I had long believed I should never talk about the perils of drinking with drinkers while they are drinking. I was wrong.
Before I tell you about the conversation that changed my mind and gives me hope for the future of our culture, let me tell you why I still believe it is almost always a bad idea to talk to drinkers about the dangers of drinking while they are drinking. In all of my previous experiences, the topic of my alcoholism would come up as a result of my abstinence at a booze-flowing social occasion. A well-intended friend would ask me why I wasn’t drinking. I would try to shrug off the question with an early sobriety one-liner like, “I’m just taking a break,” or, “I just feel better when I don’t drink,” or, “That stuff was killing me.” I would then try to steer the conversation to another subject like sports or politics or root canals – anything to take the spotlight off my affliction. If I was unsuccessful and my interrogation continued, I might have shared some knowledge about the addictive nature of alcohol or how neurotransmitters work or a tidbit about anxiety and alcohol-induced depression.
This is where the conversation would always go south. My well-intentioned friend, when faced with the reality of my trauma at the hands of alcohol while he or she held a glass of alcohol in his or her hand, would inevitably start defending his or her drinking with one-liners like, “Well, I don’t have a drinking problem,” or, “I’m just a social drinker,” or, ”I only drink when I’m (fill in the blank).” Then we would both stand there awkwardly. The drinker would feel accused while all I had done was answer the drinkers questions about my own drinking. Each time it happened, it was regrettable and solidified my belief that I should never talk about the pitfalls of drinking with drinkers while they are drinking.
Then something different happened. Last week at a neighborhood Christmas party, a group of open minded, concerned and knowledge-thirsty friends stood with me between a decorated evergreen and a kitchen island full of hors devours plates with glasses of champagne or the party’s signature gin cocktail in hand and asked me questions about how alcohol disrupts the function of our bodies and minds. I was terribly hesitant to venture down the path of intellectual conversation at first, but their follow-up question to my initial blow-off answers guided the discussion deep into the grey matter of dopamine release and amino acids for neurotransmitter replenishment and opioid mimicry.
It gave me hope. There we stood in a celebratory atmosphere talking about addiction to alcohol like a disease that could be contracted by anyone rather than whispering about a personality disorder or moral failing. We talked about genetics and contributing societal factors and treatments and side effects.
One of my neighbors who participated in the conversation has battled cancer for years. She drew parallels to the lifestyle choices she made – changes to her diet and exercise routine – to try to keep her cancer in remission. She compared alcoholism to cancer. I didn’t make the comparison. These weren’t the jaded ramblings of the societal misfit whining about being treated like a cultural deviant. It was my friend who had the socially acceptable deadly scourge who put her arm around my shoulder and welcomed me to the survivors’ club.
Maybe it was the twinkling Christmas lights, or maybe it was the warm brie drizzled with cranberry compote that made the evening a little bit magical. But I think it was the intellectual conversation I shared with my friends from the block about the clinical causation and resulting ramifications of alcoholism. Instead of feeling like an aberrant lush, they made me feel like a victim who was beating my disease and had something important to contribute to a long-overdue conversation. They made me feel like an equal with a medical issue.
They made me feel normal.
The Christmas parties are over for another year, and we are in that lazy week when we try to nurse our exhaustion and suppress the regret from seasonal overindulgence. Maybe you’ve had a dry December. Maybe it’s your first and you are drained from a month of white-knuckling it. Maybe you are a seasoned teetotaler and you can bask it the glory of alertness and limited anxiety. Or maybe you drank your way through the Christmas season and you are looking for your earthly salvation.
Whatever your situation, I encourage you to take comfort in the belief that there is hope for our society to have an open and honest relationship with alcohol. Hope that intellectuals can discuss facts without defensiveness. Hope that we can gain insight from our exploration of the biological final frontier that is the human brain.
There is hope that we can get beyond secret, anonymous whisper sessions in church basements and engage in full-throated conversations about addiction and recovery.
There is hope for a cure.
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Now featured on our Untoxicated Podcast: Ep3 – So What’s Matt Salis’ Story?