by Hannah Green
When I came to the U.S., I was pleased to see that Americans drink just like Africans. They get just as drunk, do the same stupid shit, and find any excuse to crack open a cold one. However, I also found a distinct lack of vocabulary for talking about being drunk, and, as every writer knows, a good vocabulary is indispensable for telling a tale. A single well-chosen word can say so much more than a bland paragraph, it can describe a moment, a scene, a mood.
There’s a whole scale of drunkenness to talk about, a gradation of ways of feeling and acting under the influence. From the general tipsy to the all-out three-sheets-to-the-wind drunk where the drinker’s ship has sailed and it’s not clear when their binge will end. It’s not just a case of being drunk or sober. You can be the everyday buzzed, blitzed, or pissed. Cockeyed or shitfaced. Pickled or wrecked. You can tell someone is sloshed when they walk about as well as their drink stays in its cup. You can be loquacious as a lord, or as legless as a pirate after six months at sea. I’m sure we’ve all steered a dancing friend or two home from the bar when they’re those-aren’t-strobe-lights-they’re-headlights drunk. Then there’s befuddled and befucked where it really doesn’t matter what you call it there’s no coming back until the drinker has sufficiently emptied the content of their stomach in a bush or trashcan, but preferably in the nearest toilet bowl if you can drag them there in time. And, to be avoided at all costs, my all-time personal favorite: snot-flying-drunk. Which is exactly what it sounds like.
While I’ve been on both ends of the spectrum, my favorite spot is the comfortable sozzled which lies somewhere between buzzed and sloshed. Sozzled is how champagne must feel if it got drunk: bright and bubbly, light and festive, just drunk enough to make you think you’re witty and have others agree. But it’s been a while since I’ve been there.
No one ever told me I had to learn how to drink. When I was young, it seemed so easy. You were either drunk or you weren’t. But when I started drinking, I found a whole world of drunkenness to explore, a landscape of stories to write about. I launched my fearless exploration of this territory when I was fourteen with a sip of Castle Larger stolen from a can my uncle left in the fridge. I discretely cracked the tab just enough to get some out, but not all the way. When he visited again a few months later, the beer had gone bad and he wasn’t sure why. Next came a few sips from the brandy my mom kept for baking, gulps of the liqueurs my parents took nips of on extra special occasions. Soon I seized endless opportunities to chug, slurp, and swig any drink that came my way.
It was easy to get drunk when you were underage in South Africa in the ‘90s. The legal drinking age is still eighteen but back then few shop owners enforced the law. This let me try ales, lagers, ciders, wines, coolers, mixers, and shots (Jell-O and otherwise), pretty much any type of alcohol my friends and I had access too. We were indiscriminate drinkers. I also tested a few sayings I’d heard in my childhood. Whiskey indeed makes you frisky, and gin sure helps you sin. I eventually discovered that while what you drink is important, when you drink isn’t. I’ve partied all night and watched the sunrise from the hood of a car. I’ve started a New Year’s Eve celebration with so much gusto that I passed out by nine and woke alone at two in the morning to find my friends had all gone clubbing.
There was also one very festive morning at a local restaurant that started with Kahlua in my coffee and ended with shots of Jägermeister. I developed a particular fondness for that cough-syrupy brown liquor that, when interspersed with plenty of water, was guaranteed to get me drunk and keep me buzzing for hours. I have a vague recollection of the morning in question, of celebrating an insignificant event with my friend Suzie. It might have been the end of a college semester or payday, maybe it was just because it was a Tuesday. I remember a couple of hazy moments where I fell off my chair and dropped my cigarette in her beer. But the day is mostly a blur, except for two details. First, I know I got home sometime after lunch. Second, I woke up in the early evening and found an extensive array of pony- and butterfly-shaped temporary tattoos covering my arms, legs, and torso. You see, as a writer, I find one of the wonderful aspects of drinking is that, whether you remember what happened or not, you’re always left with a story to tell.
I don’t drink anymore. Not really. I’ve lost my taste for wine and beer. I’ve developed a peculiar allergic reaction to tequila—one whiff and my stomach heaves. I avoid shots too because they tend to make me sad or angry drunk, although I can still always be tempted if Jäger comes my way. In social situations, I occasionally go with a single moderately priced cider or a fruity cocktail. A Screwdriver or Sex on the Beach, if only so I can crack lame jokes about the name. I nurse this drink for hours, letting the ice melt and dilute the alcohol, if only to avoid others asking why I’m not drinking.
