Maybe you know someone with a drinking problem.
They’re fun – way fun – until they’ve had too much alcohol. Then they become abrasive:
“I HATE YOU!”
“I LOVE YOU!
“ . . . !”
Which implies they HATE you or LOVE you – something for you to ponder whilst they’re barfing on your Blahniks.
It’s become a cliché, but the definition of insanity is doing the same thing over and over and over again expecting different results. So why do these people keep getting hammered all the time?
Neil Steinberg’s book Drunkard helped me finally – finally! – understand alcoholism.
If you’ve known me for more than 10 minutes, you’re aware of my unhealthy yet purely intellectual crush on Neil Steinberg – brilliant, balding columnist at the Chicago Sun-Times.
But here’s what you probably don’t know: Neil is an alcoholic who got drunk and smacked his wife a few years back and spent a night in jail because of it.
I sent this email immediately after reading about the incident in, of all places, the Chicago Sun-Times:
Just thought I'd tell you: You are who I wanted to be when I grew up. Hang in there.
This reply came five minutes later:
A drunk who assaults his wife? Still, thank you for the kind words.
Hey Hedy. You drink. Probably more than average.
Hell yeah, I do. I’ve had three Jack and Cokes as I’m writing this.
And I’ve been known to get hammered and whip my top off in the Gulf of Mexico in broad daylight. But that happens MAYBE once a year, tops.
We’re social drinkers. We rarely drink during the week other than special dinners out and NEVER to excess. And we tend to tip a few on Fridays and/or Saturdays but RARELY to excess.
We drink to relax – and if you’ve ever been really, really, really drunk – you know it is perhaps one of the least relaxing things you can do. So we know how to manage it and keep it fun and most importantly, safe.
Here’s the difference between us and alcoholics: We never NEED to drink. We WANT to drink.
And that is precisely what puts us at the most risk for eventually becoming alcoholics.
It creeps up on you. Alcoholism.
This is one of the big lessons from Neil’s book.
One day you’re a happy go-lucky social drinker, the next day you’re snorting vodka fumes from an empty mini-bar bottle and abandoning your 9-year-old son at the library to hit the liquor store up the block. Or you’re hitting Billy Goat on Washington for a boozy little breakfast to take the edge off before walking to work.
Somehow your typical one or two glasses of wine on weeknights is no longer Nearly Enough and once you start drinking, you can't stop until you pass out in bed, waking up hung over as hell and dreading work, yet somehow itching to do it again As Soon As Possible.
It’s frightening. Disturbing. And it’s genetic.
It happened to Jim’s dad. He was a social drinker. Then he retired and started drinking every day and pretty much didn’t stop until he died. He started to need it. It changed who he was.
That was Neil. He examined his life and realized that at some point he went from wanting drinks to needing them.
“Tell me I’ll never have another drop of alcohol my whole life and it’s fine. Tell me I’ll never have Ruffles Sour Cream & Cheddar potato chips again and we’ll have a major fucking problem.”
That’s me. Still.
Yet I wonder if someday I’ll reach the point where whiskey replaces chips on Hedy’s hierarchy of needs. I wonder.
Three Jack & Cokes, Hedy? What’s up with that?
I wrote this several Wednesdays ago on the train ride home after meeting a group of former co-workers for celebratory drinks. The last time we were together the three of us were miserable and searching for new jobs.
Miraculously, we’ve all landed in delightfully pleasant places and THIS is cause for great celebration.
A three Jack & Coke celebration to be exact.
Excerpt from Drunkard:
“Have you ever looked back on a period in your life – a year, a week, an hour – and said, ‘I wish I drank more? Have you ever looked back at an event and said, ‘You know, that was fun, but I just didn’t drink enough?”
Jonathan laughs, shaking his head. “Never.”
“Exactly. So why look forward and despair at all the drinks we’re not going to have in the future when the truth is, once we’ve lived through it, we won’t miss them at all?”
“Cancer is a disease. Parkinson’s is a disease,” I’d say. “Alcoholism is NOT a disease.”
I was wrong.
Reading Neil’s book helped me understand the way an alcoholic’s brain works. The compulsion to drink is a physical, genetic condition involving the CREB gene. You can read about it here.
This is going to sound insane – and you cancer survivors can beat me up about it – but I’ve come to believe alcoholics have a tougher path than people with ‘traditional’ diseases like cancer or Alzheimer’s or ALS. Perhaps it isn't fair to compare. Suffering is suffering, right? But still.
What the fuck, Hedy? Worse than a three-year-old with a brain tumor?
Here’s why: Cancer patients get treatment. They get drugs. And most importantly, they get compassion.
Alcoholics have AA. And will power. And they are essentially alone in their battle to stay sober.
Try telling a cancer patient to ‘rely on your Higher Power’ and ‘take it one day at a time’ to get healthy and they’ll tell you to Fuck Right Off.
But that’s what we tell alcoholics. And if you’re an agnostic, well, it especially sucks.
“Let me get this straight. My only hope for staying sober is to rely on some religious bullshit I stopped believing when I was 12? You’ve gotta be kidding. I need a drink.”
Of course, a lot of what’s involved with battling alcoholism is mental.
I’ve recently had the pleasure of getting to know someone who hasn’t had a drink in 15 years.
Not because he had a problem. No.
Because his father was an alcoholic. And he realized if he didn’t stop drinking completely, eventually he would have a problem, too.
So he stopped. Isn’t that cool?
Read Neil’s book if you’d like a better understanding of why alcoholics do the batshit crazy things they do. Read it if you’ve always been skeptical about Alcoholics Anonymous and the whole higher power thing.
Don’t read it if you want a juicy, emotionally charged account of Neil’s battle back to sobriety. He’s a journalist. Plus, he just ain’t that kinda guy.
And the jury’s still out if Neil is the sort of guy to stay sober.
I don’t know and I get the feeling from his book that he doesn’t know either. I do know his book helped me have a better understanding of alcoholism.
I am listening to: Rehab – Amy Winehouse
I am reading: Neil at the Sun-Times
And I am: Glad I read Drunkard by Neil Steinberg
10 hours ago