I was five years old the first time I had a drink.
I was in a pirate phase at the time, intrigued by the evil antagonists of my favorite movie, The Swiss Family Robinson.
As has been true my entire life, when I get into character, I want to embody all aspects of the lifestyle. So as a pirate, it wasn’t enough for me to wear a bandanna and carry around a sword made from a stick and a Tastycake pie tin. I wanted a parrot, I wanted scurvy.
I wanted rum.
Of course, I didn’t even know what rum was. All I knew was that pirates had a song about it, and I sang it incessantly.
Finally, driven mad by me belting out “FIFTEEN MEN ON A DEAD MAN’S CHEST” everywhere I went, my father called my bluff.
“You want rum?” he said. “I’ll give you some rum.”
My parents have never been liquor drinkers, so the only rum we had was in the basement, moldering on a forgotten shelf. It was a quarter bottle of Captain Morgan, the label brittle and yellowed, gifted to my parents when they got married 20 years prior.
“Ok, Pirate,” Dad said, handing me the fifth. “Down the hatch.”
I puffed out my pirate chest, adjusted my eyepatch, and took a swig.
And then, I promptly spewed it all over the concrete floor.
I’m sure being exposed to the damp basement air for two decades didn’t help the flavor, but I still remember the flames of the liquor clawing at my throat.
“How was that?” Dad said, laughing.
“Spicy!” I said, fanning my smoldering tongue. That’s what pirates had to drink? Jesus. No wonder they were yelling ARR and losing limbsall the time.
To the layperson, it might seem like Dad’s prank would be grounds to call Child Services. But I now see it for the ingenious parenting tactic it was. Thanks to that sip of septic Captain, a drop of alcohol didn’t touch my lips for almost 15 more years.
Now I work at a brewery and the act of drinking has become a part of my normal life. But back then, the woosh of an opening can would make my blood freeze. I didn’t even want to be in the presence of alcohol, for fear it’d somehow spill it on me and my parents would smell it, like that episode of Full House when DJ goes to the dance and Kevin, her date, gets busted for drinking beers in the hallway with a mullet-haired bad boy.
And my parents would’ve caught me, of that I am certain. Because my mom was a high school teacher and my dad was a reformed hell raiser once almost expelled for slapping his band director on the ass, they knew every page of the teenage shithead playbook. I tried to rebel once or twice in middle school, but the manual labor resulting from my punishment was so heinous, by the time my friends discovered wine coolers, I had already resigned myself to the straight and narrow.
I can’t totally blame my parents for my stunted adolescence, though. They placed the same stringent sanctions on my brother, but, like a normal teenager, he just fucking ignored them.
While my idea of high school fun was writing parody songs at the church lock-in, Ben was acting as a look-out while his friends let the air out of bus tires in the school parking lot. He must’ve been craftier than me, because the depth of his nefariousness didn’t come to light until years later. One day while Ben was in college, my dad noticed something floating in the bottle of whiskey he kept for when my grandfather came over and wanted a shot. It was mold, he discovered, formed in the apple juice Ben had replaced the whiskey with.
“Oh,” Ben said when confronted with it. “My friends and I drank that at homecoming years ago. Sorry about that.”
To reconcile this behavior with myself and not feel like a complete coward, I called myself straight edge. For those unaware, a straight edge lifestyle is kind of like being vegan, where you refuse yourself drugs and alcohol out of a sense of moral superiority. At 16, this felt like a thing I could identify with, but in hindsight, I was straight edge in the same way a pizza-faced dude who played Magic: The Gathering claimed he was saving himself for marriage.
Like I think it is for a lot of people, going away to college was my first real opportunity to reinvent my personality, to break out of the role I’d typecast for myself the last 18 years. As I watched my parents drive away that first day of school, I remember feeling scared and nervous to be on my own, but also excited at the possibilities of my new adult life.
I’ve never had trouble meeting new people, so I fell in with a group of friends pretty quickly. They were funny and listened to the same music I did, and they made me feel comfortable. Maybe even comfortable enough to try drinking a beer, I thought one night while I laid in bed.