I always tell people I stopped drinking after I drove home from a night out and couldn’t remember how I got there. I remember leaving the parking lot of the Keg and Baron pub, I remember pulling into my driveway, but the half an hour it took to get from A to B are gone. Not hazy, not black, just gone. The arrogance and invincibility that comes with one’s early twenties convinced me it didn’t matter. But the ‘what ifs’ multiplied as my drunken recklessness continued. What if the cops had pulled me over? What if I lost time again and woke up somewhere with someone I didn’t know? Or what if I wrecked my car as nearly happened one night as I raced my friend home in our respective vehicles. With inches to spare, I noticed my headlights reflecting off the black car parked on the side of an unlit road and managed to slam on breaks and swerve behind my friend, narrowly missing her back bumper. The weight of these actions wavered though, and I kept drinking well through my mid-twenties, although the nights slowly became less enjoyable after my friend was hit by two rat-arsed drunk drivers. The first knocked him off his motorcycle into oncoming traffic. The second drove over his waist, all but crushing his pelvis. After three uncertain weeks in the hospital, it finally looked like he’d make long but full recovery. But then he got pneumonia and died a few days later.
The real reason I don’t drink anymore is that it doesn’t mix well with my epilepsy medication. It’s petit mal temporal lobe epilepsy, so I don’t have grand mal seizures, I don’t lose consciousness and my body doesn’t spasm. But that doesn’t make it any less difficult to deal with as the simple partial seizures come with sensory and psychic symptoms that affect my hearing, vision, and emotions. This can linger for days after a nightlong binge. When I drink on my medication, I experience cases of sad drunk or grumpy drunk. Instead of dulling my stress and anxieties as alcohol should, they come rushing at me and I tend to dwell on stories. Stories I’m not good enough to write. Stories I want to tell but I don’t have courage to. Stories I wish I’d written. Stories I’ve written that I wish I hadn’t. Stories I wish I could forget. The pharmacological interactions also make me tired, slow my thought process, turn me into suck-the-life-out-of-the-party drunk. There aren’t really a lot of words to describe that kind of drunk, I guess because people don’t like to talk about it. And I don’t like to talk about my epilepsy, because people get a weird, slightly fearful look. It’s as if they expect me drop to the floor at any moment and they’d be stuck trying to shove a spoon between my teeth so I don’t bite my tongue or they’d have to perform some other epilepsy-related TV trope.
Regardless of the cause of sad or angry drunk, it’s always a little awkward and there’s never really a good time to bring it up when you see someone that way. I generally take it as a sign that they’re wrestling with unpleasant thoughts and I don’t want to intrude. And, while it seems like they’d fare better drinking on their own than dampening everyone else’s alcohol primed party, I never advise anyone to drink alone. That’s taboo, hinting at signs of alcoholism, of potentially unresolvable problems. No good ever comes from drinking alone. I’ve always preferred not to drink by myself, because sometimes alcohol amplifies the thoughts I’d rather not think.
In a way, I guess it’s strange that I don’t drink anymore, because, frankly, I’m actually quite fond of getting trashed. My confidence increases, I become quite hilarious, I discover hidden talents, like my ability to bust a move and my Emmy worthy renditions of Janis Joplin and Elvis. And one thing I’ve always wanted to try is getting absolutely shitfaced and trying to write. I imagine it’s quite liberating, that the alcohol will drown out the insecure editor in my head, that somehow the floodgates of literary greatness will open, and pure gold will fall from my fingers. After all, it seemed effective for several of the literary greats. But, every time I contemplate doing it, I get scared, because… what if it works?
Occasionally, I still get tipsy, maybe even a little liquored up. Mostly I seldom drink enough to even register on the spectrum, just enough to take the edge of my social anxiety. Of course, I would never tell another writer not to drink. After all, no one ever convinced Charles Bukowski, Raymond Carver, or Tennessee Williams not to drink. Or Capote or Highsmith or Poe. Or Kerouac. Sexton. Hemmingway.
Writers should know all too well the consequences of drunkenness, not to mention the suffering of sobriety. Hell, it feels good to pour yourself a drink after a long day, it helps you detach from all the bullshit that comes with teaching and studying and students. As a teacher, there’s no doubt that a drink or two sure helps with grading. And, when you get to week thirteen and half your students suddenly realize that there is this thing called a grade and that it does in fact matter and that yes the answers were in the twenty-page syllabus all along, taking the time to step away from your email and have a drink may very well save your career. Honestly, I’m overdue for another night of dedicated drinking, another binge to purge my mind for a few hours and my wallet for the rest of the month. Eighteen months ago was the last time I was downright twatted—a wedding, a free bar, a story for another night.
H.R. Green, born in South Africa, now lives and writes in the Midwest with work appearing in publications such as Pank, The Rumpus, and McSweeney’s.