In memory of all the booze I can no longer drink

Illustration for article titled In memory of all the booze I can no longer drink
Graphic: Karl Gustafson
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What is it about getting old that turns you into a gremlin? More and more as years go by, my survival depends on rules and the list keeps growing: Don’t feed me dairy after 9 p.m., don’t leave me in the sun for more than an hour, don’t expose me to water unless it’s 70 degrees and I’m in the Caribbean. Recently I added “Don’t serve me tequila, ever.”

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Twice in the past month I’ve been wronged by margaritas. The first time I was on vacation and a friend made me a margarita in the kitchen of our Airbnb. We ate dinner outside and as we drifted back into the house, my husband gently said to me, “You have spots on your face. You should go look in the mirror.”

And there in the bathroom I saw it: a cross of inflamed, red skin running down my face from forehead to chin and across from cheek to cheek. All along my jawline and behind my ears were tiny dark red dots. Fortunately, my breathing was fine, and within two hours my skin returned to normal. I was unsettled, but I quickly chalked it up to the large amount of jalapeños we threw into our corn slaw.

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Weeks later, in the scorching heat, I bought a frozen margarita to go from a local taco place and brought it back to my air-conditioned bedroom to drink in comfort. By the time I was halfway through I began to feel a familiar sensation: my face was radiating heat.

I looked into the mirror and there again were the dark red dots. Except this time I’d been drinking from a straw, so the dots were concentrated all along my swollen lips, and I looked like I had made out with a poison ivy plant.

Tequila, as it turns out, was the common denominator for both episodes, and though it didn’t kill me, my vanity will prevent me from ever drinking it again. This is the first time alcohol has triggered what I now understand to be an allergic reaction (according to WebMD and a Google image search, which is good enough for me), but tequila, alas, is not the first spirit I’ve had to phase out of my rotation. I’m only 33 years old, but I’m already keeping a running list of alcohol my body will no longer support:

Kosher Wine (age abandoned: 17)

The first alcohol I secretly sipped was a sickeningly sweet kosher wine when I was 17. At that time—and still—I was scared of everything but did not want to be called a baby. In the basement of my friend’s suburban ranch house, a group of us passed around a bottle of Manischewitz left over from a Passover seder. I immediately felt sick, not from the wine, but from the guilt.

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I was raised Catholic, and I was taught wine was for sacred consumption. I fully believed that somewhere, someone would find out about this and it would cost me my college acceptance, and from there my life would quickly unravel. So I made a decision moving forward: If I was going to abuse alcohol, it would have to be something aggressively secular, preferably the kind that gets you drunk the fastest. And while I’ve since worked up the courage to drink other types of wine, I’m still avoiding Manischewitz and all other wines used in religious ceremonies, because I haven’t outgrown my Catholic guilt and I don’t want to go to hell.

Screwdrivers (age abandoned: 19)

On my dry college campus, we held illicit dorm room parties where I was never without a Solo cup of orange juice and vodka. Screwdrivers were all I drank my freshman year of college. Then when I was 19, I took a field trip to New York City on St. Patrick’s Day weekend with the rest of our campus newspaper staff.

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There my Screwdriver habit reached its logical conclusion: I got wasted the night before we were supposed to go home, and in the morning I threw up in the lobby bathroom while a parade of bagpipers marched in circles around my crumpled body. I can’t drink Screwdrivers anymore; I can barely even drink orange juice.

Fireball Shots (age abandoned: 26)

In my mid-20s I worked with a team of people who loved marathon happy hours, specifically ripping shots of Fireball Cinnamon Whisky whenever possible. Like Manischewitz, Fireball is sweet and goes down easy, but unlike Manischewitz, it will really mess you up.

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At one New Year’s Eve party, I chased shots of Fireball with a handful of tiny holiday clementines that did absolutely nothing to soak up the booze. As we left the party shortly after midnight, I puked on the lawn and covered it up with a pile of snow. Then I slipped and fell on the icy walk back to our apartment and somewhere in the mix I lost my beloved winter hat. The next day-and-a-half looked and smelled and felt like hell. I was not yet 30, and I could no longer justify a shots-level hangover.

Bottomless Mimosas (age abandoned: 31)

The morning after I turned 30, I started getting invitations for boozy brunch. As a childless, urban-dwelling woman, this was supposed to be the next responsible evolution in my drinking habits. I tried it and have concluded it’s not for me.

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If I’m drunk or even the slightest bit buzzed in the daytime, I lose all motivation to buy an area rug or meal prep—the lifeblood of every 30-something. If I start drinking at 1 p.m. I’m asleep by 7. This makes me feel even older than I already do. Now it’s not a disastrous outcome, but a sleepy outcome that prevents me from drinking while the sun is up.

Currently, I’m back to where I started. In the winter I drink red wine: two glasses max at work functions, three glasses when I’m celebrating with friends. In the summer I drink White Claw. I will try the punch, but I will not go back for seconds. My goal is to loosen up. It is not to fall down at midnight or fall asleep by dinnertime. I’ve found my happy medium. But I am not foolish enough to think this will stand. When I turn 34, they might take champagne from me, and I’ll have to find some other way to say “Congratulations on your retirement!” My list of rules will expand, and I’ll have to keep finding new ways to grow old.

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Allison Kelley is a Brooklyn-based writer raised in the Connecticut suburbs. She's had work featured in The Washington Post, Slate, McSweeney’s Internet Tendency and more at alikelley.com.

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DISCUSSION

Five days ago (Aug. 14) was my 24-year sobriety date.

All alcohol is on my no-fly list now, after I learned that the only difference between manslaughter and “the victim agreed not to press charges for assault in exchange for you going into rehab” is that the guy I nearly beat to death in a drunken rage—my childhood best friend!—lived through the night after being unconscious in the hospital for several hours.

I’ve never had any serious temptation to relapse, because it occurred to me in those first few weeks that (a) being a frighteningly violent drunk is no way to go through life—I’m part Irish and part Native American and imagine the worst possible stereotypes you can think of about both those ethnicities involving alcohol and that’s me with a bottle in my hands and (b) in a related sense, I finally had my come-to-Odin moment that if I didn’t get a handle on this right now I was going to end up like every guy my mom, aunt, and grandmother ever got involved with. Domestic violence from booze runs in my family. I broke the cycle (well, so did my brother, and he’s actually married with a couple of kids, but the point is, neither he nor I are anything like our ancestors.)

Sometimes it’s a bit of a shame that I can’t hold my liquor—I distinctly remember my buddy Keith’s habit of stealing the really good Scotch from his dad’s liquor cabinet and I had a conoisseur’s taste for whisky that I kinda wish I could safely cultivate but it’s a no go—but on the whole the last 24 years have been far better to me than they otherwise could’ve been.