The Saturday night before classes began, I sat with my new friends in their dorm rooms, talking about the sorts of things strangers talk about on blind dates. Then one guy named Colin opened the closet and pulled out a 30-pack of Natural Light, the official beer of college freshmen.
“Anybody want one?” he asked.
The muscles in my neck and shoulders tightened. It was like someone had just pulled out a sack of cocaine and a spoon and said who’s up for a little freebase pong?
Colin pointed a can in my direction. I knew this was the moment. Was I the old, lame straight edge Sam? Or was I fresh college guy Sam?
“I’m good,” I said, disgusted at the cowardice in my voice. “Thanks anyway.”
Colin didn’t seem to mind, shrugging and cracking the lukewarm beer himself. But as I gazed around, looking at my peers feeling so at ease, engaging in this relaxed social activity together, I couldn’t help but feel left out. Is this how it would be for the rest of my life? I’d exclude myself from perfectly normal human conduct because I was scared? Furthermore, exactly what was I scared of? Would my parents walk in the door and catch me being bad?
I was just about to tell Colin I’d changed my mind — you know what dude? I’ll have one of those brewskis after all — when the partly-closed dorm room door opened, and in stepped a police officer.
I’d already been warned in freshman orientation that University Police weren’t just rent-a-cops. In fact, they were a special division of the State Police, and they frequently patrolled dormitories on foot just to make sure everyone was safe.
I’m sure this officer was a normal-looking person, but in my memory, she’s an SS officer in a 1960s comic book: death skull insignias on her collar, a monocle, a giant scar running across her cheek.
“Good evening,” she said as my friends slid their Natty Lights behind their backs. “Can I see everyone’s ID, please?”
I absolutely feared my parents, but if there was someone I feared more, it was cops. I’ve known plenty of friendly law enforcement officers in my life, but, like my first sip of rum, my first interaction with the police was a scarring one.
In sixth grade, my class participated in a program called Operation Aware, which was basically a bootleg version of the DARE campaign. OA, as the cool kids called it, was a day-long role playing adventure that warned against the dangers of drugs.
The script was the same every year. In Act I, the class would gather in the multi-purpose room and pretend to be at a party. A sinister, shifty-eyed drug dealer would infiltrate the party and distribute drugs to some of the guests, and then, one of them would overdose.
A panicked sixth grader would pretend to call the police, and a real cop — our town’s chief — would march in and arrest the scumbag drug dealer who brought the dope and caused all this strife.
In this Shakespearian tragedy, that scumbag drug dealer was me.
I volunteered for the role for the same reason I do anything: I relished the attention I thought it would bring me. It was fun entering the world of a bad boy I knew I’d never be, passing around my prop bag of powdered sugar and cackling like a cartoon villain.
But, as the chief slapped his very real handcuffs around my wrists and led me to his very real patrol car and pushed my head down in the very real way I had seen a hundred times on Cops, it wasn’t so fun.
My heart raced all the way to the hospital, where Act II would commence and our poor friend, who’d snorted too much of my powdered sugar, would have a sheet pulled over his head. That was the part where all the girls would cry, but my lesson was learned in the back of that car. I never wanted to have that feeling again, I decided, the steel digging into my wrists. Never ever.
The Fraulein began checking our ids while I quietly ruined my underpants. “What happens now?” I whispered to Colin. “Is she going to take us to jail?”
“I honestly have no idea,” Colin said.
While part of me knew the right thing to do was play it cool in front of my new friends, another more primal part, went into survival mode. It was this instinct that won out, and I headed for the door like George Costanza caught in a kitchen fire.
“Hi,” I said to the cop, trying to stop my lip from trembling and my eyes from spilling over. “I want to be honest. I don’t drink, I wasn’t drinking. I’ve never had a drink.”
The officer looked me up and down, scanning me with her bullshit detector. “I’ll take a breathalyzer or whatever,” I said. “I just wasn’t a part of what these people were doing.”
