Friday, February 24, 2006

Young and drunk

When young Mr. Fitzsimmons emailed to ask me to meet him in my office on a Sunday afternoon, I was pretty sure it wasn't about his classwork. David Fitzsimmons, as I'll call him here, was 19 and so impossibly young-looking that I was sure he'd never shaved more than twice in his life. He was a charming kid--a little too smooth. When he didn't meet his deadlines on assignments, he always had original and often hilarious reasons.

"My car got stolen and then it got towed from wherever the thief left it and when I went to get it out of the city pound, it took about four hours and when I got it back, it had been completely washed and waxed! And there was a new CD in the changer! It's like I got an upgrade from the car thief! I'm pretty sure it had a lube job, too. He even threw out all the Whataburger wrappers! How great is that?" He could spin a tale like an Irishman.

He also drank like one. David was a regular customer of happy hours at the bars near campus. He drank every day, of that I was pretty sure. And it explained why he was always late to class, even though he was in the 11 a.m. section. In every story he wrote for me, drinking was a major topic. He wrote about the time he was in a wreck after driving into a tree and totaling his brand new Rabbit. He was just 16 then and already was adept at sneaking the hard stuff out of the liquor stashes of his friends' parents. He told me later that he'd started drinking before he was 12. For another story, he wrote about a cousin who'd died in a DWI crash that wasn't the cousin's fault. It was as though he was trying to convince himself of something....

By the time he got to college, David Fitzsimmons was a steady, heavy drinker. With convincing fake IDs he bought from a guy who made them in his dorm room on professional equipment, David hit the bars in the afternoons and stayed late "partying." One night he did a series of tequila shooters, how many he couldn't recall. But the aftermath of that stunt was so gruesome that he started thinking about what it might be like not to drink anymore.

"I've had a hangover every single day for the past five years," he told me that Sunday in my office. He was in bad shape that day. His eyes were pink-rimmed, his throat was raspy and his complexion looked as gray as a raw oyster. "I feel like shit all the time. If I make it to class, all I think about is when I can get to the bar. When I'm out drinking, I forget about everything else I'm supposed to be doing. I can't even eat because my stomach's so fucked up."

He was scared, he said. He'd been blacking out a lot lately. The night before he'd woken up way late in a strange apartment across town and couldn't remember how he'd gotten there. He wasn't even sure whose place it was or what had happened in the hours before he came to on a couch covered in cat hair. His car was outside with the keys still in it, so he drove back to his dorm. It was around 3 in the afternoon when we met on campus that day and he said he hadn't been to sleep yet. His hands were shaking pretty bad, like he needed a drink.

Why this incident put the fear into him and not the hundreds of others he'd experienced while drunk, I don't know. I suspect there were some details of what had happened in that apartment that he didn't want to talk about. But he was clearly shaken up and needed to talk.

"You seem like somebody I could trust," he said. "You're cool, like my mom. But I can't talk to my mom. She'd tell my dad and he'd be up here tomorrow to drag me back to rehab." (David had been in rehab once already, two summers earlier. He said he drank two six-packs within hours of his release.)

"I'm not sure what you want me to do," I said. "I'm glad you recognize that you have a problem. You do need help. But they tell us to refer students to the health center for substance abuse." I was speaking in those cold, dispassionate tones that they use in the once-yearly workshops on "troubled students" that adjuncts can attend voluntarily. I really wanted to cry with the kid. He seemed to be teetering on the edge of a breakdown.

"No, come on! They'll call my parents. I'm already such a disappointment to them." His big blue eyes were filling up and I was starting to worry that he was suicidal or something.

"I just need to ask you a favor," he said after taking a deep breath. He stood up and dug his wallet out of his back pocket and opened it. "I want you to lock up my fake IDs somewhere. Maybe if I don't have those, I won't drink tonight."

Tonight, he said. He already knew the language of the addict. One day at a time. One hour at a time.

"I'll be happy to do that, David." I took three IDs out of his hand. They were authentic-looking driver's licenses from Texas and two other states. Each one showed that David Fitzsimmons was 21 years old. "But I still think you need to see about getting professional help. Have you ever gone to meetings?"

