It is difficult for me to see how accepted alcohol abuse is in our culture. Drinking is pervasive and over-drinking is tolerated.
I hear of young women and men who are close to losing their children due to neglect or outright abuse. Their drug of choice may be marijuana or methamphetamines, but what leads them back to these drugs is the drug alcohol, because they and the world see it as harmless. Friends and family say, “It is just a few drinks, that isn’t so bad.” They risk losing their kids so they do not have to give up the “pleasure” of alcohol and drug use.
I had a friend, a charming Southern woman, raised in grace and wealth. She was hospitalized in her fourth relapse, for drinking perfume. She had used alcohol all through her life to manage loneliness, insecurity and fear, and was encouraged to drink to “calm your nerves.” She continued to do just that, in whatever form she could find, in spite of losing everything to her drinking.
I see a man who has had treatments since age 20, has destroyed his liver with alcohol and now, in his late 50’s he relapses every few months. He has warrants out for his arrest in three states, got his wife put in jail one night, is getting evicted for frequent police calls and blames everyone else for his problems. His doctors tell him he will die if he drinks again, and yet he does drink again and again. Answering a question of what prompted him to start again this time, he said, “I just wanted a beer while I watched the ballgame.” Just like a hundred thousand other guys on a Sunday afternoon. How many of them will face liver disease, divorce, DWI’s, job loss or worse? One in ten.
One in ten people who drink becomes alcoholic. It is the rare person who never tries alcohol, because our society values drinking, so almost everyone is at risk for alcoholism. Our culture tends to see alcohol as a necessary and welcome part of life; without which, life would not be as rewarding. Some people hold this belief, even when their families have been devastated by alcoholism. Because they don’t seem to have “alcoholic” struggles they take alcohol use lightly. This framework tends to set up those persons who will have alcoholic struggles.
Over-use of alcohol is tolerated, even accepted. By the time it is clear that a person cannot handle it like others, much damage is already done. Then, often that person is judged when the problems mount and they can’t seem to drink like others do.
But maybe some of those people who take alcohol use lightly are having more struggles than they are willing to admit. There is a wide range of symptoms and results of alcoholism—from the obvious late stage symptoms (chronic, frequent overuse, multiple problems and consequences, numerous losses, concern of others) to the less obvious early to middle stages, where alcohol use is regular, occasional problems occur, relationally, medically, legally or vocationally. There may be efforts at cutting back or quitting, but alcohol use always returns; sometimes worse than before. These persons (or someone that loves them) may have concerns they are drinking too much, but they quickly justify it and explain away the concerns, so they don’t have to feel uncomfortable about their drinking.
I often say to people that one simple way to judge your relationship with alcohol is to ask: “Is my drinking the way I would like it to be, and if not, do my efforts to make it that way work?” In other words, if you wish and intend to not get drunk, does that work or do you still get drunk? Do you make promises to drink less but fail at it? Do you have remorse and fear about your drinking but continue to drink anyway? Do you find yourself explaining to yourself or others why your drinking isn’t a problem? Important questions to ask, given 10% of drinkers become alcoholic.
It is widely believed that the only viable route for an alcoholic to take to get better is to abstain from alcohol. I have seen this proven to be true over and over again.
Making a choice not to drink is not easy. It means giving up the quickest way to feel better. It means feeling acutely, life’s pain. It often means exclusion. It means the culture is not supportive of what you are trying to do and sees it as abnormal. It frequently means a major life style overhaul.
I learned early in AA: “Recovery isn’t complicated; you just have to do one thing—CHANGE YOUR WHOLE LIFE.” Wouldn’t it be great if friends, family and neighbors were willing to change just a little bit of their lives to support alcoholics change theirs by having some alcohol-free events?