This week, I celebrated 1 year and 6 months off the sauce.
In Las Vegas, of all places.
If you had asked me two years ago, I would have never thought I would be — or could be — writing this post.
It’s been 553 days since my last drink, and it still feels surreal to type that. I don’t really know what I’m trying to say or how to say it. But I feel the need to say something, so here goes nothing.
To cut to the chase, I’ll be honest: I’ve had a problematic relationship with alcohol since the first time I got drunk at 18.
The nagging voice of denial in the back of my mind stubbornly refuses to admit that I’m an alcoholic. But I’d be kidding myself if I didn’t admit that I exhibited some concerning drinking habits, that my relationship with alcohol was unhealthy, that I was speeding towards rock bottom, and that something needed to change.
Here’s my story.
I went to Colorado College, which runs on the Block Plan. If you’re not familiar (and let’s be honest, why would you be familiar with a small liberal arts college in Colorado Springs? If I had a dollar for every time someone said “Is that a community college?” or “Boulder is so fun” I wouldn’t have any student loans left), you take one class — or block — at a time for three and a half weeks. Each semester consists of four blocks. Believe it or not, you really do manage to cram a semester’s worth of content into a little less than a month. As an American History-Political Science major, it quite common to read a 200 page book or write a 3-5 page paper overnight. As a high-achieving perfectionist, I worked hard.
I also played hard.
I had never got drunk until college. Sure, I’d had sips of my parents’ beer (“Gross, why would anyone drink that?”) or a sampling of wine (“Do you really enjoy that?”) at dinner, but I was a goody-two shoes (and a nerd that didn’t have many friends). I’d had tastes of booze, but I’d never tasted the freedom that it could provide.
I will never forget my first buzz.
My freshman roommate, Gabe, procured the supplies for Irish Car Bombs. He was meticulous in securing the booze with his friend’s fake ID, but lacking a fully-developed prefrontal cortex, he forgot the shot glasses. Undeterred, we improvised and dropped a Dixie cup full of Bailey’s and Jameson into a red Solo cup full of Guinness. The cup floated, so we had to unceremoniously dump it into the cup before chugging. I didn’t know the difference, and soon, I didn’t care.
After slamming my first full drink, the buzz quickly began to hit. Each wave of euphoria crashed against my harsh perceptions of myself as an uptight nerd, gradually smoothing my insecurities; with every drink, more of my inhibitions washed away, until I was left feeling a newfound calm and sense of self-confidence that I’d never felt before.
Just like Leonardo DiCaprio (who a lady in Italy once told me I look like), I felt on top of the world. My insecurities disappeared without a trace just like that Titanic submersible.
This feeling of ease, of carefree bliss, and effortless self-confidence, was unlike anything I’d ever felt, and I knew right then that I wanted to feel that all the time. And why couldn’t I?
I had my first hangover before I ever got drunk.
My grandma brought me and my cousins to Italy to see where my grandpa (and namesake) grew up. I was 16.
My cousin and I snuck onto the beach in Lugano, where we ordered our first legal cocktails. I ordered a mojito (which seemed fancy) and he got a margarita. The bartender asked if I was 16, and I said yes. It must’ve been a weak drink, if not virgin, because I didn’t catch a buzz. I remember thinking to myself “what’s the big deal?”
That night, we went to dinner. Now, being a self-respecting Italian family, there was plenty of wine on the table. And I took it upon myself to sample a glass of both the red and white wine.
I woke up the next morning nauseous, in a cold sweat and with a pounding headache. I sat up in bed and the room was spinning; my head was so heavy that I had to immediately lie back down. My mind was racing and my heart was pounding out of my chest. I wondered what was wrong.
I didn’t realize that this was a hangover until years later, when waking up like this became a common way to start my weekend.
I have an addictive personality. Of my many strong suits, moderation is not one of them; I’m a very all-in person inside and outside the casino, as any of my followers know.
So once I realized how amazing being drunk felt, I hedonistically chased that feeling as much as I could.
Because I was a great student (with a 3.9 GPA that nobody has asked about even once in a job interview), I always made sure to do my homework before going out. So the pattern of weekend binges came naturally.
All week, I would work my ass off and take care of my responsibilities before blowing off steam on Friday and Saturday night. I looked forward to the sweet release from the stress of life that only the bottle could bring.
In retrospect, so many of my decisions revolved around drinking. Including some of my most formative ones.
