For starters, the graphic isn’t up there for a cheap joke, though there is a lot of dark humor in it for those that like dark humor. Count me among the fans. It’s there as an introduction. I’ve spent a few paragraphs in previous entries bemoaning and condemning other people and society as a whole for having immature attitudes towards the “gift” of alcohol, and I’m not planning on backtracking on that. What will happen moving forward though is an admission of guilt for my very own immature attitudes towards alcohol and drinking. That’s only fair, right? Moving forward I will address my relationship with booze, as both a gift and a curse.
It’s difficult to even know where to begin to describe or explain a relationship with anyone or anything that lasted over three decades, and continues to some extent. It’s probably best to begin at the beginning. What was it that the idea or practice of drinking meant that being a part of it was so incredibly irresistible? How was it that a boy in grade school knew beyond any doubt that it was for him? Numbers would suggest that it’s no less compelling now but my experience is from a time that now seems very distant.
It was a reward of adulthood for one, at a time where kids heard words spoken daily, like “grow up” and “act your age.” Alcohol and tobacco (and to some extent drugs depending on your circles) were a rite of passage at a time where being a child, or at least being childlike even for children, didn’t really seem to be valued. You might have heard people say “they grow up too fast” and other nonsense about loss of innocence but behavior was directed to not being childlike at all. Children were seen and not heard at a time where heroes demanded “shaken, not stirred.”
We were sat on the laps of adult males in the family while driving, hands on the wheel doing our best imitations of grown men. We got sips of beer or cocktails sometimes at gatherings. We pretended our drinks were the drinks that men drank. Candy cigarettes were marketed openly. It was part of our roleplaying on our way to adulthood. The transition to the real thing was always a no-brainer for me and my friends. I knew that this ritualized ‘thing’ was going to be part of who I was, and at the very first opportunity to participate in. I had built a whole persona around drinking and other examples of masculinity and being grown up long before I had my first drink (or smoke). Real men drank, and there were names for those who didn’t. There were attitudes that if you described as dismissive would be an understatement. To describe me as a very, very impressionable young boy would be an understatement. These rewards were part of the very fabric of who I always longed to be, again, long before even beginning. My story isn’t really all that uncommon at all if you listen to Generation Z now, who took on the mantle of adulthood with their first alcoholic beverage, or as it might often be called, “adult beverages.”
But the gift, or the reward… Make no mistake here. There was plenty in my childhood to escape but what I took up drinking for was to escape childhood itself. It was to jumpstart the process from the child I didn’t want to be to becoming the man I imagined I could be. Throw all the business about people drinking or using other substances to escape right out the window, for me anyway. Childhood to me was meaningless or valueless. Manhood was every damn thing. It was supposed to be an escape from powerlessness. The absolute falseness of that of course didn’t become apparent until years later, but that’s not something that’s specific to me or to people who developed serious problems with substances. That’s the existential reality of mankind itself.
I’ve heard people say also that they hated the taste of alcohol but couldn’t escape the draw of the effects it had on them. I can’t speak for anyone else but that’s not the case with me. I loved both the taste and the effects right from the start, if you disregard the odd hangover. This is something I’ve heard by the way from both alcoholics and all others, that they hated the taste ‘at first,’ but acquired a taste over time. Now, what is it anyway that would compel people to put anything in their mouths until they got used to the taste? If someone hated a particular vegetable, would they force themselves to consume it until it became palatable? No, I loved the taste of beer and any sort of liquor and most wines. They only liquors that come to mind that I never liked were Grappa, Ouzo and Metaxa, and you know what? The alcohol content never ‘forced’ me to drink them even when they were the only alcoholic potable around. The love affair for the rest though continued through my entire drinking life. I enjoyed everything about it. And the effects of alcohol, at least in the very many individual moments, was rarely less than enjoyable. Perhaps that was why it was so easy to overlook the many things that drinking as a lifestyle was subtracting from my life and from me as a complete, functioning, adult human.
So that’s the beginning of it all. My entire relationship with alcohol, for my entire drinking life, was entirely founded on the fantasy identity of a pre-teen child who adopted the lifestyle of media cowboys, soldiers, cops, bad guys, private eyes, and international men of mystery. Mix in the tough guys from real life that I admired and aspired to be like and you have a good idea of what I believed I would become.
