Words and photos by Michael Aaron Brown
Editing by Joe Trinkle
I can remember having my first drink when I was about eight years old. You see, my parents had went away for the weekend leaving my babysitter in charge. She was the teenage, neighbor girl across the street who was my entire grasp of the world beyond the middle-class suburb I was confined to. I was completely amazed by everything she did and said. She was my link to a world that my parents didn’t want to tell me about, where people partied and did things without telling anyone. I wanted to be her, or at least be like her, and as soon as my parents pulled away in the family car, I got my wish.
She told me that she would be having some of her friends over for a party and that I could hang out as long as I didn’t say anything. I played it cool and told her it was fine and that I wouldn’t say a word. Before I knew it, there was a room full of teenagers and it took every bit of will power I had to play it cool and act like this wasn’t the greatest moment of my young life. I watched as they explored my house and talked about people and places I had no clue about and it wasn’t long before someone asked me where my parents kept the booze. The house that I lived in at the time had a full bar with all kinds of bottles that I had been told to never touch and a small fridge that was only for beer. I had tasted a sip or two of my fathers beer, but I never had drank anything from the forbidden bottles under the large mirror that were stacked like seats at a football game. I somehow understood that the amount of alcohol my parents had was way more than average and that by showing them, I was going to instantly be accepted and praised for the information I provided. They were like starving animals at the sight of a fresh kill — wild with joy and excitement. I saw no problem with them drinking whatever they wanted. I wasn’t in charge and couldn’t think of a way that I would be blamed for anything missing or out of sorts. I watched with great pride as they smelled, sipped, laughed, and talked, knowing that I was the reason they were all so happy. I was finally getting to be cool and it felt great; and it wasn’t long before I was asked to join in on the fun. I was already intoxicated on affection and promises of friendship, and everything I was conditioned to believe about those bottles being bad had been completely erased from memory. Without even a second hesitation, when a shot was poured for me, I drank it exactly the same way everyone else did — fast and straight down. I don’t really remember the taste, but I remember the burning feeling going down my throat and into my belly like I swallowed fire. My brain was sending signals that told me to scream or cough or vomit, but the looks of acceptance and amazement I was getting were overpowering all those urges. I kept a straight face, not showing the pain and discomfort I was in, and as soon as I could speak, I repeated the same thing I heard all the strong-looking, tough, older guys say after they drank: “That’s some good shit.” All the girls looked at me in complete wonder and all the guys were completely taken aback by my performance. There were loud shouts of praise and words of approval that felt a thousand times more genuine than anything I had ever heard before. I felt accepted. I felt alive. I felt motherfucking cool.
After that night, I knew that anywhere I went that I could bring booze or I could drink I was going to get something like that feeling. All throughout grade school, junior high, and high school, all I did or tried to do was get drunk, fuck chicks, and do drugs. I only had friends with similar interests and only did things that coincided with it. People would say things like, “You’re going to ruin your life,” or “You’re too young to be acting like that,” but I always felt like they were just trying to stop me from being a part of something that only they were supposed to do. From drinking I segued to drugs, and when I found drugs, I realized they produced the same feelings — but with better effects. There was nothing I wasn’t willing to try and there wasn’t anything I didn’t like. By the time I was sixteen, I had done everything. Getting wasted was the only thing I cared about and everything else took a back seat. I started losing friends, my parents had no hope in me, and I was failing out of school. I dropped out, tuned in, and turned on. I looked up to rock stars, extreme athletes, and celebrities as the only possible paths for what I wanted to do with my life. I started to believe that if I kept going, something good would eventually come out of it. I played in bands, rode BMX, and tried my hardest to get everyone I met to know and like me.