I immersed myself in Colorado College Tigers Hockey fandom, not missing a single home game my sophomore-senior year. Of course, I always had a 25oz Bud Light tallboy in my hand, because how could you watch hockey and not drink? (in true Viva Las Value fashion, I realized that they sold the same can that went for $12 at the arena at the local liquor store for $2.49, so I smuggled in two each game.) As my tolerance grew, I’d also bring shots of Jim Beam and pour them into a bottomless Pepsi. It’s hard to find a picture of me at a game without my omnipresent Bud Light or special Pepsi.
I joined a fraternity my sophomore year, partially for the brotherhood, but partially for the parties. I found that an ice cold Hamm’s or two gave me the swagger I needed to challenge anyone to a game of beer pong, or my personal favorite, Slap Cup (I do feel the need to brag that I remain undefeated in Slap, never having drank the bitch cup). From there, my confidence only went up and, by the time our mixers started, I was socially lubricated and ready to chat up any girl.
I studied abroad in Japan for a semester my junior year. I didn’t know a single word of the language, but the school needed to fill spots, so they were advertising that financial aid would cover all of the costs, we would receive free airfare, and a weekly stipend of $100 for food. In true Viva Las Value fashion, I enthusiastically accepted the trip of a lifetime, and found myself on a nonstop flight from DEN to NRT; I’ll never forget stepping off the plane and seeing all of the signs in Japanese. I quickly found fame/notoriety for my ability to drink lots of beer fast. The Japanese culture of binge drinking only reinforced my habits, and somehow normalized them. How could I not take advantage of a 2 hour nomihoudai (all you can drink) for $9?
Through all of this, I maintained great grades, a good social life, and avoided any legal troubles. In the absence of any consequences, and surrounded by a culture of binge drinking, I saw nothing out of the ordinary with downing a 6 pack or ripping 3 shots at the pregame before going out to drink much more.
Sure, I blacked out on occasion. But I was a friendly, loving drunk; I never picked fights or got in trouble. I was maintaining my GPA, three on campus jobs, and friendships — I was just doing what college students were supposed to do.
I left college with a bachelor’s degree, and with the ability to binge drink like a motherfucker; while I learned about our political systems and history, I also learned that drinking took away my feelings of insecurity and anxiety and replaced them with a sense of confidence and calm.
Disentangling those feelings from intoxication, and learning to cultivate them without booze, is a lesson that took me far longer than college to learn — and is something that I’m honestly still studying.
I went to Las Vegas the day after I turned 21.
Having cut my teeth on Indian Casinos in Minnesota since the day I turned 18, I already knew I liked gambling. I also knew I liked drinking, so having free*, legal beers delivered to me while gambling was the dream (*I enjoyed a $51 Heineken after losing 5 consecutive $10 blackjack hands while my friend peed, but also had many a beer where I made money while drinking it).
Everything about Las Vegas encouraged me to drink to excess. A liquor store at the airport, free beer everywhere you looked, no open-container laws, and no last call? And they were going to give me comp rooms to come back?
The only option was to go all in.
One particularly painful Vegas non-memory is when a girl I had a fling with in college was staying at the Polo Towers with her mom the same time I happened to be in town.
After a marathon VP session at the Chandelier Bar, replete with a few too many comped cocktails, I went to meet her and her mom at the LINQ. The first thing I did — and the last thing I remember — was ordering us a shot of Jim Beam.
I woke up the next morning fully clothed (including shoes), on top of my sheets, with no cash in my wallet, $55 of chips from the LINQ in my back pocket, no recollection of the previous night, and the taste of vomit in my mouth.
I texted her a blanket apology, seeking amnesty for whatever embarrassing things I had said/done. She tersely replied that she didn’t want to talk about it.
It was only after I admitted that I had no idea what happened that she told me that I lost all my money on Buffalo, asked to borrow money from her mom, and bought into a Blackjack table (the fact that it was 6:5 is the real insult to injury).
I probably would have lost the $55 of chips too, but I was too busy losing my dignity; I fell asleep at the table and was removed by security. They attempted to put me in a Lyft, but after I threw up on the curb, the driver refused to let me in, so I unceremoniously got sent home in a cab and miraculously made it to my room.
Despite my apologies, the girl never talked to me again. I don’t blame her. This stuck with me for a while, and I had my first ever panic attack at work in the immediate aftermath. In my last text to her, I swore to her that this was a wakeup call, and that I would reexamine my drinking; she replied that she hoped I would take it easy on myself and the drinking.