Of course then my childhood fears and insecurities, or demons if you will, became adult fears and insecurities. They aged anyway, without ever really maturing. Isn’t that the entire definition of these “demons” that people talk about? We could include various traumas I experienced but not everyone that ends up with a substance abuse problem experienced traumas to the same degree so I’m tempted to exclude them and say with some certainty that they are at most secondary to the rest. I’ve not quite sorted out where I would put the more traumatic experiences in the hierarchy of issues. That just wouldn’t jive with the rest of the people I know who ended up in more or less the same place that I did, looking to escape the escape. There is a more common, central thing. And of course many people did manage to grow up in other ways while still maintaining the same immature attitudes towards substance use and alcohol in particular.
I do keep going back to these immature attitudes because they do exist and not as exceptions to the rule. There were cool kids in high school for example, and there were kids who weren’t cool. The dividing line is drawn still between those who party and those who don’t. We will exclude the small minority of straight edge punks because the argument exists there too. The dividing line between cool and not cool exists in adults too. It’s reflected in nearly every social gathering. I will argue that alcohol plays an integral role in nearly every adult social gathering. It’s not just how it’s portrayed in media. People display and often voice discomfort about the presence of non-drinkers in the company of drinkers. There are designated drivers but the preference is for the type who just knock off the drinking early so they are more sober than the rest (ideally).
I was the absolute worst with these attitudes. It’s not that I was usually openly mean to people who chose for whatever reason not to partake but I was reductive and dismissive towards them. Part of it was definitely that I was developing a growing sense that it was me who was failing at adulthood and not them, but these are attitudes from childhood that I never outgrew. I sneered at the very idea of straight edge people, like what the fuck is even wrong with you guys? Grow up! Just grow up! Horrible, really. Very immature. There was definitely more than a small amount of toxic masculinity coming into play there and that of course is the detritus of growing up immersed in toxic masculinity. Nobody is going to tell me either that this isn’t an ongoing thing.
So why are women in on the action too? I’ve discussed this with women and we’ve come to the conclusion that there is such thing as toxic adulthood. We’ve infused the very idea of adulthood with horrible signifiers that have become not just part of the fabric but the very fabric of our society. It can be something as relatively small as drinking, but it goes to social status, job status, material possessions, etc. We work our asses off and then we do this specific thing because it’s what adults do. Are you a failed adult? Are you? We pile this garbage on ourselves and on other people too. I plead guilty.
But back to these demons, these ambiguous fears and insecurities that came with me and aged with me from childhood. Why are they surfing the waves of alcohol? Because I wrapped myself in drinking and lifestyle and all these empty signifiers of adulthood and while the signifiers numbed the pain of their weight, of hauling the baggage, the weight was still there. In the existence of the signifiers around me it was easier to fool myself into believing that I had actually grown the fuck up. It all reached the point where the weight was too heavy to carry and I froze in place and began to lose the signifiers slowly. I couldn’t keep up with the maintenance. The consequences of having never addressed the “demons” got larger. It got to the point where something had to change. I had to rid myself of not just the alcohol but all the bullshit fantasy that I’d built my life on. It was time to get 100% real and grow up.
People reach the same point without a substance abuse problem. I may have also, but it wasn’t getting fixed in the midst of a substance abuse problem. The demons could stay or go but I wasn’t going to make it easy for them. I was going to see who I was minus the fantasy, and minus the crappy attitude about who was cool and who wasn’t. That stuff lingers! Oh my god, it’s so damn easy to fall into the trap of positioning oneself in a certain light by lessening other people! It’s ugly and it’s real. What it comes down to though is this, and you may say this is a no-brainer too. What another person does or doesn’t do has zero bearing on who I am as a man or as an adult. If you think I’m a jerk, or not cool in some way, you might want to have a better reason than what comes down to a dietary choice at its level reality.
I can be a jerk, I’m sure. But I’m less of a jerk than I was.
On a sidenote, I’ve been ruminating on the term recovery. It can be a very useful word in framing the journey to sobriety but it may not describe everyone who struggles along that path. It’s useful in describing the path to getting back something that’s been lost, but it doesn’t accurately describe those of us who never had these things to begin with. Just a thought. Most of what I’ve gained through being sober hasn’t been recovered. It’s pretty damn new.
(draft – more to follow)