I spent my junior year in college studying abroad in Madrid, Spain. As a 20-year-old, I was legally able to drink alcohol there, a privilege I exercised rather enthusiastically.
I remember the first night some friends and I went out in Madrid as being fairly consequential for me. For it was here at this relatively late stage in life where I was directly forced to confront a social phenomenon that I found to be quite alien, and quite intimidating to me; dancing.
I did not grow up in a family, or in a peer group of dancers. Dancing was something I was first exposed to in the middle school gymnasium. Beyond that, I had also witnessed dancing transpiring at the 2-3 weddings I had been to in my life. I saw dancing as a skill, a skill that I simply did not possess.
That first night out in Madrid, drinking at bars quickly transitioned into dancing at bars. That is to say, this is what happened to all of the friends who I was with. But I just couldn’t bring myself to do it. I found myself posted up at the bar, solo, standing around and nodding and smiling and covertly panicking about what to do next and how to handle this situation.
By the time we reached our final bar of the evening, I had had quite a bit to drink, but still found myself paralyzed, invisibly handcuffed to the bar counter while my friends were happily and sweatily dancing.
Eventually, out of nowhere, this Spanish girl walks right up to me and asks, “Quieres bailar?” I was stunned, and in Spanish, replied, “I don’t know how!” She grabbed my hand, said “Me neither!” then pulled me onto the floor with her.
And just like that, I was dancing. I felt hyper self-conscious for the first several seconds, but then, mercifully, with the help of the alcohol and this attractive stranger, I simply let go and let my body move with the music.
Every other Spanish night after that, when I went out with friends who wanted to dance, I danced. And although I did not explicitly think about it in these terms at the moment, it’s absolutely the case that alcohol was always part of the social equation during, and leading up to it.
One of my single favorite parts of living in Madrid was their elegant public parks, and the broader culture around them. Growing up in Wisconsin, my concept of a public park was simply a city block’s worth of land in which children played on playgrounds and a certain small number of young adults would play sports like basketball. In Madrid, it was completely different. The parks were huge and contained beautiful curated gardens and often large sculptures of historical figures. Musicians would come play in the parks, as would children’s storytellers, and anyone curious enough to listen would gather round.
The first park I found that really captivated my attention was called Retiro. For the first half of the year I spent in Madrid, I was at Retiro for a long chunk of every weekend.
Walking into the park though, from the first time I went there on, I would inevitably have the same minor interaction with a certain set of strangers. At whichever entrance into the park I would come through, there would always be a very tall, very slender, young African man casually lounging on a bench by himself. As he’d see me approaching, he’d straighten up his posture a bit, make eye-contact with me, and would ask, “Quieres…chocolate?”
I admit that the first time or two this happened, I genuinely didn’t even understand what he was getting at. “Do I want chocolate? Well, no, not right now, and not from a stranger in the park…thanks.”
I soon learned from friends that these young men were drug dealers. “Chocolate” was simply their euphemism for hashish.
I never bought any of their chocolate, but I also felt slightly flattered that these guys sized me up and thought that I just might be the kind of guy who would.
During my year in Madrid, the first trip I took outside of the country was to neighboring Portugal. I went with a close friend of mine who is from the suburbs of Chicago. We spent most of our time exploring the incredibly beautiful city of Lisbon on foot.
One evening, we ended up in a restaurant which was fancier than our speed, but we were tired and hungry and just went with it. Communicating with the waitress was difficult. My friend and I speak perfect English and imperfect Spanish, the waitress spoke perfect Portuguese but neither Spanish nor English.
This led to my ordering a glass of red wine, which our waitress heard as my ordering a bottle of red wine. My friend wasn’t planning to drink that evening, so in short order I found myself pressured to drink the entire bottle by myself. You know, so as to not “waste” what I would be fully paying for.
The wine was lovely, but dense. By the time I was perhaps 70% through with it, my body was definitely telling me, “Ok bud, that’s enough!” But of course, I didn’t stop. I basically forced myself to finish it, even beyond the point at which I was no longer enjoying it.
I spent the rest of the evening feeling nauseous, and at times on the verge of throwing up. In addition to the high level of physical discomfort, I was also stressing pretty hard about trying to not look or speak like an idiot in front of my very sober friend.
With respect to alcohol, and for that matter, most other aspects of living, my dad has always been an exemplar model of moderation. Throughout the entirety of my childhood and adolescence, I never once saw my dad consume enough alcohol to impact his behavior in any noticeable way. If and when he drank something, it was almost always beer, and almost always cheap beer with low alcohol content. After a day of sweating in the backyard working on one landscaping project or another, he would have one or two cans on beer in the evening, that’s it.
The first time, and basically to this day the only time I ever saw my dad drink enough to show it was when he and my step-mom came to visit me in Madrid. After a long day of walking around the city, my dad and I ended up in a bar near la Plaza de Espana. At this specific point in my young life, my dad and I butted heads a lot, and often had difficulty communicating. But the tension seemed to disappear that evening, with the aid of some bountiful red Spanish wine. We laughed and told stories and made fun of various aspects of Spanish culture. I felt at ease, I think he did as well, and we bonded more in that one sitting than we had in some time.
