I’ve been around drunks my whole life, so I’ve always accepted alcohol abuse as just part of human reality.
When I was a child, my Uncle Pete would take me for evening rides in his fast little red motorboat, and just the way he’d talk and play with all of his nephews and nieces made him the favorite uncle. Like most everyone else in the family he had always been a social drinker, but somewhere around age 30 it took over his life. He became as close to being a gutter drunk as you can without actually living in the gutter. Despite my one aunt’s offers for him to live with her, he spent the second half of his life living in a small room that smelled of stale piss above a shitty little bar. He looked like hell, not much more than skin and skeleton. It was amazing that any human body could continue to function for so many years under such mistreatment.
Out of high school I did a hitch in the Navy, and no, we did not “drink like sailors”: we drank like 18, 19, 20, 21-year-olds a couple of thousand miles from home. It wasn’t due to military service itself: compared to the rest of the ship our Division had an inordinately high percentage of young men going through NASAP, the Navy’s Alcohol and Safety Awareness Program. The memory that comes to mind as I write this is the Halloween night we were drinking mojo (a grain alcohol punch) and somehow “Arturo” wound up on the top of a palm tree throwing coconuts down at the Shore Patrol guys. Clearly my Navy years were my introduction to first-hand experience with alcohol abuse. You know how some people laugh and joke about how it’s a wonder that they survived their young adulthood? Ya, I can relate. We did some really stupid things, like foot-racing at night rooftop to rooftop.
Since then, from college through what feels like both a blink of the eye and several lifetimes, I’ve had many friends, a lover, workmates, and neighbors who were some kind of alcoholic. Once you become aware of the patterns, once you see the common denominator, it abruptly gets old and rather distasteful. And I mean really see it, not just with your eyes or with your head but with your heart.
Also, I have or have had relatives, friends, workmates, and neighbors who have been involved in what has for some time now been so euphemistically called “substance abuse.” I rankle at that term. “Substance”? What are we talking about here, mistreating Formica countertops? Wasn’t “dope” just as all-inclusive, more accurate and truthful? Where did the term “substance abuse” come from anyway, Hollywood celebrities’ PR agents, or the Politically Correct police? (Side note: remember the old line about the difference between a fiddler and a violinist being just the amount of money each was paid? Isn’t the difference between a substance abuser and an addict / druggie / dopehead just the amount of money he can pay for rehab and lawyers?)
Once, while mediating a “domestic disturbance,” (another term that’s been way too sanitized) I watched a woman stand up, in no hurry walk to the other side of the room, then swing a ceramic picture frame to whack her boyfriend in the head. He was sitting down, and he turned in time raise his forearm to protect his head, but the ceramic picture frame shattered and exploded all over the place. To his credit he just remained seated, and he looked at her not with the rising steam of vengeance but more of a look that he was thinking something like, “What? Are you trying to tell me that maybe our romance is over, that you no longer have tender feelings toward me?” (Dumbass.) She yelled, “See what you made me do!” (She was referring to the shattered picture frame, not her attempt to break his skull.)
Even though I had witnessed the whole event including the many angry words that led up to it, I did not even come close to sharing her opinion about the cause and effect. Denial is not that river in Egypt, but it is just as strong, just as powerful, and just as sneaky. The invisible currents will grab you and take you downriver without you knowing it until you suddenly realize that no, uh-oh, you are not heading toward your intended destination, not by a long shot.
Invisible currents? As you read the preceding few paragraphs your reaction fell toward either end of the spectrum. You might have thought, “Of course! A blind man could see the dysfunction there! What an idiot!” Or, you might have thought, “That’s nothing! Let me tell you a story . . .” I want to address the first perspective.
Once, years ago, while brown-bagging lunch around the conference table with about ten of my office mates, we were chatting about the previous night’s episode of a popular TV crime drama. It had centered around domestic violence. One young woman at the table said something like, “Ya, it was a good story, but it’s not like stuff happens that way in real life.” Half the people at the table dropped their jaws and yanked their heads around to stare at her, but no one said anything. We traded telling glances, surely all of us thinking some version of the same thing: what a naïve, sheltered, comfortable, easy life she must have. Maybe she also thought that all homeless people should, could just go get a job.
My point is just because we live in the same part of town, or went to the same college, or even grew up in the same family, doesn’t mean we live in the same reality. So what is blaringly obvious dysfunction to you and me may not even be noticeable to someone else, especially – no, certainly not – if he’s in the middle of it. People tell me they can hear my Western Pennsylvania accent, but I can’t. Long, long ago I intentionally ridded my speech of Pittsburgh-ese words like “youns”, and even though I haven’t lived there for 30 years, some people still peg me as a Western Pennsylvanian from my accent. I’ve asked them to explain, to describe to me what they hear, and we’ve repeated single words back and forth to each other, but I can’t hear the difference. Starting points have a lot to do with determining perspective and vision.
