While I was crossing a street in Chicago, a parked car backed into the crosswalk and stopped just short of taking me out at the knees. In anger, I slammed my fist down on the trunk of the car and shouted some obligatory curse words. The driver pulled forward into the parking spot, put the car in park, got out and punched me in the ear so hard that I had to puree all my food in a blender for the next two weeks. I thought he owed me an apology. He valued his car over my right to be disappointed with his driving. That was twenty-four years ago, and I haven’t made uninvited contact with another person’s car since.
Also while in my 20s, I lost $1,200 betting on college basketball during a bachelor’s-party weekend in Las Vegas. I was a big college basketball fan, so when the event landed me in sin city in March, I thought I could outsmart the odds makers with all my hoops knowledge. I won a few bets before I started losing. Eventually, I was just trying to get back to even (I wonder if that’s ever happened in Vegas before). I took so much money from the ATMs that my wife’s debit card was declined at a Blockbuster Video in Denver. I probably haven’t placed a dozen bets since, and I’ve definitely never wagered money I wasn’t confident I’d lose. That’s also the closest I’ve ever come to losing my wife (she really wanted to see that movie).
I have a bizarre buckwheat allergy. When I ingest it, I have a violent gastrointestinal and respiratory reaction that I won’t describe here in detail in the event that you might be reading this on your lunch break. If I am offered a bready or grainy product with a lot of texture, I read the label carefully. It has been many years since I’ve seen the inside of my own stomach lining (I hope you were finished with that sandwich).
I don’t think I was born particularly smart, but I’m wimpy and selfish enough to avoid physical and emotional pain when I know where to find them. I’m pretty arrogant, but I’m not stubborn enough to believe I’m still right once I’ve suffered from being wrong.
And I don’t always need to touch the hot stove to learn not to do it again. I pay my taxes on-time, not because of my pride in our federal government’s fiscal responsibility, but because I don’t want to get on the bad side of the IRS. I don’t pick up hitchhikers, I don’t drink milk with chunks in it, and I don’t slather fish blood on my naked body before swimming in shark-infested waters. I don’t have to experience all of the negatives firsthand in order to learn the lessons. Sometimes I listen. For example, Nancy Reagan, along with threats from my parents, kept me mostly away from illegal drugs.
Consequences. Some experienced, all learned. For me, they work.
Unless, of course, I stumble across the invisible line of addiction before I suffer any consequences.
I don’t smoke cigarettes because of the indisputable link between smoking and lung cancer. I don’t smoke meth or take opioids because the connection between those drugs and dysfunction is crystal clear. I don’t go too far out in the ocean because, as a young child, I was taught to respect the power of the undertow.
But I wasn’t taught any negative consequences about alcohol. And I didn’t learn the consequences through experience until it was too late.
I’ve done enough blaming of my parents on this issue. The truth is, they didn’t know any better, either. They were just as naive as I was. My father drank because his father drank. The connection between success and manliness and adulthood and celebration and relaxation and mourning and alcohol could not have been more clear. It’s not my parents’ fault any more than it is mine. We are all victims of our culture and our society that has the most powerful case of cognitive dissonance in the history of the planet.
Seriously. There are over 15 million alcoholics in this country. Over 3 million people die annually, around the world, from alcohol-related causes. And yet, another generation of American youth is growing up right now drinking White Claw like it’s water knowing the only consequences are a slap on the wrist from parents or school administrators or law enforcement until that glorious day they turn 21 when even those minor negative consequences are replaced with all upside.
Everyone fears the lethal consequences of cancer. That’s why less than 15% of Americans smoke cigarettes. But alcoholism claims more victims than cancer, and there is virtually no fear of booze whatsoever.
We’ve done a disservice to our society by putting the focus on drunk driving. That is where we initiate the understanding of consequences. A DUI is a serious inconvenience, and killing someone while driving drunk is life shattering.
But you can ingest a known carcinogen, put a strain on our healthcare system, inflict torment on your spouse, fuck up your children, overwhelm our mental health providers and put a huge drag on our the productivity of our economy, but as long as you don’t get behind the wheel, there are no societal consequences. I’m not talking about laws. I’m talking about cultural acceptance.
Have you ever seen the looks you get when you shoot heroin in the middle of a neighborhood party? Probably not. Because your reputation, and the consequence of becoming the neighborhood outcast, prevent us from doing that. But do four or five shots of tequila at that same gathering, with similar impact on your neurological function, and you are the life of the party. No societal consequences.
Speaking of heroin, consider what caused the opioid epidemic we are dealing with now. Heroin has long been the most prevalent opioid, and heroin has long been associated with negative consequences. But when medical professionals, people we look up to as trusted leaders in our society, prescribed pill-form opioids, we accepted them without questions or fear of consequences. When society approves of the use and abuse of something, we humans jump on it like a hobo jumping on a hotdog.
The drug didn’t change. The perceived acceptability of use is what changed. And we got ourselves into a heap of trouble.
Does that sound anything like our perception of alcohol?
The consequences we suffer after becoming addicted are not preventative deterrents for two reasons. No one believes alcoholism can happen to them (that’s the disease of piss-stained gutter bums), and the only drinking consequences we are willing to talk about are legal (DUI). Get shit-faced, drive home, and terrorize your family all night, and your friends will say, “I hope he made it home OK,” or, “We’ve got to get him in an Uber next time.”
When there are no consequences, there’s always a next time.
But the consequences do exist. What part of the 50% divorce rate in America can be attributed to Alcohol? How many job losses each year are due to drinking? What percent of police activity, unwanted pregnancy and regrettable sexual decisions would be eliminated if we acknowledged the consequences of drinking alcohol?
Do you want to learn the hard way? Once you’re addicted, it’s too late. The consequences are no match for the power alcohol and other drugs and activities have over the addicted brain. That’s not what the conversation should be about.
We’ve been talking about recovery for centuries. We’ve been prosecuting driving under the influence for decades. And the problem is getting worse.
Why? Because we’re focussed on the wrong thing.
Fixing it once it’s broken makes as much sense as ignoring it until a crime has been committed. If addiction is where the conversation starts, we are fighting a battle we can’t win.
Big Beverage tells us to “Drink responsibly,” and focus on the girl in the bikini with the lime wedge in her beer because as long as they keep our attention on boobs and legal consequences, they win.
As society loses.
I had to lose $1,200, get a debilitating headache and upheave violently to understand the consequences of gambling, road rage (crosswalk rage, really), and my weird buckwheat allergy. I suffered all of those same consequences, and worse, over and over again, from alcohol long before I was addicted, and yet, I couldn’t see or feel them because alcohol was the answer.
And the answer can’t possibly be the problem.
We don’t have a legal problem. We don’t have a recovery problem. We have an awareness problem.
Until we fix that, we’ll keep drinking without grasping the consequences.
If you are ready to face the consequences, and help solve this problem with others who have had enough to know they have had enough, please consider joining us in SHOUT Sobriety.