My older brother Michael learned everything before me. All I had to do was follow in the tread of his footsteps. When Michael came back from his first quarter of college with a taste for PBR and a hankering to play King's Cup, I learned about drinking and drinking games.
I thought I was hot shit, getting truly drunk for the first time at 16. I drank like it was the end of the world at my high school's spring fling and threw up all over my friend Jenna's granite countertops. Similarly, when I went up to visit Michael at school during his sophomore year of college, I used my familiarity with being drunk as a crutch when I was dragged along to a holiday party full of intimidating 20-year-olds.
I remember grabbing beer after beer, having waterfalls of peppermint schnapps cascade into my mouth, and comforting myself with Michael's roommate's flask of Southern Comfort. I spewed chunks all over his friend's living room and then into the snow as one of his other friends rubbed my arm and told me this had happened to her when she first started college.
By the time I was a college freshman, I walked into the University of Washington armed with extensive drinking experience. I had tips, I had tricks, and I had no friends. I could change that, I thought. Alcohol would help.
One night after a welcome-week event, two kids from my high school and I banded together and socialized like we had never socialized before. Afterward, our new friendship was still fragile. We needed more time.
"Should we go back to someone's room?" someone asked.
"My roommate hasn't moved in yet," said someone who I think was named Jaysen. "My mom gave me a handle of Fireball."
Excellent. Fireball would be our ambrosia, the elixir of life to this friendship. We'd play King's Cup, just like Michael had taught me. It would be "so college," I thought, excited to make friends and act on my newly discovered freedom. Especially because earlier in the evening, I had cried into a bowl of Cap'n Crunch's Crunch Berries alone in my dorm room when I'd had no one to go to dinner with.
We sat in a circle on the floor, red cups strewn about, the bottle of Fireball whiskey in the middle like some kind of idol. Even though we'd only had probably one shot each, it was enough to loosen our limbs, calm our nerves, and ratchet up the volume of our voices. It was hot in there, our cheeks were flushed, and we were laughing, while trying to drown out the voices in our heads doubting if this was even that fun, if we had been lied to about the college experience. Maybe it was all just tears in our cereal after all.
Then came the knock at the door. We all went dead silent. We looked at the contraband in the middle of the floor and then back to each other. We scrambled.
"Hide it, hide it, hide it," somebody whispered urgently. The bottles clanged as we stuffed them under the lofted bed.
"We hear you hiding stuff and we can smell alcohol," the voice on the other side of the door said. "Might as well open up."
The door opened, and we were busted.
* * *
The next time I saw these new friends was deep in the bowels of the UW psych building. Specifically, in a room that was built to look like a bar, with leather barstools, dim lighting, and neon signs. We were crammed into school desks next to a dartboard.
The room, called the Behavior Alcohol Research Lab, or BAR Lab, had been "created to help scientists examine the separate psychological and physiological effects of substances on behavioral outcomes." One of the most famous placebo studies that came out of that room demonstrated "that the desired effects from alcohol consumption were not actually due to the alcohol itself, but rather the belief that the beverage contained alcohol." In other words, you can have fun without being drunk.
That was what we were there to learn. The workshop instructed us about blood alcohol content and how each drink you imbibe impacts it and your drunken experience. It hit on the classics, like don't get behind the wheel if you've been drinking (ever), choking to death (a huge risk to college drinkers is passing out on their backs, vomiting, and then choking to death on the vomit—so turn any passed-out friends onto their side), alcoholism (if you need to drink to get through the day, you have a problem and need to ask for help), and more.
I did my time in the Alcohol Skills Training Workshop, as mandated by UW, and wrote a one-page paper about what I'd learned, even though I rolled my eyes and cracked jokes the whole time.
I got a text from my brother after I finished the last class, asking how the first week of college was going. I told him about the trouble I'd gotten into.
"What? You should've turned the music up," Michael texted back. "That way they get you for a noise complaint but you have time to stash your supplies while the music blares." He acted as if I should have known this, but it was one of those things he had never taught me. Some things you just have to learn for yourself.
I never drank in my dorm again. I was too traumatized from that first experience. Other people in my dorm did. The fifth floor in particular was notorious for its raucous parties. I never understood how those people got away with it.
So recently I asked them. Someone hid their booze in the false bottom of a storage crate, another put it in mouthwash bottles and stowed it in a drawer full of sex toys, and others would just tuck it behind their clothes in the closet. One of them explained how he and his friends would do shots in one dorm room (likely without chasers because we were all trying to prove something back in freshman year) and then move to a different room. They left the alcohol in the first room and were loud, rowdy, and drunk in the second. When the RAs came to search the room, there was nothing there.
It was so simple and so genius. Why hadn't I thought of that? Luckily, you don't have to now. You're welcome.
* * *
For what it's worth, I didn't stay friends with the people I got caught drinking with. We saw each other in the halls and on each other's Snapchat stories, but we never interacted. You do all kinds of meaningless stuff with people when you're drinking, often just for the sake of drinking. Maybe life is more fun without alcohol.
No, that's not true. Drinking and being stupid in college can be fun with the right people. I eventually found friends in college. We were drunk as shit when they asked me to live with them the next year after three hours of knowing me. I think alcohol sped up the process of getting to know each other. We ended up living together throughout college and still live together now.
There's no real guide to navigating college, even if your older brother has been through it before you. Ultimately, you find your own way, your own people, and your own alcohol—that will be tainted forever because you throw it up so violently during a campus Halloween party. But that didn't happen till my sophomore year.