As a child, I would drink soy sauce straight from the bottle. Over Sunday night dinners of sweet and sour pork and egg drop soup at House of Kong, I’d excuse myself to go to the bathroom and, on the way, snag some Kikkoman off the nearest table. Hidden in a stall, I’d down nearly half the bottle before returning to my family. I stopped, not because I was caught but because House of Kong shut down. When telling this story, I describe myself as a “tiny child alcoholic.”
I don’t remember what I did to get thrown out of the bar. Based on eyewitness accounts and physical evidence, I’ve come up with a pretty feasible working theory. I stole someone’s cigarettes and someone else’s lighter, though not necessarily in that order, and then tried to light up in the bar. This hypothesis is supported by the pack of Camels I found in my purse the next morning, the fact that Drunk Tristan usually becomes a smoker around drink seven or eight, and my hazy memory of telling someone, most likely the bartender, that I could do whatever I goddamn wanted.
I didn’t realize I’d been thrown out until after my friends had successfully folded me into their car. “Way to go, jackass, you got me thrown out of my favorite bar,” one said. He told me I didn’t believe him for most of the ride home, but I have no memory of this. I remember the moment I accepted that I’d been thrown out of the bar, because I burst into tears, sobbing and apologizing. In my shame, I insisted that I would sleep in the car, and I refused to get out—until I had to vomit, which I had the decency to do in the yard instead of the backseat.
I woke up on my bedroom floor, not because I fell out of the bed but because that’s where I’d gone to sleep. I’d believed I didn’t deserve the comfort of a bed. I remember that part clearly. By this point in my life, I had a sort of muscle memory for the excruciating shame Drunk Tristan gives me.
The thing is: I can make this story hilarious. There are wild gesticulations and crocodile tears and three different voices, as well as a punch line about why Sober Tristan still has asthma. I can spin any of Drunk Tristan’s exploits until my listeners cry from laughter. Bits about Drunk Tristan kill.
I didn’t quit drinking the first time I got thrown out of a bar, nearly thirteen years ago. The Devlins were playing an encore, and I decided to rush the stage and climb on an amp. The Devlins sound like the Avett Brothers, only more Irish, more earnest, and less lyrically adept. Not exactly the sort of music that inspires stage-rushing—unless you’re Drunk Tristan.
After I was pulled off the sound equipment a third time, the bouncers stopped trying to be nice about getting me out of the bar and into my friend Joya’s car, which is how I ended up with a sunset of bruises running down both arms and the right side of my back. For about three days, I was briefly famous on the Devlins’ MySpace page as the girl who ruined the Minneapolis concert. This was right before Facebook and phone cameras, though. If incriminating photographic evidence exists, I’m unaware of it. I was twenty-two years old.
I started drinking at twenty, far later than most of the people I grew up with in our mid-sized Mississippi town. I described myself as the only kid in America for whom D.A.R.E. worked. My science and health classes began receiving weekly visits from the D.A.R.E. officer in sixth grade, and these moralizing indictments of drugs and alcohol continued until I graduated from high school. Though most of my classmates were too polite to mock Officer O’Bannon to his face, I noticed a distinct lack of concern for the consequences of substance abuse.
What made me such a ripe candidate for the lessons of the Drug Abuse Resistance Education program? I’m not really sure. Both my parents drank socially: Kahlúa for my mother, beer for my dad. My family never attended any sort of religious service, let alone one where we learned about the evils of drinking. All I can think of is that I’m easily terrified. I am terrified of jail, terrified of upsetting my parents, terrified of becoming less attractive. Have you ever seen a picture of a meth addict? Officer O’Bannon had several, and tooth retention is not a meth addict’s strong suit. For all of high school and the first year and a half of university, I very much enjoyed the view from atop my sober high horse.
When I started drinking, it wasn’t because I realized a couple beers and a few hits of pot probably weren’t a direct gateway to heroin, prostitution, and incarceration. I started drinking because I got tired of being everyone’s sober buddy. The sober buddy herds everyone out of the bar and wrangles everyone home. The sober buddy makes trips through three different drive-thrus to accommodate the cravings of her drunk friends. The sober buddy sets up a trash can beside everyone’s bed, leaves a glass of water on every bedside table. The sober buddy gets left with the dishes and puddles of bodily fluids while everyone else sleeps it off.