Maybe it was my naked expression of fear, or maybe it was my willingness to trample on the buds of friendship I had just begun to cultivate, but the cop nodded and stood aside. “Okay,” she said, “you can go.”
I found out later my friends didn’t go to jail. They were given citations for underage drinking and had to appear in court. I drove Colin to the courthouse and listened to the judge dress him down. He was fined $200 and required to serve a few hours of community service.
“Man,” I said as we drove toward campus. “No offense, but I’m glad I don’t drink.”
That remained my stance for the rest of my freshman year. No matter how safe a party seemed, I knew the second I opened a beer, University Police would descend in a swarm.
My irrational fear caused me a lot of anguish. I felt ostracized at parties, unable to access the liquid courage that dulled the anxiety of talking to new people. I withdrew, spending a lot of time walking around campus and taking photographs of empty parking lots while listening to Bright Eyes on my Discman.
I’d tell my mom about my depression on the phone, about how all I wanted was to be normal, to drink a beer, but I was too afraid.
“Well,” said Mom, the same parent who didn’t let me go to sleepovers past the 8th grade and set my weekend curfew at 10 p.m. “Have you tried smoking pot? You might like that.”
I found myself in a more comfortable position my sophomore year, living in an apartment with two guys I’d gone to high school with. Steve and Travis were great guys, funny and laid back, and they welcomed me into their friend group. I felt at ease, so much so I decided one Friday morning that I’d drink a beer at the party we were throwing at our place that night.
Hurricane Isabel had just roared into the DC area, cancelling classes and putting the entire campus into a lockdown. We figured if we were forced to shelter in place, we might as well have a party to celebrate it. So we purchased a great deal of Hurricane malt liquor and invited an intimate group of 50 or so friends to join in the celebration.
I was having the time of my life. With a can of Bud Light in my hand, I was finally a normal Joe College, tipping back a few brews with the boys. I had another, and then another.
While I was halfway through my third can of Bud Light, my cheeks flushed, my body humming with a new sensation, the power went out.
Everything was surreal in the darkened room. The crowd cheered and yelled while my roommates went about the apartment lighting candles.
“Are you okay?” asked my friend Randi, who knew this was my first adventure in alcohol.
I told her I felt a little out of control, a little worried, but I would be okay. Randi had me sit next to her and told me that if anything bad happened, she’d take care of me.
Her services were needed sooner than expected. About 10 minutes after the lights went out, Steve and Travis, who’d drank a lot more than three Bud Lights, began to argue. Even if I could remember what the issue was, it wouldn’t have made much sense. It was the kind of conflict that arises strictly from a booze-soaked brain, when logic is tossed aside.
Steve and Travis argued, and then they yelled, and then they started pushing each other. Then Steve threw a punch, and Travis fell into the coffee table.
The party erupted into bedlam. Travis was crying, Randi and the other girls were crying, Steve was yelling and trying to free himself from the other roommates, who restrained him.
And I sat there watching it all, my hands clutched to my face, incapacitated by three light beers.
Though they made up in the morning, Travis ended up with a pretty gnarly black eye, which he wore that weekend to his sister’s wedding. And I was once again on the wagon.
I was done for good after that, wholly convinced the universe was sending me a pretty clear signal. I waited until my 21st birthday to have another beer, a Yuengling I drank unceremoniously with my dinner at the campus Applebee’s. By that time, I didn’t want it to be an event. I just wanted it over with so I could close another chapter in my life.
To my relief, drinking became just another thing, an opportunity to enjoy myself and the people around me.
Of course there were wild times after that, nights where I slept curled around a toilet or with one foot on the floor to stave off the spins. I eventually got over my childhood fear of rum. I was 22 and living in Rockville when someone pushed a shot of Captain Morgan in front of me. I raised it and clinked it into my friend’s. “A pirate’s life for me,” I said, my own little inside joke, and took it down the hatch without spilling a drop.