Excerpted from Down and Back by Justin Bourne. Reproduced by arrangement with the publisher. All rights reserved.
When I think back to my decision to not drink at a younger age, a lot of it came from how alcohol had been framed in my life. I knew we had some family members for whom drinking was a problem. Dad, who liked to drink, was then just a small part of that. And alcohol was a non-factor in my upbringing in the days post-Dad. I guess in general I had just come up with a sense that it wasn’t good.
On New Year’s Eve of 2004, I was in my freshman dorm when our coach sent out the notice of an 11:30 p.m. curfew. I had been pretty good about obeying authority figures up to that point, but at some point you can recognize when someone in a position of power should go kick rocks, right?
Even though I obeyed again, the repeated late unveilings of curfews on nights that most young people look forward to enjoying was one of the reasons I was glad to be done with hockey when I hung the skates up, inconsequential as that issue sounds. Early on, hockey players surrender control over certain areas of their lives (which I’m convinced is partially why so many struggle to make good decisions when they’re handed back the controls and have no experience making their own choices). This happened at every level like clockwork. We were in Madison, Wisc., for Halloween one year, and after the final buzzer we had a curfew dropped on us of … 90 minutes after the game ended. By the time we showered and got out of the rink, we had an hour. For a college-aged kid, that’s like taking a child to Disneyland with 20 total dollars in your wallet. Every game I ever played in Vegas came with an early curfew. Your family’s in town? Doesn’t matter, team curfew. Not being able to make my own choices made me crazy.
That first New Year’s Eve, I remember all of us in our separate rooms, full-on moping at our computers and having a Jack Daniel’s and Coke to sip before coming out for a midnight cheers with my roommates. We were in a safe space and it was delicious, and suddenly I wasn’t so bothered by the whole curfew thing. I felt pretty good, actually.
It’s crazy how clean the line is here, but that next morning was the start of 2004, which would prove to be a great year for me. It wasn’t three weeks since I’d turned 21, meaning I was then legal drinking age in the U.S. and could go to all the local establishments. I’d just truly enjoyed a drink for the first time and intended to do that with the fellas more often in the months ahead. To put it mildly, it began. It began as a gentle ripple, not some tidal wave, but if anyone consumed more alcohol than I did in the 15 years between that day and Feb. 16, 2019, I would straight-faced bet they’re either badly sick and/or broke and/or have gone through rehab themselves—or worse, are dead. By the time I hit that 2019 date, I was sick and broke and legitimately on my way to dead. It took a slow five years to get from the first day of 2004 to the end of my playing career, and it was then that I’d begin the decade-long intake level where I helped make some executives at Skyy Vodka, Absolut Vodka and Muskoka Brewing very rich.
For a while, booze made all the adjustments to my brain that I wish could be permanent. It quieted and calmed the ever-running background presence of anxiety and worry. It made me the happy version of myself I always want to be. It brought me out of my shell a bit, and it seemed like people responded well when I was more involved in the conversation. Also, I thought it was cool and I was getting started in college. Who doesn’t want to be cool?
It’s easy to not worry about what family will think when drinking is pretty ubiquitous around the world, and my early results were pretty positive. I was in control and happy, at first. One thing I came to learn about myself the alcoholic was that booze didn’t seem to affect me all that differently than the next person when I was drinking. I was a low-key drunk, for the most part, never the guy standing on the bar or looking for a fight. I just loved drinking, but I guess other people love drinking, too. For them, though, I imagine they love it the way I love ice cream. I love it, and love when I have an excuse to eat it and look forward to it very much. But I do not think about it as I’m brushing my teeth in the morning, nor do I need to keep eating it once I’ve started. I can wait to start, and I can capably stop. Not so much with booze.