So one Friday afternoon, when my roommate Melinda repeated her weekly offer to pick something up for me on her trip to the liquor store, I said sure. Absolutely she could pick something up for me. We were hosting a party, after all. Why shouldn’t I have my fair share of the fun?
“Just get me, like, twelve of whatever,” I told her.
“Are you sure?” she asked. “Also: twelve?”
I drank for the first time that night, a combination of Boone’s Farm pink wine and a six-pack of Mike’s Hard Lemonade. I don’t know if I was really drunk or just lightly buzzed and following everyone else’s lead. I do know that being Drunk Tristan was fun. She danced on tables and kissed strangers. Sober Tristan was too shy to talk to David McCarty. Drunk Tristan enjoyed long walks on the Kinsey scale, turning out to be a little less than purely heterosexual. People laughed at Drunk Tristan’s jokes. They threw their arms around Drunk Tristan’s shoulders and told her how great she was. Drunk Tristan felt a little like Cinderella. And, when the party ended and everyone turned into hungover pumpkins, Drunk Tristan sure as shit didn’t wake up hours before everyone else to scrub spilled beer out of the carpet so we could keep our security deposit.
More than just being Drunk Tristan, I came to love the rituals of drinking. On Friday afternoons, my roommates and I went to Sonic to get half-price, 44oz. Slushes. We drove home listening to the Afghan Whigs with the windows rolled down, slurping our giant drinks, making lists of all the reasons we needed the drinks we were about to have—our professors expected too much on the term paper, our work-study bosses stood too close to us, our parents disapproved of our majors. We’d earned the right to get drunk and cut loose, and we didn’t let each other forget it.
At home, we filled our Sonic cups back to the brim with Bacardi and sat on the back porch until the sun set. Our neighbors in the apartment complex would join us, or invite us over for bourbon Cokes and the chance to watch Dune for the twentieth time, or offer us a ride to Dave’s Darkhorse Tavern, where Marc, the guy at the door, knew I was only twenty but never asked for my ID and never drew black Xs on the tops of my hands. I loved the promising local bands who played in backyards next to beer pong tables. I loved deciding, at midnight, to drive two hours to the casinos on the Choctaw reservation so Patrick could teach Kristen how to play blackjack. I loved how much more fun Drunk Tristan had in her life.
I even loved the hangovers that came with their own rituals. I loved waking up with a headache and a dry mouth, piling into Theresa’s backseat for McDonald’s on Saturday mornings. I loved extra large Diet Cokes and two Egg McMuffins and handfuls of store-brand painkillers. I loved camping out on the sofa, everyone bringing pillows and blankets from their own beds, and watching the same five episodes of Dawson’s Creek Melinda had recorded on a VHS.
Just over a month into my drinking career, I consumed an entire punchbowl of sangria at a Day of the Dead party. When I woke up feeling amazing, I assumed that sangria didn’t make me hung over. I set out to seize the day, laced up my trainers, stretched out my hammies, and promptly jogged into a tree.
Another Saturday a month later, I woke up feeling amazing, and it took me several hours to realize it was because I’d gone to bed sober. I’d already forgotten what it felt like to wake up without at hangover. But everyone drinks too much in college, right? That doesn’t mean you have a problem. Scarcely two years later, security forcibly removed me from the Devlins’ concert.
At twenty-four, I was thrown out of a bar for the second time, for disrupting trivia night. The pertinent detail, the thing that I want you to remember, is this: the trivia host was an asshole who accepted both “Baba O’Riley” and “Teenage Wasteland” as correct answers during the audio round. Which is total bullshit. The name of the song is “Baba O’Riley.” The only people who call it “Teenage Wasteland” are the people who first heard the song in the opening credits of CSI:NY. But, because the asshole host made this bullshit call, my team tied for first instead of winning outright. We were forced into a sudden-death speed round about Soviet geography.
