Do you want to know how to make an alcoholic feel like a normal, responsible drinker? You normalize his gluttonous behavior. This normalization is what separates alcoholism from other drug addictions. There is not a circumstance under which smoking meth or shooting up heroin looks normal in my world, but drinking robustly is often the norm among people who do not consider themselves alcoholics. And there is no situation that welcomes drinking to excess, even for the responsible, quite like the holidays. In fact, holidays make an active alcoholic feel normal. “I don’t have a drinking problem. Look around. I’m just like everyone else. Alcoholic? Not me.”
We call it, “Happy Thanksgoaling,” and we have been starting the fourth Thursday in November this way for going on ten years now. While all the other groups in the park on the edge of our Southeast Denver neighborhood are playing football, my friends and our families are preceding our day of gorging with a soccer match. The kids only know one speed on the soccer pitch, and they play with intensity. The adults try hard not to take out a child (especially if it is not our own child) while getting the better of our adult competitors. Bad passes and missed scoring opportunities are met with jeers and laughter, while goals are over-celebrated with vigorous taunting and World-Cup-worthy dancing. There is a lot of offence, not much defense and everyone burns enough calories to justify consuming anything we choose for the rest of the day.
When the match is determined to be over – not by a set time limit, but by exhaustion and minor injuries suffered by the adults – we head to the cooler before we go our separate ways. It is a holiday, after all, so we can’t depart without a toast. Drinking beer at 10am Thanksgiving morning after a game of footie with my friends and family is just about as good as it gets. And the best part is, I don’t have to stress about appropriateness of morning drinking or how many I am consuming. It is a holiday. Everyone is drinking. I didn’t bring the cooler. It wasn’t even my idea. Drinking problem? Not me.
It has been family tradition for my wife, Sheri, and I, to roast our turkey on our charcoal grill since before we were married. I’ll never forget sitting at lunch with a customer in Chicago in the late 90’s listening to him explain the finer points of a successful Thanksgiving turkey-on-the-grill experience. He talked of timing and charcoal count and bird rotation and drippings collection. But the part I remember clearly was his explanation of the most critical ingredient. “I take a cooler full of beer out to the back porch with me, Matt,” he explained. “My mother-in-law comes to Thanksgiving dinner at our house. Thanks to that cooler, I don’t have to come into the house for a refill and risk an argument with her for at least four hours. It is cold out there, but I have my twelve ounce companions to keep me warm.” We all laughed at my customer’s recipe for the perfect Thanksgiving turkey. Sheri and I don’t spend Thanksgiving with her mother, but the connection between grilling and drinking resonated with masculine delightfulness. The story wedged itself into the permanent section of my memory.
After returning from, “Happy Thanksgoaling,” in the park, It is 11am and I am a bit late for lighting the charcoal. Maybe the second beer my mates and I slugged down before dispersing wasn’t the best decision. But it wasn’t my idea and I didn’t want to be rude. Besides, it has me feeling better than I deserve as I prepare the grill. I have to stack the coals, get the drip pan in place, soak the charcoal in lighter fluid and extract the gobbler from the basement refrigerator. That is all thirsty work. I might as well grab a beer while I’m down there. I think of my customer probably sitting on his back porch in Chicago next to his cooler. I open my beer and raise it in a toast to lessons learned. “Cheers!” Is drinking alone at 11am cause for concern? I’m drinking with my customer on Thanksgiving in manly solidarity. Drinking problem? Not me.
The smoke is rolling out of the vent on top of the grill, and we are a few hours from an afternoon feast. As I join my family in the kitchen, I see that the parade has concluded making way for the one time per year when I watch the Detroit Lions lose a football game. Nothing goes with football quite like beer, so I help myself to another one. Any concerns about my drinking are a million miles away. Early Thanksgiving afternoon it would be a concerning abnormality if I wasn’t drinking a beer. Alcoholic? What kind of ridiculous question is that? Not me!
In glorious all-American Thanksgiving pre-feast tradition, we snack our way through the afternoon. My family and I have cheese and crackers, and I have a beer. We munch celery with peanut butter and raisins, and I have a beer. The kids and I pass around the smoked turkey neck (don’t knock it until you try it – delicious!), and I wash it down with a beer. We laugh, we play games, we eat and I drink. It is not just normal, our Thanksgiving afternoon is Norman Rockwell painting normal. I am thankful to be helping my wife with our meal and entertaining the kids. Proud? Yes. Drinking problem? Hell no. Not me.
“Wine with dinner?” I ask my wife. She reluctantly agrees. She hasn’t been counting my beers, but she knows my thirst is unquenchable. Still, our thankful hearts and table full of blessings overwhelm any negative thoughts. It is just the six of us for dinner – my wife and I, and our four kids. No uncomfortable discussions about politics or career choices so synonymous with Thanksgiving dinners with extended families as parodied in holiday movies. Just lots of loud talking and even louder laughter. We eat until we feel glued to our chairs. Sheri and I share a bottle of wine. The distribution is not equal. Neither of us expected it to be. Still, I’m drinking wine at Thanksgiving dinner with my wife. Drinking problem? Not me.
As day turns to evening, I sip beers and help clean-up after dinner. I carve the remaining turkey into a Tupperware container separating white meat from dark. I rinse plates and load the dishwasher. I continue to perform as a father and husband, but somehow it seems more labored to do so. I lose interest in my kids, and my patience shortens with my wife. I’m tired. That’s all. It’s not that a day full of drinking is taking its toll. My alcohol-filled bloodstream isn’t manipulating my mood. I’m just uncomfortably full and tired after a long day. I played soccer. I helped prepare a feast. I played with my children. I did a good job. They should all be thankful for me. Sure, I did it all with a beer in my hand, but that’s normal. Now I’m tired and grumpy and short-tempered and uninterested. But that’s normal, too. It’s Thanksgiving, damn it. Who would worry about drinking all day on Thanksgiving? Not me.
I wake up Friday morning without a headache and without interruptions to my memories of Thanksgiving. Still, the grumpy feeling from Thursday evening lingers. The detachment from my family and undefinable dissatisfaction is still with me. The many joys from Thanksgiving day give way to an unexplainable haze of disgust. I’m not mad. Sheri’s not mad. I’m just not happy. After a day focused on thankfulness, joy should abound. But after a day focused on beer, I feel tired and empty. What’s wrong? Why to I feel this way? Who knows the answer? Not me.
I didn’t do anything wrong. No fight with my wife. No quick temper with the kids. I didn’t shirk my responsibilities. I didn’t spill my drink or pass out. No drunken behavior at all. Alcoholic? Not me.
Do you want to know why the cure for alcoholism is so elusive? It’s because the scene I lived through on many Thanksgivings past will be replicated in tens of millions of American houses Thursday. And it will all be perfectly normal. And in almost every house where a full day of beer sipping accompanies a full day of thankfulness, no questions will be asked. No health concerns will be raised. On Friday morning, most won’t give a second thought to feeling just not quite right. Feeling bad when we should feel good has become as expected as pumpkin pie after the turkey and mashed potatoes. It’s what we do. It’s normal.
Alcoholism is elusive because we have normalized it. We can’t address something when we can’t recognize it. We can’t cure the affliction that’s hiding in plain sight.
Last Thanksgiving was my first one sober in 25 years, and I just wished I could drink like a normal person. This year, I am most thankful to have left normal behind.
Do you ever worry about your drinking? Does it ever concern you that holidays are synonymous with dulling your senses and enhancing your irritability? Do you ever feel like you are limiting your potential or cheating your family out of your full participation? Do you ever wonder why you drink?