"I just pledged a fraternity this year."

"No, I mean Alcoholics Anonymous."

He looked down at the floor and just shook his head. It grew quiet in the room. I could hear someone at the end of the hall getting a soda out of the machine and then walking back to some other office.

"I probably should," he said quietly. "But I don't know...." He moved toward the door. I gave him a hug. The kid needed a hug right then.

The fake IDs stayed in my desk drawer in a sealed envelope for the next four years. David passed my writing class--barely. We never again talked about his drinking. We never again had a conversation outside of class. He never asked for the IDs back. And after that semester, I rarely saw him. He must have changed majors. Or maybe he just felt embarrassed.

I prefer to believe that his story had the right ending. That he really did sober up. That on that Sunday he went back to his dorm and ate a good dinner and maybe watched 60 Minutes. That the night didn't end with David driving over to the Green Elephant or the Ice House for another round of disappointment.

17 Comments:

Blogger L.A.tentIntent said...

Sounds like the books I read.

2:43 PM  
Anonymous Hillary said...

Everyone is so scared of taboo. They are scared of the people who commit taboos, scared to confront them, scared to become them. This just adds to the alcoholics' handicaps. I seriously doubt the kid didn't go out for more drinks, seriously. It takes a lot more psychology for that to work, unfortunately.
It's sad how you can't, as a professor, really help kids who need it. Maybe that's a blessing, maybe that's a curse.

4:49 PM  
Anonymous Hillary said...

PS - for future reference, I'd be hesitant to suggest alcoholics anonymous. I know people forced to go to those meetings - they have an extremely religious cirriculum. My friend didn't want to drink anymore so he wouldn't turn out like the people on those meetings. Apparently, it's scary.

4:55 PM  
Blogger Yvette said...

This sto of a few majors in my dept at my school who are the kids who set the grade curve on weekdays and binge drink on weekends. I always half-wonder about them because in some senses they are the smartest people I know and in others so stupid... that and if they didn't drink I'm pretty sure they could rule the world. Then I wonder just how many other kids out there are like that, and I really don't want to know the answer.

5:52 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

I dated a stunning SMU Grad student who drank five large beers during one two hour concert. There were the quart plus beers. She had been a tri-Delt as an undergrad.

I realized on the drive to her home in her car that night that she had a lot of anxieties and alcohol was one way she dealt with them. Drunk as she was, she dug out a hidden tape from her glove box and put it on. It was an early Jackson Five - the one with light love songs. She sang to them slurring slightly. It was the first time in the six weeks I'd known her that she had played music.

The other way was multiple sex partners. She was stunned when I confronted her the following morning when I pressed her blouse and made breakfast. I felt sorry for her and told her so while the steam rose from the iron. During this quiet discussion her home phone rang a dozen times and each time she would jump when her voice ended on the answering machine and the caller hung up. I could see the sweat shine on her brow when the phone would ring a few minutes later.

She had a lot to share with me about her life and I just listened as the sun rose and then set.

I never called her again nor did I return her calls.

I saw her a year later sitting in the front row of a Mav's game. She was with a much older man and she had a new chest. She saw me and kept looking back and me and my fiance'. Once, I caught her eye, and she smiled and help up the Coke she was drinking, shaking it prominently. I gave her the biggest smile I had.

12:40 AM  
Blogger BlondebutBright said...

I'd guess it took a lot of courage for him to admit his problem to you. I think many people of all ages are terrified to acknowledge their weaknesses, especially when their social lives revolve around the addiction. This post reminds me of what you wrote a few months ago about colleagues that drink heavily with each other and sometimes with their students. It's like alcoholism is permeating all of these interactions, but everyone is obligated to remain silent - as long as no one verbalizes the potential danger in their drinking behavior, everyone can continue to abuse alcohol.

9:12 AM  
Blogger theprofessor said...

To the anonymous above. I love your story of the Tri-Delt with the drinking/sex problem. Nicely done.

All the comments here are so good. Sometimes I think I keep writing so I can see what you readers come up with in response. I'm always so thrilled to see what you post. Thank you.