Which we lost.
Which I took very poorly.
Which led to the bartender asking me to please leave the bar immediately and strongly consider never coming back.
You’re probably still on my side, right? That’s not the name of the song. It’s just not. Consider this: my displeasure took the form of taking drinks out of the hands of random bar patrons and smashing the tumblers on the ground. Not even the drinks of the team we’d lost to, but the drinks of innocent bystanders. That’s Drunk Tristan for you.
Part of my hangover ritual became promising to never drink again. I need to stop doing this, I said over and over. “You’re not an alcoholic,” is a sentence I heard a whole lot of times in response.
“It’s not like you need a drink first thing in the morning.”
“You don’t even keep booze in your house.”
When I told a friend, no, really, I need to stop consuming so much alcohol, she gave me the email address of an army chaplain who led AA meetings on base. I don’t drink every day, I wrote to him. Sometimes I go weeks without having anything to drink. Both things were true, but justifications for my drinking habits lurked beneath my cry for help.
Look, he wrote back, if you think you have a drinking problem then you probably have a drinking problem. If you’re concerned enough to reach out to me, you probably need to stop drinking.
I didn’t answer his email, but I stayed sober for six weeks. My rationale, when I started drinking again, was that I just needed to learn a little self-control, a little moderation. It wasn’t like I really had a problem.
Sometimes a job application or dating site will ask me to describe myself in three words. Usually I go with, “creative, energetic, humorous.” Though I never write them, the words that spring immediately to mind are “no self control.”
My roommate has a box of ice cream sandwiches in the freezer, unopened. Eight perfect, chocolate-y, delicious ice cream sandwiches, completely untouched, for going on two months now. My mind boggles. How has she not eaten them? How?
My cupboards and my section of the refrigerator are fully stocked with food that I consider to be, you know, all right. My pantry does not contain a single item that I find unspeakably, craveably delicious. Because I would eat all of that food in a single sitting. The longest a box of breakfast cereal has lasted me is three days, and that doesn’t really count because I had food poisoning on the second day. As soon as I felt well enough, I went straight back to the Cheerios.
Two days ago, I bought a twelve-pack of apricot-flavored La Croix. I currently have zero cans of apricot-flavored La Croix. As soon as I got back from Target, I drank three cans, back-to-back, standing in the middle of the kitchen, my shopping bags on the floor next to my feet. Momentarily sated, I finally put away the rest of my groceries: the tofu and cauliflower that are, you know, just fine.
Addicts love all sorts of things to the point they become unhealthy, not just alcohol or narcotics. Gambling, food, and sex, to name the most common, can all become addictions. There’s no one thing I love to distraction. If something distracts me enough, I’ll give it all the love I have. I’ve stayed in the shower for over an hour, depleting the hot water, enjoying the steam and soothing pit-pat of the water falling. I stayed in bed for seventeen hours once because the mattress was so comfortable. I’ve finished entire six-season runs of a television show over a long weekend. When I order a pizza, I eat a pizza, the whole thing. And, yes, if I have a twelve pack of beer or a bottle of wine in the house, I’m going to drink all of it.
The second time I quit drinking I was twenty-six. I started my night with my girlfriends in a basement bar called Communes and ended it in a bedroom I didn’t recognize, waking up to find a stranger taking my pants off. My shirt was rucked up around my armpits, and my bra had been pushed up to expose my breasts. He was already naked. As soon as I realized what he was doing, I shoved him onto the floor. I remember being grateful he left my shoes on because it made it easier to get away.
I found my purse and stumbled my way through his studio apartment to the front door. He trailed behind me, still naked, muttering, over and over, “This is a mistake, there’s been a misunderstanding.” He didn’t stop me from leaving, which is the best thing that’s ever happened to me. I cried the whole cab ride home, stayed in the shower for nearly an hour, and locked myself in my apartment for the rest of the weekend.
I didn’t tell anyone this story for five years. I couldn’t figure out how to make it funny enough. When I finally told a friend, she asked me if I was just drunk.
