Monday, August 11, 2008


Maybe you know someone with a drinking problem.

They’re fun – way fun – until they’ve had too much alcohol. Then they become abrasive:


Or emotional:


Or silent:

“ . . . !”

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:

Hi Neil,

Just thought I'd tell you: You are who I wanted to be when I grew up. Hang in there.

Heather S.

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


taxman said...

Well said Hedy. I remember a strange disappointment 8 years ago when we met our new neighbors and the husband very reluctantly had a second beer. It turns out his dad died a raging alcoholic years before and the new neighbor was determined not to become his old man. It's indeed a strange genetic curse but the awareness of it can help those like my neighbor with the willpower to count beers.

Susan said...

Hedy – very timely topic, with summer and all the “fun” that goes along with the season.

My Mom has gotten drunk once in her life…..she woke up the next day with a horrible hangover and said “Why would anyone purposely do this to themselves?”....she has never been drunk since.

My father, unfortunately, had my Mom’s “one morning” over and over and over again during his lifetime, but his final swan song was done sober. He had been sober 14 years when he died and had he not gotten sober when he did....we would not of had those 14 fabulous years.

his drinking caused many tears

Brian said...

I want to believe alcoholism is a disease but have a hard time in doing so. People always want an excuse or a label for what we've become and how we act. People are alcoholics or they have the disease of alcoholism. I don’t think so. I hate excuses, hate them. My father, mother and brother are all alcoholics. I myself got hammered at a golf outing for a friend who died nine years ago on Saturday. Sunday I was hung-over like a drunken whore. Regardless, I have no need or craving for the next drink with friends. No plans on my calendar to get "shit faced" anytime soon. Every time I see my brother he's liquored up or on his way. I don’t and won’t have a drink with or around him. Excuses....

Moe Wanchuk said...

I kind of beg to differ on the Cancer comments.

FIrst of all....Sympathy doesn't make you feel any better when
- you're down from 190 lbs to 130 lbs
- your skin is so's actually gray
-you've thrown up 23 times in the last 4 days
-water tastes like drano
-you haven't pooped in 9 days
-your bones are sticking out so much, it's hurts to lay down, yet you can barely walk
-you go to chemo...and the only person you've made friends with, in that chemical induced death not there this time, because he died on Sunday
-your looks scare your 2 year old son
-your wife melts down because she's taking care of You, your 2 yr old, your 3 month old and 2, 3 month old puppies that you got 4 weeks before your diagnosis

It's just really hard to compare

Anonymous said...

Well, we agree on one more thing. I tried to tell you long ago that alcoholism is a disease. My Dad was married to a alcoholic. He divorced her back in the 1940's, and it was unheard of at the time but he got custody of my sister. I have known many alcoholics, and I have to say that most of them are very nice, kind, caring people. They have a disease. As you know Hedy, your Uncle died last year due to drinking. Your Aunt found him in the driveway vomiting blood, and he died one week later. He had quit for a number of years, and he said that he started drinking again because the stress of his job. I believe that he would still be alive today if he had stayed away from drinking. They not only hurt themselves, but everyone who loves them.

Hedy said...

Thank you, Moe. I knew you would have good insight on this. It's beyond heartbreaking -- what you and your family went through and I'm so glad you're still here, my friend. So glad. Maybe it isn't fair or right to compare the suffering from one disease to another. Taxman got it right, though, calling alcoholism a 'strange genetic curse.' There's this idea that alcoholics can somehow control their behavior - I no longer believe that. The "why don't they just stop, if they know it's hurting themselves/their family?" is not a valid question, when you have no control over what you do. Thanks so much for all the great comments today.

Anonymous said...

I have more to say--- If you will note in my last post I said that most alcoholics are nice, kind, and caring. But I do know one alcoholic who is a real BITCH. She is the mother of my Granddaughter, your niece. This woman isn't nice or kind even when she isn't drinking. I know that this woman has ruined my Granddaughters life, and for this I will never forgive her.

Posolxstvo I said...

I read this earlier, and wanted time to let my thoughts sort of germinate for a while...

Both of my grandfathers were alcoholics, as was my mother, and at least one uncle. Couple that with my family history of depression, and I knew that I needed to stop drinking before I became like them. Before it took me.

I do not consider myself an alcoholic, but I may have become one had I let myself.

I don't know if alcoholism is a disease or not -- not even sure what calling it a disease really means. What I do know is that when you are addicted to something, as I definitely was to smoking, as I felt myself tending toward with alcohol, your free will is heavily skewed - it drags a millstone around with it. Yes, I *chose* every cigarette I smoked, every drink I took. But there was something more than choice in it.

Compulsion? Not exactly, but something like it.

It was weird. But I could be twenty seven sheets to the wind, sitting across from someone who had a drink in their hand, and if I didn't have one too, I would still long for his. My mind would fixate on it, and wouldn't rest until I had one in my hand as well.

It was like when I quit smoking and would see actors in movies smoking and I would want one too. Desperately. And that's when I realized that the longing, the compulsion, was the same feeling.

That's why I stopped before it was too late.

Anonymous said...


Very interesting and thought provoking post. I am very much in agreement about the "misunderstandings" about alcoholism. The one area I would push back is your comparison about this disease being harder then cancer. If you told all those with cancer that all they had to do to go into remission was go to meetings and practice a program to the best ot their ability they would be the most greatful people you ever met in your life.

So to some extent the alcoholic has it easier in there is an answer. For many with the diseases you mention there is that word terminal - there is no answer.