As you can probably guess, I didn’t.
Less than 6 months later, for my 23rd birthday, I demonstrated that wisdom doesn’t always come with older age.
I started my day with some 9/6 Jacks or Better at Boar’s Head Bar. I had intended to stop there for a mimosa before brunch at noon, but I caught a good run of cards and opted for liquid brunch instead; “no, I don’t want another mimosa, but I’ll take a pale ale please.”
Several hours, several pale ales, and no food later, I stopped by Triple Seven and had chicken teriyaki for a 6pm breakfast. That wasn’t even enough to soak up the beers, so it stood no chance as a base against the onslaught of drinking that was about to occur.
Costas had sprang for bottle service at XS so that we could see The Chainsmokers. The minimum spend was $3,500, and I was determined to drink his money’s worth. We polished off a bottle of Beluga Gold vodka between the two of us.
To hit the rest of the spend, we ordered 3 bottles of Ciroc. Costas was content to leave them on the table, but I didn’t want them to go to waste, so I started handing them out to passerby. In my drunkenness, I decided to give shots to dudes since it sucks being a single guy at the club without a table.
People were rightfully suspicious, so I assuaged their fears by taking shots with them. I was riding high and having the time of my life.
I woke up the next morning to a phone ringing. It wasn’t mine. As I rubbed my tired eyes, I saw black Xs on my hands. I answered the phone, and it was a girl named Debra who explained that I must have mistakenly got her phone.
I started looking through my things, and found a $100 bill in my back pocket, a black leather jacket (not mine), multiple business cards, and Debra’s license and credit card. My phone was nowhere to be found.
I called Costas’ room and he said “glad you’re up buddy, how’re you feeling?” Still drunk, I responded “I feel great! But who’s Debra, where’s my phone, and what happened last night?” He simply said “I’ll be down in 5.”
After we met Debra and returned her belongings, we went to the ramen shop at the California. I was ravenous and ordered a big bowl of tonkatsu, and the second it came out my drunkenness wore off and the hangover hit me like a ton of bricks. I couldn’t stomach a bite and turned pale as a ghost; I was still so hungover that night at dinner that I physically gagged while attempting to hair of the dog my hangover with wine.
During our unsuccessful attempt to find my phone at the Wynn (Facebook login history would later reveal it was somewhere in Los Angeles), Costas pointed out each of the several trash cans that I threw up in. I was kicked out before the Chainsmokers even came out.
Thanks to the miracle of iCloud, I was able to recover all but four hours of my photos and texts.
I will never get back those four hours, or the $1000 I had to spend to buy a new iPhone 7.
“Sir, you’re too intoxicated to fly. And your hand is bleeding, so you can’t be on this plane. We’ll rebook you onto the next available flight tomorrow morning.”
Those were the words I heard immediately after slumping down on the headrest in front of me for some much needed shuteye after boarding the flight home from my 24th birthday weekend.
As I walked off the plane mortified, I realized that I would be sleeping on the floor of McCarran International Airport.
I would later find out, from the thoughtful night custodian who assured me that “he was watching my shit” when I woke to pee at 3am that there were 4 others like me in the airport that night.
Having to sleep on the floor of an airport knowing you’ll wake up hungover is not fun. But I can assure you that waking up to a call from your mom asking if you made it home safe and needing to come up with a parent-friendly way to explain that you blacked out and got removed from a plane is even less fun. As is texting your boss and finding a boss-friendly way to explain that your trip has been unexpectedly extended a day.
How did I get there? Bottomless mimosas at Hexx. I had a $50 Groupon, which I put to good use. Not realizing that they continually topped off your glass from a carafe, I slammed 6 or 7 champagne flutes to maximize my value. As I stumbled out, I asked the server how strong they were, and he responded that each carafe was a bottle. No wonder I was feeling it.
After Hexx, I indulged in a few too many heavy pours of comped Woodford Reserve at the Cromwell before barely making it to the airport. I was wearing my cowboy boots, and there was a rare Vegas rain; if you’ve ever been in Vegas while it’s raining, you know that the sidewalks get slippery; I attempted to take a shortcut through Paris and got lost.
I called my friend to ask for directions, and she told me to use my GPS. I responded, as she still reminds me years later, “I can’t, I’m talking to you” as if speakerphone didn’t exist.
I stupendously made it to the airport and to my gate in time for my flight, even though I don’t remember any of it. All I remember is deciding to put my head down and being so rudely woken up.
