Sobering experiences teach you when you can drink

Ilearned about responsible drinking the way I learn every kind of common sense. I made mistakes, bore the consequences and internalized rules that never seemed crucial before.

I can't claim to be perfectly responsible, but as drinkers in their 20s go, I'm OK. I don't give in to peer pressure to drink, I never drive drunk and I drink to excess only about twice a year.

My parents, who have abstained from alcohol for as long as I've been alive, are probably unhappy as they read this column. They taught me that it's dclass and undisciplined to drink. The DARE unit in my fifth-grade class further indoctrinated me in the evils of all mind-altering substances, whether legal, restricted or criminalized.

I won a DARE essay contest on "Why I Will Never Use Drugs." I believed, in good faith, I'd never drink. I hear those virginity pledges work real well, too.

So I stayed a teetotaler throughout high school, feeling uneasy but superior when I heard tales of fellow students' drinking. Not friends, mind you. I didn't have many friends. In retrospect, it's easy to avoid peer pressure to drink when you never go to parties or hang out with peers.

A common saying among evangelical teetotalers is "You don't need alcohol to have a good time." My college boyfriend, who also didn't drink alcohol, tried to discourage me from going to study in Russia, telling me anything I could learn about myself there I could learn in Berkeley. Abstinence advocates give out lists of fun, nonsexual things to do on dates. There's a common thread here, not just a vine of sour grapes, but more akin to the infamous early computing quote, "640 kilobytes should be enough for anyone."

My summer trip to Russia changed me. My hosts and Russian acquaintances thought nothing of my nonsmoking vegetarianism, but their jaws dropped with awe when I refused booze. I was above the drinking age there. So law-abiding me decided to experiment, while keeping notes in a pocket notebook on the effects of alcohol on my judgment, steadiness, memory and cognitive abilities. I started to learn my limits.

The Russian scientist Mendeleev, who invented the periodic table of the elements, also set down rules for judging vodka. His name and picture grace many Russian brands. And thus it was that a few friends and I partook of a bottle of Mendeleevskaya during the last impenetrable Russian history lecture, as anesthetic.

Back in Berkeley, I had a sober and utterly mind-expanding astronomy class. I felt transcendent and awesome for hours. The trance broke when I tried to share it with my new boyfriend, again a nondrinker, who inadvertently shattered it with nitpicking.

Nothing I've ever felt drunk has compared to the epiphany and wonder of that astronomy lecture by Alex Filippenko. For all I know, LSD, hash or pot could produce that sensation. But I can't practice effective harm reduction with illegal drugs, so I don't use them.

To learn to drink alcohol responsibly, I had to learn my limits, which meant exceeding them. Getting drunk is and was an irresponsible thing to do, even if I practiced harm reduction by only getting drunk among trustworthy friends, or in my own home.

When I turned 21, I had to remap my world; bars and liquor stores and clubs that I'd previously dismissed as off-limits now opened their doors. And drinking helped me remap myself. Even one glass of wine can produce unusually vivid dreams. Alcohol unlocks inhibitions, showing me things about myself that I don't even know I'm hiding (like subsumed hostility and belligerence), just as MDMA (aka Ecstasy) did for users in therapeutic contexts.

But I only started drinking after I'd gotten some maturity, as a person paranoid about self-control and the epistemology of experience, just as I only got a credit card after I'd started supporting myself and living within my means. Your mileage will vary.

I have friends who never drink. They've chosen by their actions to put themselves in one category, to have one sort of experience. I switch back and forth between abstinence and one of moderate alcohol consumption. But simply presenting arguments as to which choice is better (even this column), are not the same as true experience.

Sumana Harihareswara writes each week for Bay Area Living. You can write to her at