Not That Drunk Girl Anymore

By Courtney Gillette 07/29/15

But photographic evidence doesn't lie.


Recently, I wanted to make someone a mug as a present. One of those cute mugs you can put your own photos on. When I went to one of those photo-sharing websites, it said I already had an account with them. I made a wild stab at my password and logged in. There, on the screen, was a thumbnail photo of me, dancing on a bar in a little black dress, the straps of my thigh highs peeking out. Long brown hair swung across my face. I danced with a flask in my hand, the other hand curled mid-shimmy.

Seeing those photos of drunk Courtney filled me with gratitude that social media wasn’t part of my drinking. I was bad enough with drunk texting.

This photo popped up on my work computer, where I sat in the office of a little nursery school, eight years sober and so far from that girl dancing on the bar that I clapped a hand over my mouth when I saw her. I minimized the screen, my face going red. Only later at home did I dare log on to the photo-sharing website again, where dozens of photos were stored. I hadn’t logged in since 2006, one year before I got sober. The photos were grouped by album, each one titled for the name of the dyke bar, or the name of the birthday, or the holiday when they were taken. But otherwise, they’re the same: the same dark exposed brick of the bar, the same characters—younger, so much younger—the same red, hooded eye expressions of being wasted, the same open mouths. Of the people in the photographs, we’ve gone on to get married, get divorced, get pregnant, get sober. I’d stumbled upon a digital time capsule of how messy things got before the end. 

I quit drinking in late 2006, and count my sober date as March 17, 2007. This means that I stopped drinking right on the cusp of the social media explosion. Facebook wasn’t as ubiquitous as it is today. iPhones hadn’t even come out yet. The photos I’d discovered were all from a digital camera. Among the people I drank with back then, a tight clan of queer teachers and writers and artists, I remember friends having those little pocket-sized cameras. One friend, who we’ll call Monica, always took photos of our nights out. I remember her raising the digital camera to her face, the bright pop of the little flash against the debauchery of any given weekend. Kisses, exes, lap dances, drunk hugs. She recorded it all. 

The photo of me dancing on that bar in the black dress with the flask in hand was taken on New Year’s Eve, my first year as a public school teacher. I was barely 23, and made that photo my profile pic on Friendster. Later, on MySpace, I’d use a photo of me raising a foamy cup of beer, wide gapped mouth mid-laugh, my arm slung around Monica. None of these photos migrated to my Facebook page once I joined. They never cropped up on my TimeHop or a #ThrowBackThursday post. It felt easy to leave the photos of drunk Courtney behind, all of them taken in a pre-selfie world. 

Long-term sobriety has come with a shit ton of grace. There are photos of me beaming at friends’ weddings, on a trip to Mexico, winning awards, baking pies, smiling with family, moving in with my girlfriend. All the cash and prizes, as they’re called, in photographic evidence (perhaps because spiritual fitness is so much harder to catch on camera). A report in 2012 claimed that 10% of all the photographs taken in the history of the world were taken in that one year, thanks to smartphones and Instagram and the explosive popularity of sharing one’s life through images. Seeing those photos of drunk Courtney filled me with gratitude that social media wasn’t part of my drinking, the way it possibly could’ve been. I was bad enough with drunk texting: I once left a bar and texted the woman I was sleeping with that I was still dancing and watching her from the cab, which was a creepy non-sequitur and major turn off. The wreckage I could’ve caused with Facebook walls and Twitter DMs would've been astounding, and that there could’ve been even more photographic evidence of my alcoholism is horrifying. 

The photos that do exist of me drunk aren’t sad images, if you just look at them. In the photos, I look kind of happy. I’m young, I’m laughing. I’m giving someone the finger with a smirk on my face. I’m making out with a woman on the dance floor, her hands firmly holding my waist. Yes, there’s a drink in every shot. Yes, sometimes my face is bloated red, my intoxication impossible to deny. But the saddest part of the photos are, of course, what you can’t see: the hangovers I’d wake up with, the suicidal thoughts swirling around my head, the fucked up decisions I’d make. In one photo, I’m at a birthday party, grinning and cutting into a cake while Monica’s girlfriend watches me, bending her face towards mine. It was days before we’d sleep together in a black out. The birthday party was Monica’s. I’d lose so many things in that decision, gunning myself into a wicked mess of guilt and cheating, until I poured so much alcohol on it that Monica’s girlfriend became my girlfriend, and we spent a whole summer trying to make love out of lies.

I don’t have any photographs of that summer, except for one. Someone took it on a train ride to Coney Island. I’m wearing a polka dot halter dress, my shoulders slumped, my face stony. My girlfriend, the one I’d cheated with and drank with and fucked up with, is beside me, but you can’t see her face. She’s bent over, measuring a bottle of Jameson wrapped in a black bodega bag into her flask. I can remember more of the fights we had than the fun we had. Give me six months and I’d be in a therapist’s office, nodding that I needed help getting sober. The most important grace that sobriety has introduced me to is forgiveness. I can look at these old photos and I can put them away. I can forgive that girl, because I’m not that girl anymore. 

Courtney Gillette is a writer and ex-teacher, as well as co-host of the reading series The Hustle. She lives in Brooklyn with one bookseller and three cats.


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