As a teen, I used to waltz into the holidays like a guest in Gatsby’s mansion. Everyone you love (and sometimes hate) gathers together; teachers, deans and principals can’t hound you and everyone drinks. A lot.
My friends and I were punk kids, or something adjacent, and the winter season meant less time at school, more time to do whatever. Usually, we picked someone’s house and spent the days and nights there sneaking alcohol — or just openly drinking — and practically competing to see who could smoke more weed and cigarettes.
Now, for those of us who made it to the chapter titled, “Struggling-To-Be-A-Sober Adult,” the holiday stress beckons us again toward liquor and smoke.
As teenagers, we just didn’t care.
The original group — my best friends Mike and Jimi and myself — bounced around each others' houses showing each other music and raging around our rooms with bargain instruments. For years I never saw Jimi more than an arm’s reach from a guitar. I always wanted to be as good as he was.
Before long, however, we’d set down the strings in favor of silver-canned light beer stolen from Mike’s dad. We partied at Jimi’s when his dad was away, chatting about rock star dreams as the nights died down.
Eventually, someone took another step. I’m not sure who went first, but it didn’t matter in the end. We did most things together.
Jimi introduced me to cocaine. I remember walking out of his bathroom and introducing myself to everyone at the party a second time. I was 17.
On my 18th birthday, Mike showed me acid. We lied on the floor of my first apartment listening to Phil Collins while the ceiling crept and danced above us.
We came from broken homes. Single parents like my mom or Jimi’s dad had no idea what we were up to while they worked or slept. Mike’s parents divorced and didn’t seem to communicate much.
As we delved deeper into the pills, powders and pale ales, I wondered how long it’d take for an adult to say something. None of us wanted to get in trouble, but we didn’t do much to avoid it.
After high school, things turned grittier. Suddenly the responsibilities mounted. The drugs we snuck around felt less adventurous. We went from cool punk kids to deadbeat local adults.
I remember feeling truly worried watching Jimi pop painkillers on the couch at noon on a weekday. I wasn’t much better, treating myself to a blunt and a Xanax most nights to fall asleep.
Eventually, the thing that stopped us was ourselves.
I remember waking up from a nap just a few days after New Year’s Day in 2019 to a phone call. My gut sank to the earth’s core as Mike told me our immortality was a lie. Jimi was dead. He’d simply taken one too many pills the night before, went to bed and never woke up.
After that, change came. I knew my own self-destructive abuse put me on the same dark path. I had just begun classes at Lakeland Community College and decided the academic grindstone sounded better than death. I cut back to only smoking marijuana and drinking (although still a bit too much). A year later when I transferred to Kent State University, I took it further, cutting all substances entirely: no cigarettes, no booze, no weed.
I’d never felt so irritable, but eventually the roar quieted down — life hushed a bit as I gained the focus I needed to chase my dreams.
Mike took a different route. He’d dropped out of school in favor of a music career, something he thought he’d do alongside Jimi. After a period of soul searching and the trial and error of music production, he scored an indie film set to release in 2023, Daddy Loves You.
Not long after Mike landed his first real gig composing, I graduated with a higher GPA than I could’ve dreamed of in grade school and landed my first job, here at Cleveland Magazine.
Over the last few holiday seasons, I believe we’ve learned to waltz again, albeit trading drinking games with board games.Things feel somber around Jimi’s anniversary, we lost Mike’s dad to alcohol-related organ failure two Decembers ago — but we smile and comfort each other nonetheless. We congratulate ourselves on our accomplishments and dedicate them to our lost loved ones. We look ahead to the future with optimism, and now, the drinks are for cheering, not spiraling.