“What do you mean?” I asked.
“Do you think he gave you something? Were you roofied?”
“No,” I said. “Just drunk.”
“Oh,” she said, and in that one syllable I heard a world of judgment. She thought less of me for just being drunk, not drugged. I wasn’t a good enough victim.
One hundred percent of rapes happen when a person decides to commit rape, but I still blame myself for this near miss. What kind of idiot becomes so inebriated she loses hours of her life? I don’t remember meeting this man or getting in a cab with him. I don’t remember the trip to his house, and I was surprised to find he lived on the fifth floor as I fled. Sobriety can never keep me entirely safe, but it does make me a less easy mark.
Being the only person at dinner without a glass of wine is no fun, though. Watching sports without a beer is no fun. New Year’s Eve with a glass of carbonated water is no fun.
Or, maybe it is. Maybe everyone else can have a good time watching the game with a glass of lemonade. Maybe that’s the problem: that I don’t know how to enjoy life as Sober Tristan.
When I started drinking again, three months after nearly being raped, I set up some ground rules. Only drink with people I trust. Don’t keep alcohol at home. Don’t drink in bars, just at someone’s house. Don’t stay out after midnight. I followed these rules for a month or two, and then I found ways around them. I could drink cocktails in a nice bar, not two-dollar wells in a dive. I could stay out past midnight with a specific set of friends. I could buy a bottle of wine on my way home on Fridays after work.
Once, head draped over the toilet, convinced I wasn’t through puking, I pissed myself. Unwilling to deal with the mess, I made the choice instead to black out on the bathroom floor in a puddle of my own urine. If I tell it right, this can be a funny story. But it’s not. I was thirty-one years old.
I rarely tell the whole story about Drunk Tristan. I leave out the less savory details, but I don’t lie. I didn’t drink every day. I could go weeks without having a drink. I’ve never started my day with alcohol instead of food, and I don’t need alcohol to fall asleep. I’ve never driven drunk or knowingly gotten into a car with a drunk driver.
But since that first Friday night when I drank twisty cap pink wine straight from the bottle, I’ve never, ever, wanted just one drink. I don’t want two drinks, or even five. I want to be drunk. Pulling into the parking lot of a bar, I would be thinking ahead to my sixth beer, my fifth shot. Almost exclusively, I drank to the point of blacking out.
Binge alcoholics can go long periods without drinking, sometimes months, but can’t drink in moderation. When they take a break from drinking, they don’t experience traditional symptoms of withdrawal, though the smell of alcohol can trigger cravings. Binge alcoholics drink in excess for the sole purpose of becoming drunk. They lose time and often can’t remember what they did while drunk.
That’s Drunk Tristan for you in a nutshell.
When I first typed these words, I was ninety-three days sober, the longest I’d gone without alcohol since my first drink at twenty. The odds of relapse don’t drop below fifty percent until after five years of sobriety, and right now I’m at four.
Well before the release of Jurassic Park, my parents took my brother and me to a museum to see a display of animatronic dinosaurs. My brother, only five at the time, stood at the entrance to the hall of dinosaurs, too scared to fully commit but too enthralled to walk away. Three decades later, I found myself in the same position, at the head of the alcohol aisle in a grocery store.
I was housesitting for friends in a neighborhood where no one knew me or my resentful alliance with my own sobriety. No one would bat an eye at a couple bottles of Yellowtail in my cart, and no alarm would sound at the self checkout, blaring my relapse to the store.
As much as I want a second, third, fourth chance to prove I can moderate my intake of alcohol, I don’t want to have to re-prove for the fifth, sixth, seventh time that I can live without it. I don’t want to wake up in strange rooms, next to strangers, unsure of what day it is.
The walk toward the wine display won’t end with me passed out in the grass, next to my own vomit. At least not tonight, probably. But I’d get there eventually. I always did.
Hello, my name is Tristan. I’m an alcoholic.
“Hello, My Name is Tristan” first appeared on our website on March 22, 2021. It will subsequently appear in Meridian Issue 45.