Around the time I was eighteen, I had worked at least a dozen jobs and was starting to realize my plans were beyond flawed. I couldn’t make enough money to support my habits and take care of myself. I wanted to get away and start over. I had made a name for myself, but not the kind you want. My house was a nonstop party, and I knew I had to leave or I was going to get thrown out. So, I moved out and did my best to act like I had my shit together. For about a year and a half I couch-surfed my way across the country, looking for the next party or the next place where I would be accepted, and time after time, when the party was over, I was the only one still trying to keep it going. I came back home and tried my best to start over, but without drugs and booze I couldn’t keep myself together. I had been treated for a number of mental disorders throughout my childhood and, now, after years of abuse, my mind was falling apart. I had lost almost all my real friends. I was utterly alone. I saw no point in living and finally tried to take my life several times with booze, pills, and other drugs. I ended up being committed to a mental hospital, going on welfare and social security, and being heavily medicated. Things just got darker and darker and I just did more and more drugs, until a friend of mine asked me for a place to live. As soon as he moved in we started partying . After about two days straight, I passed out.
When I finally came to the next day, I was still completely out of it. We had been on one hell of a bender and I was ready to start back up again. I walked over to the next room to wake up my friend. As I turned him around, I looked at his face. He was pale and blue, his eyes and his mouth were open, staring off into the sun. My first thought was that he was fucking with me, so I went to touch him; his body was cold and lifeless and it all hit me. When I was younger I was in Boy Scouts, and somehow I remembered how to perform CPR. I held his nose, put my lips to his mouth, and tried to blow air into his lungs I pumped on his chest and repeated. I got him to where I thought I heard him breathing, and realized I needed help. I went running for my phone and was so lost in the reality of everything that I couldn’t even remember 9-1-1. I called and told them where I was and that I needed help, and went back to try CPR again. This time, when I tried to breathe life into him, all I heard was the sound of my own breath leaving him and I knew he was gone.
The EMTs showed up and everything went silent. People were rushing in and out, and nothing even registered in my mind. After a few hours, I was taken to the hospital and sent directly to rehab. I can’t even tell you how long I was there, but I got clean. I got released to a halfway house in the city that was literally on the same block where I used to buy drugs. After watching someone get shot in the head, I broke down and called my mother as my last effort to try to repair my life. She didn’t want anything to do with me and I didn’t blame her. But she came down to get me and took me to her house. She was living on an orchard in the middle of nowhere. I had been there before, and it was a beautiful place. For awhile I really tried to get my life together. I got a job on an organic farm and I worked on the orchard. Things were good for a bit, but eventually I fell back off the wagon and started using again. My mom realized this, and one night she called me out on it. I lied through my teeth, the way I had a million times before, but she wasn’t buying it. She made me stay home and I started to withdraw. I didn’t sleep at all and the next day I had to be at work. I tried as hard as I could to get out of it, but she wasn’t going to let me get away this time.
The man that was running the farm was the first honest, real person I had meet in a long time, and when I got to work and tried to get out of it, for some reason I just couldn’t lie to him. I told him everything. The fact that I had started using again and that I was going through withdrawal and that I couldn’t work. He looked at me with a completely honest face and told me everything was my decision, and that if I couldn’t help him he understood, but he had work to do and if I wanted to help, he would be out in the field. With that, he walked out the door and left me sitting in his kitchen. It was the first time in my life that I was really being held accountable for what I was doing and not being told what to do. I sat there and cried, realizing how much of my life I had already pissed away and how lucky I was to even be alive. I wiped the tears from my face, got myself together, and knew that I was in control of my life — that no one else was. I walked out to join him in the warm spring sun and started my life over.
That year, I turned twenty-one — a milestone in most people’s lives. My mom threw me a party and got what was left of my good friends to show up. It was a lot of fun and I stayed sober the whole time. For a few months after that, I didn’t drink and I just soaked up what it was to be a simple person living a simple, clean, honest life.
I’m not exactly sure when, but after I moved out of my mom’s and started living with some friends, I started drinking again. I mean, I was twenty-one and what I was doing was legal. I swore off drugs and started actually having fun drinking. Life started moving on. I got a good job — 9 to 5 with benefits — and I ran into a girl who I was infatuated with in high school. We started dating and everything was magic. I had never been this happy and this proud of myself. My life was starting to come together and everything was better than I could have ever asked for.