During our winter break, three American friends and I went on a two-week trip across some of the major cities of Western Europe. We started in Paris, France; one of the most epically classy and beautiful urban places I’ve ever been.
But in these early days of our journey, I began to feel increasingly anxious about one of my friend’s relationships with alcohol. All four of us were drinking quite a bit every night of the trip. But one of us was also day-drinking a lot of the time, and heavily.
During one of our first days in Paris, our friend bought a handle of hard liquor from a corner store, and quickly drained it as we walked around the city. In part, at the time, this struck the rest of us as simply eccentric, or at least endearing. But underneath the laugh-it-off approach, at least for me, I felt pretty uneasy about it.
To clarify, it wasn’t as if he was simply buzzed and a little boisterous. It’s that he got full-fledged drunk, to the extent that it observably impacted his speech and his physical balance. Intoxicated, he also then binged on other things as well. He went on a spending spree, buying all sorts of new things in rapid succession, and then reported recalling little to none of this the following day.
I don’t think any of the rest of us had the courage or foresight to say anything to him about it at the time. But I’m not convinced it would have helped at that point anyway.
We ended up being in Paris for Christmas that year. Only one of the four of us was interested in going to a Parisian cathedral for the evening mass, the rest of us stayed back in the hostel and got drunk. Two males and one female, someone later in the evening initiated a game of Spin-the-Bottle. It would be here in this cheap hostel in Paris, on Christmas night, that this Late Bloomer would have his first kiss. Alcohol is the context in which this moment happened.
The next stop on our winter break trip was Scotland. At our hostel in Edinburgh, my friends and I ordered this enormous, science-beaker-looking tube of beer. Around a softball size in diameter, when set on the table, the beer-tube stood around 3-4 feet tall.
Still hungover from the previous evening, two of my friends drank little to none of it. This left this giant task to myself and one other. Of course, we finished the entire thing. And of course, towards the end of the evening, this resulted in my nearly sprinting to the bathroom to vomit profusely. I made it to the toilet successfully, and with zero time to spare.
One fateful night in the latter half of my year in Madrid, I went to a house party with some friends. Over the course of the evening, I drank an entire bottle of red wine, which at this point in the year was not exactly out of the norm.
In the middle of the night, I took a taxi home, as I was too far out of range to walk back as I typically did. And then, in the middle of the ride, a sudden and horrifying wave of nausea overcame me. Before I could so much as ask the driver to pull over, I vomited all over myself in the backseat. He pulled over, understandably angry and yelling. I apologized profusely and tipped him heavily. There wasn’t much else I felt I could do to make it better. He just wanted me out of his car at that point. I walked the rest of the way home.
I cleaned the red wine vomit off of my clothing as best as I could. But the smell alone was undisguisable from the rest of the family whose small apartment I was living in. The next morning, full of shame, I told my Senora that I had been sitting down on a couch at the party when some strange drunk girl approached me. Next thing I knew, I told her, this girl just threw up all over me. “Aye, pobrecito.” She responded.
During spring break that year, some of my family members came to visit me in Spain. My cousin Trevor was one of them, and he and the others got to meet the Senora I was living with and her two children who were around our age.
One night, Trevor and my Senora’s son and I went out about town by ourselves. At one point, we returned back to our apartment, where the son produced a small joint. He and Trevor smoked it in the courtyard before heading out to the next bar. At this point in my life, I was still fully closed off to the prospect of “doing (illegal) drugs.” What I had zero compunction about, however; was continuing to binge drink alcohol throughout the rest of the evening.
Drinking out at bars and clubs was expensive in Madrid, so for a brief period that year, I attempted to make use of a flask.
I felt gross about this strategy from the beginning, and in the end only used it twice. The first time I used it, some friends and I were out one night playing pool. I recall going to the bathroom at one point, and concluding, “Well, here I am, in private, this is probably the best place to do this.” I took a swig or two of raw Cutty Sark whiskey from the cheap metal flask I had secured in my blazer pocket, then returned back to the group. In the end, drinking Cutty Sark straight felt more like a punishment than some kind of a bonus to the evening.
The second and final time I used the flask was even more humiliating. I was out dancing with a girl, and at a certain point excused myself to use the restroom. I walked into a stall, closed the door, but realized it had no lock. I removed the flask, and glamorously, right over a public toilet, started to drink. Then, out of nowhere, someone opened the stall door and barged in. It was a bouncer from the bar, he yelled at me, telling me flasks were not allowed, and made me dump the rest of its contents into the toilet on the spot. Tail between my legs, I returned to the rest of the evening.
I’ve happily never used a flask since.
