This month, Tyler explores the dark satisfaction of substance-fueled escape.
The voice in my head delivers an interminable list of concerns.
“What time is it? I’m going to be late. Where’s my phone? Does this outfit make me look fat? I hope he’s going to show up tonight. What will I come up with to say to all these people? I forgot to take out cash. Don’t step in that puddle with these shoes on. There are my friends! Uh oh, there’s that creeper. Has the band started yet? Ooh, there he is. I need a drink.”
I slap my dollars down on the bar and open my gullet wide. Gin and tonic, gin and ginger, gin on the rocks. Jello shot, gin shot. Gin and tonic. On the way to the ladies’ room, I take a moment alone and notice an eerie silence above my eyes.
My mind is no longer juggling several doubts, worries and observations. It’s resting peacefully, and other pursuits now take center stage. I stare at a group of people mid-conversation for longer than is comfortable. It’s all good, baby—I’m Emerson’s transparent eyeball, though my dress pattern is louder than the band on stage. I lose myself in the bass player’s nimble fingers and don’t realize I’m dancing until the song ends. I don’t realize how altered I am until I attempt to stand still on a small patch of sidewalk. I feel brand-new. The world, at 1:45 a.m., is my oyster.
We all know the drill: before going out, have a little something to prep your face and voice to ensure the appropriate reactions when you’re interacting. Once you get to where you’re going, have a little more to lubricate the conversations. You can always think of a good observational joke when you’re tipsy. Or maybe you feel bold enough to cut through the chatter to tell your joke.
We escape ourselves through imbibing substances. When we’re teetering on the edge of oblivion, everything takes on a tinge of non-reality. Nothing we are saying or doing in this moment counts. We rely on impulse and our most secretive wishes and desires. It’s a hall pass we consistently give ourselves: dissociate from reality until sun up. In the wee hours of the morning, I go into the bathroom and feel a distance between my appearance in the mirror and the rest of my life. In that separation is my sweet freedom.
I often call my dad to discuss concerns about my life choices, because he’s been around the block more than once and refuses to sugarcoat the facts. When I called him to investigate the underlying causes of my alcohol use, he told me he made a habit out of dissociating through substance use from the ages of 12 to 35. For him, the appeal was simple: He hadn’t yet found a reason not to self-harm. That is, until my mother told him she was pregnant with me.
“At times, you need to separate yourself from your own existence. If you’ve got a lot of things going on and you process information continuously, you become inundated,” he told me. “A certain reprieve is warranted and necessary. But you’ll find that it accomplishes nothing. Today’s escape is tomorrow’s suffering. Nothing’s easier when you’re drunk—you’re just not a part of it.”
We’ve all felt this way: The sensory input won’t cease, but at a certain point, our mental mailboxes become full. Getting trashed is the equivalent of putting up an out-of-office message. The day after I drink heavily, I am mentally leveled to the point where I cannot possibly obsess or worry about a project or relationship. On auto-pilot, I move slowly, staring at objects for long moments before recognizing them. I have an excuse for canceling plans and prolonging projects; I’m ill. But couldn’t I have taken a mental holiday without the hangover? Can I ease my mind’s burden without outside help?
My penpal Robert has identified as straight edge since he was 13; now he’s radically sober. This means he stands in political opposition to the sexualization in alcohol advertisements and the way alcohol is used in sexual liaisons and to avoid responsibility. Though he has the same worries and existentialist dread as anyone, he doesn’t chase the feeling of release that accompanies an altered state of mind.
“Often, I don’t feel the release, and I struggle at times with motivation to exist in what I view as a cruel, cold world,” he said. “When I do look for a respite, it usually comes in the form of physical exercise, making some form of art or interacting with others. I find that when I’m with others I feel less alone in my misery, and the knowledge that life is hard for everyone makes it a bit easier to bear. I imagine that’s similar to people who drink at a bar. That camaraderie seems to be very helpful.”
It’s not necessarily problematic to drink. The problem lies in the fact that your reality is something you must escape completely to feel “refreshed” and ready to endure once more. Life experiences should be challenging, and they should teach us things, not all of which will be positive. We may feel bored, lonely, confused, stressed, emotionally torn, trapped within a bad situation. But what if, instead of burying these feelings deep into our intestines, we turned to the person next to us and told them how we felt? And what if that person responded with, “I feel you”? That has to feel better than waking up with a poison headache. The sweet nectar of summer water—that’s a lady’s way of saying ‘gin and tonic’—becomes a bitter pill to swallow when compared to the joy of solving a problem and subsequently drinking in celebration of the solution.
It’s like my dad told me—going on a mental vacation through substance use can be a form of self-reward, redeemable only after you’ve done something worth celebrating. This way, you’re not a bandit escaping in the night. You’re basking in the glow of your shimmering, multifaceted existence.
“It’s the icing on the cake,” my dad said. “First, you gotta get out there and bake the fucking cake.” •