I had been working at my job for over a year, working my way up the corporate ladder, and was starting to feel the stress of bills, bosses, and modern American life; yet, while my days were hell, my nights were bliss. My girlfriend had always suggested I go back to school, and feeling stuck in the position I had at work, I started really thinking that it was the right thing to do. Before I could make a move, my company got rid of my job and I was transferred to another division. My old job pissed me off and stressed me out, but my new job was just horrible. My girlfriend was making great money working at a sports bar, and after talking to her, I decided to quit my job and go to school. After that, paradise was lost.
My girlfriend stayed with me, but I wasn’t any good at going to school, and the stress of me not having a job was getting to both of us. I dropped out, got a job, and started doing the best I could. Things just kept getting worse and worse and she was all I had to hang onto. She kept me going; she made me believe in myself, and time just passed. After a few years I could tell that she didn’t feel the same way about me, and no matter how many times she told me things were fine I knew they were not. I worked odd jobs I begged, borrowed, and pleaded, and finally a friend of mine who had his own business gave me a shot to work with him. It was the first real job I had had in years. My girlfriend was tired of working at a bar and really wanted to go back to school. I was making barely enough money to pay the bills, but after her letting me go to school and taking care of me, I knew that she deserved the same opportunity. Things were tight. We fought about money and I worked a lot of hours, but at the end of the day, for better or worse, I was happy to come home to her. She got a part time job and I just kept plugging away. We saved some money and planned a trip across the country. I told myself that, even if things were not great, I knew I would never find anyone like her again. After the trip, we were dead broke, and all the stress of money and everything else we had escaped for two weeks came right back at us with a vengeance. Things were getting bad. Our relationship was hanging from a shoestring. But, finally, a glimmer of hope came into our lives.
The company her father worked for was hiring, and he told me he could get my foot in the door. I never thought I had a shot, but I went for it anyway, knowing that if I got it, our money troubles would be over. It was really hard to tell my friend, who was now like a father to me, that I was going to leave him to go work for more money. But I was positive that, if I got this job, everything would change and our lives would be back to where they were when we first met. I had to take a bunch of tests and wait for almost a month, but I finally got the call that I got the job. We were both extremely happy, and I thought all of our problems were over.
Even with the new job, things were stressful. I started to get really angry that everything wasn’t working out the way I had planned. Having a good job changed nothing. My bad luck started showing up everywhere I looked, and things just got harder and harder. I had been drinking the whole time we were together, and there were more than a few times that the things I said, and the way I acted when I was drunk, definitely changed my girlfriend’s ideas and feelings about me. I knew things were getting to a point where I couldn’t fix them, and finally after a fight one morning, I left the house and went drinking all day. The more I drank, the angrier I got, and by the time I finally talked to her, I was so drunk I was fit to be tied. I screamed and cursed and took out every bad feeling I felt on her. When it was all over, everyone around me thought I was a monster. And I was. My family didn’t trust me, most of my friends didn’t know what to do or say, and my life became hell.
What I had done wasn’t fixable. There was no chance of smoothing things over and I knew it, so I tried to stick by my decision to leave and just move on. I acted like she never existed, like it was all a dream that had never really happened. And for a bit, it worked. With out her in my life, I went right back to partying. At first it was just to take my mind off things, but it slowly started to become my lifestyle. Again, I became the same person I was all those years ago. I refused to look at the truth. I refused to accept that what I did to her was wrong, and I just kept on going. Things started to level out and I met an amazing girl that could see past all the bullshit I was doing. She made me realize: even though I did a horrible thing to my ex-, I was still a good person. My life got better again. Things started to work out in my favor, but in an all too familiar way, my past collided with my present like a hundred-mile-per-hour, fucking head-on collision.
