrounding countryside.
Despite at least seven centuries of history most Chiantis are not that chic at all. They are ubiquitous, acceptable, and but for a few very expensive versions, definitely not that glamorous or rare. But thankfully I didn't know that. So what does Chianti have to do with my burgeoning career as a drunk? Not much, although when I look back now, it serves as one of my early indicators that I was in fact an alcoholic, long before I decided to acknowledge that fact myself.
One typical Florentine evening, I was hanging out with three friends. We had been drinking and smoking what had been sold to us as hash but in my estimation was probably cow dung. I felt oddly sober, frustrated that the wine and hash combo was not working. I was not getting the comfort or warmth that I was usually guaranteed a half bottle or so in. We had one more bottle with us, a cute little stubby Chianti, but we were missing a corkscrew. We had been with some other friends and, when they left, the corkscrew went with them.
"Oh well", my friends said, "that's OK. We can save it for tomorrow." "WTF???", I thought to myself long before "WTF" was even a thing. Remember, this was the late 80s. "What do you mean?" I asked incredulously."We are NOT saving this bottle for tomorrow. We are drinking it tonight." They appraised me skeptically. "And how do you propose we do that?" they asked. This was late at night but we were in the building where we attended classes during the day. I ran downstairs to the cafeteria and came back triumphant, holding two somewhat battered rusty steak knives. This was pre-internet where anyone can look up "how to open a wine bottle without a corkscrew" and get 524,000 results, some even with helpful videos attached. But that was not an option in those days. I had seen someone open a bottle of wine using this technique at a frat party once and I decided to give it a try myself. I inserted the two knives on either side of the cork, pressing down hard so that the pointed tips of both knives were hidden below the bottle's lip. The tips crammed into the infinitesimal fraction of space between the cork and the glass neck of the bottle. This technique does work, I promise. But now in the days of the repulsive and extremely NOT chic screw top wine bottles, this ancient art of opening a wine bottle without a corkscrew may very well disappear.
I got to work. This technique requires skill, pressure, tension and a slow sort of wiggly pulling/pushing upward movement simultaneously of both knives. The trick is to go slowly, easing the cork up and out, using the knives as leverage, without breaking the cork or the bottle. I was about halfway down the cork when suddenly I slipped and the glass neck of the bottle shattered. I'm lucky I didn't slice my wrists. "Awwwwww, no!!!" my cohorts exclaimed. But they were in good spirits and helped me clean up the mess. I was NOT in good spirits. I needed that wine and there was nowhere to get more. Even if there had been a place open, I had spent my very last lira on that bottle. I was completamente fregati, or screwed.
The bottle's neck had been snapped jaggedly off, scattering splinters of glass everywhere. But the rounded bottom half of the bottle was still 2/3 full of gorgeous, deep red, almost purple Chianti. “I'll get rid of this”, my friend offered, reaching towards the bottle. “NO!” I screeched, somewhat alarmed by my panic. “We can't just throw this away. There's almost a full bottle in here.” “Are you kidding?” my friends said, shocked. “We can't drink that, it's full of glass.” “Let me think”, I offered, stalling for time. And then it came to me. I went back down to the cafeteria and found a small plastic pitcher, usually used for warm sulfuric Florentine tap water. I grabbed the pitcher and stopped by the bathroom where I took off the t-shirt I was wearing underneath my sweater.
When I got back to my friends I stretched the t-shirt over the mouth of the pitcher and I slowly poured the glass-laden wine over it and into the pitcher. Straining out “most of the glass", I assured my amici. I was extremely proud of my genius. “I'm not drinking that shit”, one of my sophisticated European friends said. “Fine. More for me then”, I answered, keeping a steady hand as I dribbled the last of the glass-soaked wine over the wine-soaked t-shirt.
I remember drinking the wine that night. Mostly alone as no one was “man enough” to drink it with me. I will admit that I was quite worried about swallowing the glass, jagged shards slicing my tongue, esophagus or stomach lining. And yet....
I drank it. But for whatever reason I was unable to get drunk that night. Which was infuriating to say the least, after all the toil I had gone through to rescue that Chianti. I never gave this event another thought. Until I joined A.A. “Did you have any indication that you were alcoholic before age 26 or 27 when it really became an obsession?”, my new A.A. friends would ask me. “No. Not really”, I would respond. “I mean there was that time with the broken bottle in Italy, or the time I chugged a half bottle of sickly sweet Grand Marnier when it was all I could find. Or the blackout sophomore year of high school when my 'friends' unceremoniously dumped me on the front lawn of my house to sober up. Or the time I drove 200 miles round trip just to buy grain alcohol. But those were silly things. Childish things. Just a bit of a laugh”, I would say.
But now I see them for what they were, for what they are. Absolute and clear-cut indicators that I was heading down that same alcoholic path that some of my family had trod before me. That night in Italy, the night of the broken Chianti bottle, was a foreshadowing. I needed the wine that night. I felt that furious gnawing in the pit of my stomach that became so familiar in full-blown addiction later on. That intense, powerful wave of simply NEEDING to drink that crashes over our heads and eventually drags us down to the depths.
I have friends today who are not necessarily alcoholics but who really struggle with alcohol. Some have asked me if I think that they are alcoholic, but that is a question I cannot answer. Alcoholism is a self-diagnosed disease and trust me, I don't think anyone really wants to diagnose themselves as an alcoholic. But when you know, you know. I'm just so grateful that I got out of the tangled mess of addiction before one of those "silly episodes" brought me down for good. As for the Chianti, I don't miss it at all. Not even those adorable little bottles in their sweet nostalgic fiaschi. I have traveled to Italy since my days of living in Florence. When there, I do take notice of those gorgeous Italian reds in their sexy Italian bottles. I look at them but I don't stare at them. I think that my days of romancing il vino, and alcohol in general, are finally coming to an end. E per questo, sono grata.