I tried hard, but I never did find the bottom (unless you count rock bottom).
I did find a bottom in a different sense, though.
I didn’t come out as bisexual until I was 25, but I began to explore my sexuality starting my second trip in Las Vegas.
After a day of drinking, my curiosity got the best of me; I finally built up the confidence to change my Tinder settings from “Women” to “Both.” I was swiping in between heats at the Sigma Derby, and I matched with a cute local named Alan.
I slammed a few more comped whiskey sours before agreeing to meet him at The Griffin that night.
Alan bought me a drink, and as soon I was brimming with liquid courage, my inhibitions and reservations dissolved; we went back to his room at the Ogden, and I had my first experience with a man.
In the moment, it felt so, so right.
Waking up in his bed, I felt a tinge of regret and quickly excused myself. As I walked back to Fremont Street, I wasn’t sure what to feel. Once I started the day with my customary morning mimosa at Mermaid’s, and the jetful was coursing through my veins, I wanted to do it all over again.
For the next five years, alcohol gave me the license to be my true self. Once I was feeling flirty drunk, my deeply internalized homophobia dissolved and I allowed myself to feel attraction to men and act on it. (This is a whole nother story that I would be happy to share if there is interest); over that half-decade, I used drinking as both an excuse and a means to act on my attraction.
After graduating college, I had to adjust my drinking habits to fit in.
My first networking event, I was done with my first beer before anyone else had drank theirs down to the label. The lesson I learned from this was not to drink slower (to this day, I will finish whatever is in my hand in 20 minutes, no matter the size or what it is), but to pregame before events so that I wouldn’t be spotted drinking as much as I was.
Once drinking games were no longer cool, I had to find new and creative ways to imbibe and give my desire to get drunk an air of respectability.
First, it was the craft beer boom. My excessive drinking wasn’t a problem when I framed it as a hobby; I was just exploring new flavors and trying new styles. It was no coincidence that I developed a liking for juicy double and triple IPAs — those with the highest ABV.
Next, it was craft cocktails. Witty names, cute garnishes, exotic flavors, and fancy glassware obscured that I was drinking them for the buzz.
Finally, I convinced myself I was a connoisseur of bourbon. I sought out bottles of rare bourbon, and had bottles of Weller, Eagle Rare, EH Taylor, and Blantons in my collection. I kidded myself that collecting hard to find bottles made it classy, rather than an expensive means to a cheap end.
With all of these drinking hobbies, alcohol became intertwined with all of my leisure activities (concerts, sporting events, casinos, and bars, which just so happen to have alcohol available at every corner).
Attending concerts/sporting events became increasingly complicated as I juggled the logistics of getting there, finding a place to spend the night (or trying to stay sober enough to drive), a cheap bar to drink at beforehand, a liquor store on the way, and figuring out how I would smuggle in liquor.
Once I got to the event, the calculations continued as I weighed when to buy another beer, what level of drinking it took to maintain the buzz but not get too drunk (which I often miscalculated, resulting in blurry memories of fun events), and trying not to pee until a break.
I never questioned it.
I just ordered a beverage and considered that an essential part of the enjoyment. As this became a habit, it was unimaginable for me to go to an event and not get a drink, and I just accepted all of the mental calculations and material costs as a necessary part of the fun.
After the age of 27, my hangovers began getting worse.
At 19, I could drink half a fifth of Skol vodka and wake up the next day feeling great.
At 21, I could drink a six pack of craft beer and wake up feeling good.
At 23, I could pound a bottle of water before bed and wake up fine.
At 25, if I drank electrolyte powder, slammed three bottles of water, and stayed up an hour or two after I quit drinking, I would probably wake up feeling okay.
At 27, if I had more than two drinks, I woke up feeling groggy and with some combination of: headache, nausea, upset stomach, cold-sweat and soreness. And the anxiety.
Always the anxiety.
The worst part of waking up hungover was easily the all-consuming anxiety that I immediately felt. Although I was barely conscious, my brain was already in overdrive, simultaneously asking a million questions including, but not limited to: “What did I say/do last night? How did I embarrass myself? Was I too drunk? Were people judging me? Did I blackout? What other bullshit can I invent to be anxious about?”
Once this initial anxiety wore off, I took a one way trip to the dopamine desert. Much like the return from Vegas, I entered a state of depression where nothing felt right, negative emotions were heightened, and it was far too easy to wallow in self-pity.
I continued to accept this as the necessary price of a good time; paying the fiddler, as my mom says.