What if someone’s starting point is at the opposite end of the spectrum from the naïve woman at the lunch table? What if that person grew up in an alcoholic but otherwise functioning family? I am not the first to proclaim that the damage done by alcoholics to their kids carries in to adulthood, years, decades, lifetimes after the children have last laid eyes on their mother or father. You might read about it in books, you might see something about it on TV, and you might even feel a little morally outraged about it, but damn, when you witness it up close and personal, when it’s in your face, it will make you nauseated.
Alcoholic parents put a permanent stain on their children’s lives. Sometimes that stain is worn like a tattoo. The same way I can usually identify former Marines (be careful with that: they’re quick to tell you there’s no such thing as an ex-Marine), I can do the same with adult children of alcoholics. Sometimes I can spot it pretty early in their acquaintance; sometimes it comes later when a story of theirs comes out, and then, just like when I finally place a semi-familiar face, I hear myself thinking, “I knew that!”
As the poem Heroes and Heroines remind us, we all deserve respect for the struggle of being human. Solutions to other peoples’ lives seem obvious and correcting changes easy to make, until you take in to account that they are dealing with demons that hide just outside of their consciousness. Maybe you can point to the demons, but they just can’t see them, they just can’t hear the accent in their own speech. So how are they supposed to get a hold on them? I do not admire drunks, but I do give them basic human respect.
This whole big, broad concept of mental health, only a part of which is alcohol abuse and other addictions, does not have an absolute scale. Well, it does – for medical and legal purposes. But for social purposes? It doesn’t take a genius to realize that some people have traveled a long, long road, uphill, just to get to a normie’s starting point (mental health-wise speaking). And some of them are carrying some mighty heavy baggage. They might have already put more effort into staying sane than most of us ever will in our entire lives. They might be surviving (emotionally) on only crumbs of positive response; they might have lived their whole lives on only crumbs of nurturing love. You don’t know because you can’t know. So no, I don’t feel morally superior or overly proud of my strong character (or what passes for it.)
These days (these decades, actually) I like my vodka tonics, and I like my gin and juice, and I like my sippin’ whiskey, and I love, love, lo-o-ve my red, red wine (it is truly one of the very few cosmic gifts bottled and available through retail distribution.) And no doubt about it, after a long day of some kind of muscle work in the heat, a cold beer in the shade is a wonderful thing. However, I can not remember the last time I drank enough to deserve a hangover. I have casual drinks all the time, but only every couple of years do I put on more than a buzz. Even then, it’s more of a surprise (whoops!), and if I’m moving slow the next morning, I’m mad at myself for not living with any more skill and style than I did many, many years ago.
I’ll go a little further with that, too. If my friends get accidentally drunk more than maybe once a year or so, I don’t want to be around them. I might as well witness them kicking a puppy dog.
I write all of this as a preface, to make it plain and clear that it is not with ignorance, not without tolerance, but with more than a little heartache and fatigue and maybe even just a little bit of well-earned and healthy fear that I say that these days, I have little to no tolerance for drunks. Little to none. The purpose of my life (and remember, a life is made up of a few minutes and then hours and then days and nights strung together) is not to indulge someone else’s blatant self-destruction. I do not need those waves of negativity rippling into my life.
Easily, I’d rather be surrounded by recovering alcoholics, have no human contact at all except for with recovering alcoholics, than to have to deal with one more drunk inserted into my life. I’m sorry; I’ve been through this movie before. I’ve held middle-aged men as they sobbed and snotted up my shirt; I’ve helped my friend to bed the night he thought he was pissing in the snow but was actually just pissing in his pants; I’ve attempted to mediate way, way, way more than my share of unnecessary domestic disturbances. By the way, y’know, of course non-drinkers occasionally get sick, but when they throw up they don’t get vodka spaghetti strands coming out of their noses. Alcohol abuse is not pretty. And all of this is one thing when you’re 25 and a whole ‘nother thing when you’re 50. I’ve had enough. Drunks: been there, done that, more than once, more than one way.
So, my new neighbor who has cocktails for breakfast and is mumbling by noon and soon after swaying as he stands . . . I have nothing against you, and I wish you well. Just don’t talk to me. Don’t. Really. Just don’t.
2014, Mik Hetu, author of Napism.Info (for people who take their naps “religiously”)