A sobering account of teen alcohol abuse

February 27, 2005|By Erika Niedowski | Erika Niedowski,Sun Staff

Smashed: Story of a Drunken Girlhood

By Koren Zailckas. Viking. 343 pages. $21.95.

She doesn't remember her first kiss but Koren Zailckas can recall with elaborate detail the very afternoon, when at 14 and still in eighth grade, she took her first sip of alcohol.

It was a Friday -- June 17, 1994, to be exact -- and the Southern Comfort bottle resembled something her grandfather might drink. The liquid inside smelled sweet, and tasted terrible. But it was her initiation to a ubiquitous social drug that would both prop her up and, ultimately, bring her down.

So begins Smashed: Story of a Drunken Girlhood, Zailckas's first-person account of nine years of alcohol abuse marked by countless hangovers, blackouts, breakdowns and adolescent self-loathing.

Reading Smashed is like being at an Animal House-style party where you're the only sober soul -- which is to say, it can get pretty disgusting. And that is precisely the point.

We accompany Zailckas to the hospital the night when, at 16, her stomach is pumped after she blacks out in a mess of her own vomit. We awaken with her alongside a boy she dislikes and with whom she can only guess that she has had her first sex. We tag along on an alcohol-fueled rampage during which she and a girlfriend steal thousands of dollars of stuff from a frat house.

Zailckas' candor is her book's main strength. Hers is as unfiltered a view of teenage alcohol abuse as is possible (even if you wonder -- and you will -- how she happens to recall all the minutiae of her drunken stints). Relationships built around booze won't last, and self-image doesn't improve through the lens of an 80-proof bottle.

The most curious part of Smashed comes in the preface when Zailckas declares, perplexingly, that she is not an alcoholic. True, she has since given up drinking and pieced together a respectable life. But whatever distinction she may have drawn in her own mind about drinking as a disease -- "I never hid bottles or drank alone, and I never spent a night in a holding cell awaiting DUI charges" -- may serve only to undermine her message. Even if she wasn't an alcoholic, she sure acted like one.

"If ever the slogan 'I drink, therefore I am' was applicable, it is to describe me, now," Zailckas writes of the end of her senior college year at Syracuse. "I drink because I always drink. I drink to feel the liquor vapor clear out my sinuses, or to hear the smoothed-over sound of my own voice. These have become the sensations that convince me I'm still here. I drink now for the dullness of it. There's no passion or exhilaration left."

It's unclear whether Zailckas' parents ever knew the extent of their daughter's problem -- or didn't want to know. Zailckas' mother naively prods her to order a glass of wine on turning 21 to experience the "ritual of being carded." The one time Mrs. Zailckas is worried enough to visit her daughter on short notice, she finds Koren unable to walk down the street without vomiting. "We will go back to the dorm, and you will sleep this off," her mother says.

There is a predictable element of egocentrism to Zailckas' account. If you believe her, you'd think everyone was drinking alcohol -- or suffering a hangover -- all the time. And that drinking too much is not so much a choice as some kind of rite-of-passage requirement.

In the end, we don't get enough insight into her decision to give it up, the bumpy journey to sobriety and especially how she handled the same heap of problems she had when she started.

To explain all that, it seems, would take a whole other book.

Erika Niedowski covers medicine for The Sun.

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