“I don’t remember four years of my life.” It came, casually, almost proudly, from the lips of a pretty small blond woman seated in front of me. Her blond bob shook slightly as she spoke, betraying the emotions clearly bubbling just below the stoic, porcelain surface. Intermittently running a hand through her hair—a nervous, fleeting break in her outer perfection—she went on to tell the story of her post-college decade, a downward spiral of drugs, alcohol, even occasional prostitution. Her story ended with her alone, in a dilapidated house, with no recollection of where she was, what she had been doing, or, really, who she was. That day, she explained, was the day she decided to turn her life around. She picked herself up, faced daylight for the first time in years, and walked to her first AA meeting. She never looked back.
I was seventeen. A senior second semester saturated with drugs, alcohol and bad decisions written off as “youth” had ended in a hospital bed on prom night, and, subsequently, in daily, forced AA meetings. I’d thought I was on top of the world: going to an Ivy League school, surrounded by friends, graduating top of my class. I thought I could do anything. And yet, that sweltering July day, I found myself clutching a Styrofoam cup on a folding chair in a dilapidated office building. I was terrified and alone, lost and confused, unsure of who I was. Why I was. Where I was going. The previous few years had been near impossible, a volatile mixture of maternal breakdowns, police run-ins, blurry memories, and crushing schoolwork, but I had convinced myself it was worth it. That I’d pushed through it for a reason. And yet, like the trembling woman in front of me, I found myself sitting at the end of them entirely unable to put a finger on exactly what that reason was.
I am not an alcoholic. I stand by that. But attending those meetings somehow gave new meaning, new weight to my existence. Listening to the stories of alcohol-fueled destruction and despair from the lips around me, I realized how wasteful I’d been. How unappreciative. While I’d had my share of struggles, my life was by no means destroyed. I still had my intelligence, still had my youth (no quotations), and still had some semblance of drive. To give up, to succumb to a life of blacking out and fucking up, would be an affront to the work and effort those around me who’d withstood so much. For their sakes, as well as for my own, I couldn’t squander what I had. I couldn’t drink everything away.
Then I arrived at Princeton. Expecting a place of perfection and contentedness, I was instead confronted with one of the most volatile environments I could imagine. Stress underlined every aspect of my new life. Work was stressful. Lectures were stressful. Social life was stressful. Keeping my voice steady whilst calling home was very, very stressful. And this stress found a perfect companion in drinking. The phrase “let’s black out tonight” was heard regularly, at pre-games, on the street, even while changing to go out after working. Students, many little more than eighteen, quickly learned how to drown their sorrows in bitter sips, how to numb the pain with elixir. Far too many brunches were spent parsing together the events of the night before from the few memory fragments we’d managed to maintain. Far too many hours were lost in the bottoms of our red cups. Very rapidly, I was letting myself fall back into the pattern of waste and futility I’d so adamantly promised to avoid.
One morning, I woke up with my head at the foot of my bed. I was fully dressed. My shoes were untied. My mascara had found its way to my chin. My phone was missing. My head was pounding, and I couldn’t remember anything past the pregame the night before. Talk to a few Princeton students on a Sunday morning, and you will quickly realize that this is far from uncommon. Confusion is somewhat accepted as the status quo on Fridays and Sundays. But I was terrified. As I stood up slowly, tipping a few times before righting myself, I couldn’t help but think of the blond woman. I felt her confusion, her loss, her fear. I flailed around my room searching for my phone (never to be found), yearning for some sort of connection, of comfort. She’d found hers in AA, but I found myself coming up empty-handed. I was embarrassed at my fear, saw myself as somehow lesser for not being able to cope with what seemed to be an accepted social convention. I felt as if I couldn’t reach out or express myself for fear of being ridiculed or denounced. And so I showered. I got dressed. I went to the library and buried myself in work, hoping that one pain would block out the roar of another.
Life continued much in the same way for the next few months. Weekends were blurry, weeks were stressful, and the bags under my eyes grew darker. I tricked myself into aimlessly persevering, as I had in high school, silently telling myself that “it was just Princeton.” It was the cost we all had to pay. And then Thanksgiving came.
I could hardly control my excitement on the bus home. I couldn’t wait to see my friends from high school, those people who knew me better than anyone else. I couldn’t wait to “rage,” thinking that, somehow, our reunion would be all the better if we could barely remember it. Surrounded by my girlfriends, Black Friday night, I poured myself a glass of wine and drank it quickly, ready for “girl talk”. And then I started crying.
It wasn’t a casual sort of crying. My body, rendered weak from stress, was racked with sobs. As my dearest friends tried to comfort me, I slid to the floor of my kitchen, feeling utterly alone. I couldn’t control the anguish my body was expressing. Exhausted, I succumbed to it, and bore their looks of fear and concern as they circled around me. Finally, I was able to stop, and, through intermittent hiccups, tried to explain what I was coping with. They looked confused. I was at Princeton, how could I be unhappy? They couldn’t understand. But I could. I knew something had to change. So, channeling the bravery of the fragile woman from AA, I stood up, cleaned my house, and began my effort to exist outside of the prescribed destructive cycle Princeton makes so easy to fall into.
I can’t say I haven’t faltered. I can’t say I haven’t made my share of poor decisions since that day, but I can say that I haven’t blacked out since that Thanksgiving night. I drink, I do, but I keep a handle on what I’m doing. I don’t want to waste my time here. I don’t want to lose my way. It’s nearly an impossible task at a school that fosters stress and presents little alternative relief, but I try. I don’t want to end up alone, in a house, unsure of what I’ve been doing for the past four years. I don’t want to be a waste.
I can safely say that nothing has kept me more sane at Princeton than the lingering memories of those meetings. They are a reality check, a grounding force. They remind me of why I’m here. Why we’re all here. What we’re all doing. Reluctant as many of may be to admit it, we are the fortunate few. We’ve earned an opportunity that few others could ever dream of. We’re in one of the most intellectual and potential-filled intellectual environments in the world. Yes, that in itself puts enormous pressure on us as students, but blacking out isn’t going to relieve us of this responsibility. This isn’t to say that we should live for anyone but ourselves, but perhaps, occasionally, we should all step back and think of those who haven’t been so lucky, who have fallen into the grips of alcoholism in the face of poverty or struggle. We’ve been given one of the greatest opportunities in the world, and, despite the pain, despite the struggle, shouldn’t we want to remember it, to consciously live it?