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Thursday, Aug. 3, 2006 | I didn’t move to San Diego looking for culture. I didn’t come here really for any other reason than because it was on the beach and as far south as I could get from the land of eternal grey and rainy days where I grew up: Washington State. In the fall of 1998 I came to San Diego with great expectations. With several years of alcohol abuse already under my belt, I arrived at the University of San Diego excited to meet new people and start a new chapter in my life.

What actually began was a seemingly endless balancing act of binge drinking and scholastic achievement. Although I managed to keep my grades up, I behaved more like a crazed teenager on a spring break documentary than a serious student. Nothing was more important than drinking to me, and I allowed my college years to pass by believing that San Diego had nothing to offer beyond keg parties, bars in Pacific Beach and boozy trips to Tijuana.

I loved that Tijuana was only a short trolley ride away, and more than that I loved what I could get away with in Mexico. My first time there, having spent the better part of the night in an all-you-can-drink bar, some friends and I bounced through night clubs and strip joints, drinking as much as we could before trying to re-claim our citizenship. How I crossed the border is beyond me as I have absolutely no recollection of the incident. I’ve been told it was quite a scene. And so the story went for every subsequent trip to TJ, to bars in Pacific Beach, to parties on Mission Bay. The blackouts became a norm on every weekend, no matter where I went. I could have been anywhere.

At 22, I left San Diego as a full-blown alcoholic with a college diploma. That I acquired these “assets” in San Diego was irrelevant; I absorbed nothing from the community here. When I left California, my friends and family questioned me about my experience, asking, “What did you do there?” “What was it like?” “How was San Diego?” My response was almost always, “San Diego is just a college town, a party town. It has no culture.” In hindsight, of course, I recognize that had I been able to peel away the beer goggles long enough I would have seen that it was I who lacked culture, not the city.

A brief stint in the Peace Corps, a halfway house in Florida, a hurricane evacuation and three years of sobriety later, I returned to San Diego last fall as a recovering alcoholic. I quickly realized how living in a constant state of intoxication had kept me closed off to my surroundings. Since I never noticed or cared about what San Diego had to offer, I missed out on most of the things that make this city such an amazing place to live. Now sober, I am seeing sides of San Diego I never knew before.

I view my return to San Diego as a privilege, an opportunity to experience this town from a whole new perspective. Now if I cross the border, it’s about my interest in travel and Latin American culture, not about drinking until I lose consciousness. I live in Golden Hill, relax in Balboa Park, play music at a coffee shop in University Heights, and even “lunch” in Little Italy. These neighborhoods and what they have to offer weren’t even a blip on my radar when I was drinking. Of course, San Diego is more than a collection of neighborhoods; it is a vibrant, diverse community with a depth that most cities lack. That I took for granted the rolling hills, canyons, beaches, and palm tree-lined residential blocks – the stuff postcards are made of -leaves me feeling sheepish at best. But, much like my sobriety, it’s better late than never.

San Diego may always see an influx of students carrying with them attitudes, expectations and habits similar to those I brought here in the fall of ’98. Bars in Mission and Pacific Beach still swell with college students and drinkers in their twenties, and on many different occasions I have made it out to some of the same bars where I effortlessly drank away my college years. I find it a huge relief not to have to live that way myself, watching so many young people drinking the way I used to. It is wonderful to be able to go out and socialize normally in this town, to have fun with friends, to be a part of the nightlife when I choose to without abusing alcohol. My choices allow me to appreciate my life and this town differently.

San Diego will always be an attractive destination for young people. But there are plenty of options for those ready for something different here. The bars will always be open, but drinking is not the only thing on the menu. New restaurants, coffee shops, galleries, boutiques, and music venues in town will provide college grads and the twenty-somethings (like myself) with something better to latch on to than drink specials or hangover remedies – when they are ready for it, that is.

Toren Volkmann is coauthor of “From Binge to Blackout: A Mother and Son Struggle with Teen Drinking,” published Aug. 1 by Penguin’s New American Library. To learn more about Toren’s book, or to contact Toren directly, visit his website www.bingetoblackout.com. Or, send a letter to the editor here.

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