OPINION: I got drunk for the first time when I was 13. My sisters and I sat at our kitchen table and downed a pack of lemon-lime Cruisers, the sugar-sweet liquid sliding down our throats.
I remember the warmth unfurling like a fist, the sense of everything slotting into place.
Later, I burnt my hand, badly, on the flat-top stove. At my art exam the next day, I clutched a paintbrush in a bandaged paw.
I drank to get drunk, because otherwise, what was the point? I smuggled cheap vodka into punk gigs at the local RSA; I toted vinegary wine to backyard barbecues; I siphoned top-shelf liqueurs from my parents’ cabinets, then refilled the bottles with water.
* New study confirms NZ’s ‘ladette’ problem drinkers
* Teens drinking to get ‘smashed’
* Harmful drinking affects women too: study
Mostly, though, I drank alco-pops. At 15, 16, 17 years old, I could get drunk for $10, the price of four Smirnoff Ice Double Blacks.
Practicality was key: scratching as many standard drinks as possible from my after-school pay slips. So, too, was attaining that golden buzz, adding to it, never losing it.
When I read this week that RTD-swilling women under 24 were emerging as New Zealand’s worst problem drinkers, I wasn’t surprised.
It seemed like every young woman I knew drank like me. Vodka Mudshakes, Bacardi Breezers, KGBs – name your sickly-sweet alcoholic beverage, we consumed it.
We drank, and we felt powerful. Dizzy with booze and sucrose, we launched ourselves into mosh pits, then compared our bruises like badges of honour. We got a thrill when we began out-drinking men twice our size.
For its part, alcohol was always cheap, always available, almost always encouraged. Good day? Have a drink. Bad day? Have a drink.
It was also, for the most part, fun – until it wasn’t.
I passed out in bar bathrooms and tore a tendon tottering home in too-high heels. I missed deadlines and phone calls and family events. I swapped to spirits, then, for reasons of economy, whatever wine was on special. I stopped being able to stop at one.
At the age of 24 – five years ago now – I put down my glass for good.
Don’t worry: this is not a finger-pointing exercise, or a call for the rest of the world to give up, like I did.
What I will say is that getting sober as a young woman, in a society that sometimes doesn’t seem to recognise female binge drinking as a problem, was excruciating.
“But you’re so young,” I heard, more than once. And: “It wasn’t really that bad, was it?”
No, I didn’t lose my home (because at 24, I’d never had one of those), or my spouse (never had one of those, either). I didn’t sleep on a park bench or scull meths from a brown paper bag.
But I – like so many other young women I know – drank too fast and too hard. We lost too many friends, and we took too many chances.
When I tell people, now, that I don’t drink, they often do a double-take. The first question is always: “At all?” The second one is always: “Is it hard?”
I never really know what to say to that. My life, for all intents and purposes, is completely different now. It’s fuller. I don’t wake up anymore wondering where I am or why people are angry at me.
Just sometimes, when I’m leaving a party as everyone else is getting started, or when the only non-alcoholic beverage available at a swanky soiree is water, I feel a twinge in the pit of my stomach.
Yes, at those times, it is hard. But it’s still not as hard as drinking was.
Anna Loren is an Auckland news director for Stuff.