I grew up watching Westerns – and I think they taught me pretty much everything I needed to know about alcohol. It’s an antiseptic. It can clean a bullet wound and prepare the area for surgery. It is a pain reducer. Take one swig and removing that bullet will be painless. It showed the town drunk and established the idea that when taken in excess, it destroys one’s life. In other words, Westerns depicted the pros and cons of alcohol and gave a pretty balanced view of the situation.
But, let’s be serious. No one today is drinking alcohol to alleviate pain while a bullet is being removed from one’s body. Today, alcohol is consumed to have fun. It is used to relax. It is used to allow us to sing karaoke, or dance, or talk to someone. It is used to give us courage. It is used to give us the courage to be ourselves. Alcohol reduces inhibitions and allows us to face our fears. We fear others will laugh at us when we sing or dance or ask for a phone number. So, we use alcohol so that we express these true desires because, after all, if rejection occurs, we can blame the alcohol for our failure. We call it “liquid courage”. But I think it might be more of a liquid crutch – something we lean on when we fear falling apart in some social situation.
Why discuss all this? Well, March 17th is National Drink Until You Get Sick Day. It is a day that we celebrate not just drinking, but excessive drinking. It is strange to me because we know the dangers, yet, as a society we refuse to fully acknowledge it. I have more parents come to talk to me about their concerns about a child who daydreams (why are they daydreaming? Is it because they have no friends?) than to discuss their concerns over a child who is recovering from alcohol poisoning (because after all, “all kids drink”). In our society, alcohol used to the point of getting sick is a rite of passage to adulthood.
What we need to be aware of, however, is that alcohol does not change our life circumstances; it simply changes the way we perceive them. For example, if we are nervous at a party, alcohol (a depressant) slows our thinking and reflexes. It helps us manage the anxiety; it does not eliminate it. It will return at the next party. Alcohol quickly becomes the crutch used to handle the anxiety. The bigger issue that must be solved is why we are so nervous in the first place. These people our friends. Are they really going to judge us so harshly? If they do, then are they really our friends? If we cannot be comfortable with our friends, isn’t the real solution finding new friends? If we are “bored” and alcohol makes us feel that life is more exciting, then can’t the money spent on alcohol be used to make life truly more exciting by doing something new and different with that money?
The videos taken at parties prove that alcohol can’t improve ones voice or dancing. Alcohol certainly does not improve sex since the act of sex requires energy, not relaxation. What alcohol does do, though, is reduce one’s inhibitions regarding sex. Again, if one is hesitant to engage in this level of intimacy, then why do it? If a person is ashamed or worried about his or her partner judging one’s desires, then perhaps the couple needs to discuss that, rather than avoid the discussion by being able to blame the alcohol later. Sex is way more fun when the couple trusts each other, are full of energy and enthusiasm, and are capable of facing the consequences that can result from the act. Drunk sex provides none of the positives (for example, erections take longer to produce; are more difficult to maintain; are often interrupted by the need to urinate) and increases the risks of negative consequences (the condom is used incorrectly or not at all, increasing the risk of STDs or pregnancy).
Let’s go back to an earlier blog about the importance of the word should and relate that idea to the use of alcohol. Some shoulds related to alcohol: “I should be able to talk more. I should be able to dance better. I should be funnier”. All of these reveal a break between our ideal self (who we think we should be in order to please others) and our real selves (who we actually are). This break is further clarified when we change the word from should to want or need. “I should be able to talk more…I want to be able to talk more so I will fit in…so I need a drink”. The use of the word need…oh, that’s where it gets risky. Alcoholics need drinks, after all. Therefore, our ideal self, if it is truly ideal, “should not” need one in order to be social. It is helpful to listen to the wants/needs related to our use of alcohol – those we say sober and those we say drunk. It will help us be responsible drinkers if we can replace some of these shoulds. For example, it could be changed to “I need/want to continue to be a good listener…every party needs one!” or “I need/want to take dance lessons” or “I am glad I can laugh with funny people…every comedian needs an audience”. These reformulations help us to be more accepting of who we really are and help us to stop needing a drink in order to relax.
Trust me, I am not seeking to go back to the days of Prohibition. I don’t want to ban the use of alcohol. I do, however, want to differentiate between having a drink and needing one to have fun. I do want to differentiate between having a drink as part of an activity and drinking as the activity. Binge drinking is a problem not only among high school students, but among all ages. I know people in their seventies who still need to drink when they go out. And the key word is need. They still believe that one cannot have fun without alcohol. They still cannot relax and be themselves. The problem with such drinking is that it results in alcohol tolerance. More alcohol is needed for the same behavioral effect. The problem is that the person no longer “seems/looks” drunk, but their alcohol level reflects it. They think there is no problem, no danger to themselves or others. This is simply not the case. The drawback of binge drinking is that other neural messages can be delayed and important ones—like telling the heart to beat faster so blood flow works properly or telling the lungs to breathe because oxygen is needed.
Excessive alcohol use is a tragedy waiting to happen. Why? Because the decisions made sober are very different from those made drunk. I am certain that all of us already know that it is dangerous to drive drunk. I am certain that most people appoint a designated driver. The real problem is that alcohol alters our thinking. What makes sense to us sober doesn’t make sense to us when we are drunk. Therefore, our sober plans get tossed to the side and our new plans, made in an altered state of alcohol, now make sense to us. I know too many stories of such poor decisions – and the lives lost because of them, and the lives crushed because of them. But those who have lived it can tell that story better than I. I encourage you to read the blog by Erin Maher as she tells what it is like to be the sibling that is left to deal with such a loss http://220.127.116.11/~getaterr/1465/
Most of us simply want to enjoy ourselves like we did when we were toddlers, before the worry began about what others thought of us. If that is what we all want, then the solution is to find the courage to accept ourselves. Alcohol is not the solution. If we can only talk or sing or tell people we love them or want to have sex them when under the influence of alcohol, then our sober life is not fulfilling. The solution is to find the courage to do these things sober—when you can truly enjoy them. Sobriety isn’t for prudes and losers; it is for the courageous and self-assured.
So, don’t drink until you get sick (or your tolerance is so high that you forget to get sick and go into a coma instead).
Instead, really let yourself go. Have an adventure and sing, dance, tell someone you love them or are attracted to them. In other words, just act drunk while you are sober. It is really fun! Give it a try and let me know how it turns out.
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