It was the late 1980s, and the “Decade of the Brain,” sponsored by the National Institute of Mental Health (NIMH) and the Library of Congress, was still a few years away. I was sitting in a Clement Street diner in San Francisco, reading a book called The Hidden Addiction, by a Seattle M.D. named Janice Keller Phelps, and trying to understand why I could not stop drinking. Dr. Phelps was saying that most of what I thought I knew about alcoholism and other addictions was completely wrong.
Years earlier, I had written a nonfiction book about the rise of Silicon Valley, so I was under no illusions about the scientific learning curve involved in writing a book about the dawn of addiction medicine. But I had the means and the motivation: a background as a science and technology journalist, and a solid addiction to alcohol and cigarettes.
We’re in Junior High, Randy and I, and it’s the weekend. We’re staying at Randy’s, after a successful performance at a state swimming meet, and Randy’s parent’s are out for the night. A typical sleepover, stupid movies and all the cokes you can drink.
But this Saturday night turned out differently, and to this day I can’t really say why. I remember Randy showing me his dad’s stash of liquor bottles underneath the kitchen sink, and us laughing about it, and what would you pick, Scotch or Gin, and what the hell was Vermouth?
Amazingly, I don’t recall what we picked, or exactly how much of it we drank. I remember that it went down okay, with the usual spluttering, and it was giggly and light-headed and fun.
And then, in my memory, a long, blurred period of time passing, and a sense of coming back into my body on a bed I did not recognize, face turned to the wall, Randy moaning quietly beside me. It was a sort of rolling blackout, sweet oblivion, the only one I have ever experienced. Suspended in time, as lost to ordinary chronology as I have ever been, before or since. And strangely, for all the drinking to come, I was never a blackout drinker again. No lost weekends, and no lost cars, dude.
“Come on,” I remember saying to my friend, as I came unsteadily to consciousness on the rocking bed, “let’s go have some more.” Unbelievable. Randy and I had already drunk ourselves into a stupor.
Let’s have some more. Good idea.
And then Randy saying, “Hi, mom,” in the way you say it when you’re trying to freak out your buddy and there’s nobody really there, like looking over his shoulder and pretending to see somebody when your buddy is copping a quick piss in the bushes, and saying in a deep voice, “Hi there, sir, how’s it going?” Just to watch him fumble with his zipper in a panic. So I roll over on the bed toward Randy, saying “Yeah, right, Randy, like I’m falling for that,” and in that instant seeing Randy’s mom standing speechless in the doorway of what turned out to be the master bedroom. Staring at us with shock. Or maybe I was the one who went into shock, as I remember very little of the rest of it. At some point Randy’s mother called my mother, naturally, despite my fervent prayers designed to produce an intercession, and my dad drove over and took me home, where I fell asleep (it was Saturday) for most of the day. I woke up feeling like hammered dogshit, as they say. My father was sitting in a chair in my bedroom. “Well,” he said, when I was as awake as I was going to get, “did you learn anything from this?”
Years later, I came across a study in the Archives of Pediatrics and Adolescent Medicine —“Age at Drinking Onset and Alcohol Dependence.” The conclusion of this cross-sectional survey of more than 43,000 adults was stark and straightforward: “Relative to respondents who began drinking at 21 years or older, those who began drinking before age 14 years (my italics) were more likely to experience alcohol dependence ever and within 10 years of first drinking.”