During the second half of my year in Madrid, I started intentionally exploring some of the city’s parks that I had never been to. There was one in particular, Dehesa de la Villa, that quickly became my new go-to, it was on the city’s outskirts and had an incredible vantage point of some of the mountains surrounding the city.
Many Sunday afternoons, I would trek into this park by myself. I would hike around for a bit, then sit down at this spot where the view was particularly incredible. Then I would take out a cold botellon I just purchased on the way in, and read a book and sometimes listen to classical music. I felt perfectly content and engaged and at ease in these moments. I remember these Sundays with great affection.
It was towards the end of my year in Madrid when I had my first straightforward realization that I had developed some degree of an unhealthy relationship with alcohol.
I was out late one night with Victoria, my closest Spanish friend. We’d gone out to eat for dinner, then she’d shown me around to some of the bars that she and her local friends would frequent. Objectively speaking, we’d had a great evening, everything was fine.
But out walking around late, deep into the evening, my mind began telling itself that I needed to drink more. I brought up the possibility of going to another bar, but Victoria then informed me that the bars were now closed. There was no longer a possibility of accessing additional alcohol that evening.
For a person with a healthy relationship with alcohol, like my friend Victoria, this news landed like white noise, it was a non-issue. But for me at that point, I felt my body’s anxiety level rise precipitously. I felt almost cornered, trapped in some way. My mind had fixated on an if/then course of action. If I continue drinking, then I will feel happy and at ease. But realizing I could literally not continue drinking, I felt almost threatened, as if ceasing to drink for the evening would condemn me to feelings of angst and sorrow.
I did not tell Victoria that I was feeling this way. We just went about the rest of the evening as normal. But while she appeared to be in a state of enjoyment and relaxation, I was at that point in a state that felt closer to fight-or-flight problem solving.
While I did my best to shift my focus elsewhere and not dwell on this confusing and intimidating feeling, in the back of my mind, I knew that this was a significant psychological moment. I knew, that night, at age 20, that I very likely had some degree of what might commonly be called, a problem with alcohol.
At the very end of my year in Spain, a friend of mine from Boston and I took a weeklong trip to Morocco. It wasn’t until we were settled in at our hostel in Marrakesh that I learned about the country’s general prohibition on alcohol.
This was the first Muslim country I’d traveled to in my life, and to me it felt surreal that wine and beer were simply not on the menus of otherwise modern and high-quality restaurants.
But I also learned quickly that vice and black-market economies are a universal throughout the world. While alcohol was certainly not on the printed menus of Marrakesh’s tourist-catering restaurants, when I asked our servers in person about it, we were sometimes able to score individual bottles of beer under the table. Same for the hostel we stayed at.
We took a train from Marrakesh to Casablanca. The first night we spent in Casablanca ended with a long walk from our hostel to one of the only available restaurants in the area we were staying. The long walk to dinner was poorly lit and bypassed many abandoned and partially destroyed properties. Drinking an under the table beer or two at the restaurant, I pondered how good of a position our walk would place us in for an armed robbery, or something along those lines. I ended up pocketing one of my empty beer bottles at dinner. On the way home, I held it by the neck, feeling alert and anxious, but ready to potentially use it if someone came after us.
In the fall of 2008, I was an intern in the US Senate in Washington, DC. I lived in a small apartment building on Capitol Hill with other college students. In stark contrast to my time in Madrid, I didn’t do much extracurricular socializing while in DC. I was in a serious mode, and often prioritized extracurricular reading over anything else.
But even with reading, I found alcohol to be a welcome and generally functional companion at this point in my life. Deep into the weekend evening hours during my time in DC, I would generally be alone and on the couch in my own apartment. I’d likely be drinking Yuengling or Yellow Tail Cabernet. I’d likely be reading Christopher Hitchens or Sam Harris.
Once I’d turned 21, if I were visiting my mom’s house in Green Bay, I’d usually be drinking red wine in the evening. Her house had this great little sun-porch on the way into the backdoor. On holidays or breaks from school, I’d hang out in there alone at night. During that time, I would read Milan Kundera. I would just sit down in that sun-porch and read and drink red wine and sometimes play classical music. I recall in these moments sometimes feeling something like transcendence.
I spent my final semester of college back in Milwaukee. Living in a small studio apartment at around 17th and Wells, I would regularly walk over to about 6th and Wisconsin Ave to buy alcohol. I would walk over with an empty backpack. I would return home with a backpack carrying one of those glass gallon jugs of terrible, cheap red wine.
I remember having a somewhat shocking conversation with the main man from behind the liquor store counter. Turns out he was a practicing doctor in India, now he’s selling cigarettes, junk food and liquor to the fine people of downtown Milwaukee. That kind of made my head spin a little bit.
Once I’d hitched my bad backpack wine back to my apartment, I would generally heat up some godforsaken noodle and dried-flavor-powder-plastic-contraption I’d bought at Walgreens. Then I’d drink some wine, read David Foster Wallace books, play the RENT musical soundtrack, dance alone and get all Whooped Up.