And, since I knew I was going to be feeling shitty the next day anyways, what reason did I have not tie one on?
In November 2021, my cousin called and told me that he was quitting drinking. He had been one of my best drinking buddies, and we looked to each other for validation that our excessive drinking was normal.
I was shook to the core. I couldn’t help but reassess my drinking, and the conclusions that I was drawing weren’t good. I could no longer explain away my behavior.
I began to recognize that I had problematic tendencies, but I didn’t want to admit it. I desperately grasped for an excuse, any rationale to explain away my reservations and keep drinking. But I couldn’t find them.
In January 2022, I decided to finally do Dry January.
I was scared shitless.
For all of my adult life, booze had been there for me. It has been a central part of so many landmarks in my life. Celebrations, commiseration, travel, sporting events, concerts, first dates, Las Vegas trips, time with friends/family, and so much more; you name it, and the bottle was there.
I didn’t know an adult life without booze.
I always had a convenient excuse for why It wasn’t the right time to quit, so I quit making excuses and told my friends what I was doing. They were supportive, but gave me some good natured shit and questioned if I’d stick to it. And I picked a hell of a month to do it.
January 2022 wasn’t just any month for me. It was full of literally every situation and excuse to pour one out: a Broncos game, my Annual Destination Birthday Party in Las Vegas, a concert, bar trivia, and the CC-DU hockey rivalry weekend at the end of the month.
So I dove headfirst into the deep end. And I learned I can swim.
The longer I went, the more I felt the relief of not drinking. I slept better. I had more money. I didn’t go to bed worrying about a hangover or wake up feeling anxious. I clearly remembered every part of a concert. I found it easier to follow sports games. I was able to better track my money while gambling. I felt more present in my life. I adopted two sweet kitties (Cosmo and Bandit) who have never seen me hungover.
As 2022 continued, I was best man in my friend’s wedding and a groomsman for a fraternity brother. I was worried that this would dampen the moment with my old drinking buddies, but I was able to be far more present and engaged since I wasn’t too drunk and/or preoccupied with where the next drink would come from.
After my best friend’s bachelor party, he paid me the highest compliment when he said “I forgot that you weren’t drinking, it was still just as fun.”
The past year and a half has been one of immense challenge and immense growth.
I have had unexpected triumphs (not having to pee during concerts) and unexpected struggles (drinking the LINQ out of their Coors Edge supply), but through it all, I have experienced and dealt with every emotion that I’ve felt. Although it’s not always fun, it is good and necessary.
While life is simpler without alcohol, it is not necessarily easier; I still deal with job frustrations, a poor dating pool in Colorado Springs, bad runs at the casino, and the other challenges of life. But I’m able to deal with them with a clear head.
As the poster boy for degeneracy, I’ve had to shift my personal definition of what being a degenerate is. Although I initially struggled with the idea of leaving value on the table by not drinking comped alcohol, I have since shifted my mindset to understand that alcohol has no value for me, and that to drink it would be -EV.
In so doing, I’ve been able to exercise better bankroll management and discipline. Between that and the savings from not buying booze, I’m able to take more frequent trips to the casino.
Most importantly, I have been able to learn to be my authentic self every moment of every day without relying on booze. In doing that, I feel truly free.
Note: I hesitated for the longest time to write this. I never want to come across as preachy or a buzzkill, and I understand that most people are able to enjoy alcohol in a healthy way that works for them. That is not the case for me. I hope my story didn’t come across as judgmental, and if any part did, I apologize as that was not my intent.
If you made it through all 4,800 words, thank you for reading my story. I had no idea what my fingers were going to type, but it has been incredibly cathartic to share some of my experiences and to articulate some of it for the first time — and to reflect at how far I’ve come. I wrote this in about 5 hours of non-stop writing. I edited as I went, and am posting this not having edited it as carefully as I normally would because I think there is value in being raw; that said, please excuse any typos/errors.
If me sharing my story can help one single person feel seen or validated, then it was worth the vulnerability 100x over. I am an open book and am happy to answer any questions or talk more.
I mean this sincerely and genuinely: if any of my story resonates with you and/or you are sober curious/considering not drinking, please end me a DM on Twitter. It will of course stay completely private and between us. I am always happy to listen/talk/share affirmation/pass along what worked for me. I have found strength from my beloved cousin, my dear buddy Eric, and singer BJ Barham of American Aquarium; it is my turn to pay it forward, and it would be an honor to be a part of your journey.