11:10 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

"He could spin a tale like an Irishman.
He also drank like one"


hurtful comment professor. you should know better

5:58 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

The unofficial motto of my school is "work hard, play harder." In an atmosphere where "the weekend begins on Wednesday," its sometimes hard to tell where the line between a college drinker and a real drunk falls. Reading this terrifies me about what the friends I go out and drink with on the weekend are really thinking when they grab another beer.

4:00 PM  
Blogger theprofessor said...

Guess I've known a lot of Irish drunks.

4:06 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

The right ending is never the correct ending.

No, he didn't stop drinking. In fact, he found out how to drink around the rules. Because if anything, college is about figuring ways around rules.

But that is the curious thing about rules. Finding ways around rules always involve abiding by other rules.

Sure, one can't drink at bars but one can always count on Soanso to buy from the liquor store.

If one finds Soanso in time before afternoon class.

If not then there is that guy that hangs out in front of the Korean Mart with his cap out. He'll do whatever for a Boones Farm or Mad Dog.

We all like to think we do good.

We don't.

He's not drinking as much and has come to find that AA is bullshit and that there is no such thing as sobriety- subsitute one addiction (alcohol) for two others- caffine and or nicotine.

5:16 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

AA actually does help thousands of alcoholics recover from alcoholism every day. Most people who talk shit about AA probably have never suffered from addiction or alcoholism for that matter and have never been to meetings. To say that every human being substitutes one addiction for another is a hasty generalization and a bit absurd. AA is not about religion either, so check your facts. AA is based on spiritual principles where you can rely on a Higher Power or a God of your understanding. A higher power can be the group itself, so to place AA along with religion is yet again another hasty generalization. It's quite funny to me to hear people talk about AA who know absolutely nothing about it.

1:51 PM  
Anonymous JonesNought said...

With all due respect to the most recent anonymous poster, who claims that "AA is based on spiritual principles where you can rely on a Higher Power or a God of your understanding," that is not QUITE the way the Higher Power is represented in the twelve steps. While Step 2 does indeed talk about "a Power greater than ourselves," Step 3 states that AA members have decided "to turn our will and our lives over to the care of God as we understand Him." So, sure, maybe you can call your Higher Power the group or your cat or your bowl of Rice Krispies, but when you get to that third step, can you really and truly say that your conception of "God" fits with that designation? There is a clear disconnect between these two steps that I find immensely disturbing. Perhaps the actual practice of AA is different, but quite a few Supreme Court cases that I know of (at least at the state level) have found AA to be religious. And that's enough to scare ME away.

12:07 AM  
Blogger Stephen said...

Well, if you would read the AA texts, you would find that some of them are atheists, some agnostics and some pretty irritated at the way the books softpedal God.

It is a mix.

You can find all of the stuff on-line, including commentaries (the most famous: http://www.recoverytimes.com/janc.html )

9:57 PM  
Anonymous mary kate said...

Someone mentioned "study hard, play harder." That is the exact atmosphere of my own small southern liberal arts college. As a freshman who doesn't drink much, it's really embarrassing to watch my classmates drink themselves sick on the weekends and on Wednesday nights (Wednesday fest). I worry about them, but I can't be the mom.

11:43 PM  
Anonymous MR said...

One thing that really disturbs me about this story is that the student thought that the student health center would call his parents. He's 19! And even if he wasn't legally an adult, there are laws to protect confidentiality and especially if he went to counselors, a central ethnics requirement for the profession (as well as by law), is that nothing is disclosed to others with the only exception being if the client was likely to seriously harm themselves (suicide) or others. It's scary that fear of exposure to parents or others would keep students from seeking urgently needed help.

1:25 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

When someone spends the first eighteen years of their life under an unyielding watch of the parents and then goes to an environment where the surveillance is all but gone, not everyone handles the transition well. I suspect his parents were control freaks whose idea of love is to crush the spirit of their offspring into complete submission and to keep tabs on every single aspect of their personal life. Is it any wonder the guy would rather jump off a bridge than get his folks involved?

11:33 PM  

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