After having a great dinner and meeting my new girlfriend’s mom, I was on cloud nine. I felt great and, against my better judgment, I went to an event where I knew my ex- was going to be. Five minutes into being there, sure enough, there she was. After so many months, she finally wanted to talk to me about everything that had happened. All of the feelings about her that I had completely tried to forget came rushing back, and, without even thinking, I completely blew off my new awesome girlfriend to see where my ex-girlfriend’s heart was at. I wasn’t over her, and as soon as I saw her I knew it. After hours of tears, talking, and apologies, my head was a fucking mess. I had no clue what to do. I tried to explain everything to my current girlfriend, but I could tell she was crushed. I tried talking to my ex- for a bit, but she finally told me that she had started dating one of my friends. I lost my mind. I wanted to die. I wanted to destroy myself in front of her just to see if she still loved me enough to want to stop me.
I couldn’t move on. Every girl I met, as soon as things started to get real, I ran away from. I started drinking like a madman. I went back to using drugs, a vain attempt to show my ex- how hurt I was. My life started to go completely out of control and I just told myself that if I could keep my job and pay my bills, no one could say anything. And life just got darker and darker. Every time someone tried to help, I pushed them away. I started drinking so much I couldn’t pay my bills and I didn’t even care. I drank myself broke and finally had to call my dad to help me. He had an open apartment that was right next to the apartment I had lived in with my ex-. I had no other options. I moved in. I knew the apartment; my father had owned the building for years. It was in a state of disrepair and it was going to take a lot to fix it. I moved in right before my 29th birthday, and told myself that I’d be able to fix it and that everything would be okay. The first week I moved to the building, I ended up going into the old apartment that I had shared with my ex-. Friends of ours had moved in and needed something fixed. As soon as I walked in, I was overwhelmed with horrible feelings. It had been over a year since I last set foot inside of there, and knowing wholeheartedly that leaving my ex was a massive mistake, I was completely shattered. The next few weeks were a complete blur of drinking.
I got off work on Friday the 25th of May — ten days after my birthday. At 11 o’clock I invited some friends over to start the long weekend off with a party. I was out to destroy and destroy I did. I was in a complete blackout for probably an hour, and somewhere in the mix I started destroying everything I could get a hold of. I couldn’t take it anymore. Something was going to happen — it had been building this whole time. Things got kind of blurry, and the next thing I knew I was laying on the ground outside of my apartment and someone was holding my hand up in the air. I was in so much pain, and as the pieces started coming together, I knew why. I had stabbed a knife into a chair in my wall and almost cut off three of my fingers on my right hand. My house was trashed and I needed to get to a hospital ASAP. My friends got me in the car and took me to the ER. I didn’t want anyone to know what I had done, so I said I cut it on a bottle. After X-rays and hours of being there, I was told I was going to have to have surgery to fix the ligaments I had cut through.
I was fucked. I didn’t know if I would lose my job. I didn’t know if my father was going to throw me out when he saw the damage I had done. I was completely lost. By the time we finally left the hospital, I realized I had lost a lot of blood and hadn’t had a drink in a while. My body was freaking out and I knew I needed a drink. Figuring all hope at life was now lost, I gave up. I got a script for painkillers and started mixing them with booze. My job wasn’t going to fire me; they were actually going to pay me for the time I would be off. So now I had money to drink. And that’s what I did: I drank and ate pills and tried to keep myself as numb as I could. But it wasn’t working. I was in so much pain — inside and out. I started breaking down. I no longer wanted to live. I had hurt and fucked over so many people, I couldn’t even think about anything else but killing myself. I figured I had the perfect cover. If I just took a lot of pills and drank a lot, eventually I was going to overdose and die. But no matter how hard I tried, I would just keep waking up. Eventually I ran out of pills and booze was just making me sad.
I finally realized that I couldn’t go on anymore. Just like years ago, walking out onto that field, I knew that I couldn’t do drugs anymore. I knew, after eight years of drinking, I had to quit. The first two days were pure hell. I was shaking like a leaf, my whole body felt horrible, and I never thought I would make it through, but I just told myself that I had no other choice. It’s been thirty-three days since I’ve had a drink, and although my body feels better, my life isn’t easier. I’m starting to appreciate simple things, and every day I feel stronger, but the amount of shit that is in front of me is massive. I know that I can get through this, and I know that in the end this will shape the person I become. But I can’t help but wonder what things would have been like if I had never taken that first drink.