Monday, September 9, 2013

The Glamour of Alcohol

There is a scene in Generation X, one of the X-Men comics I enthusiastically read in the 90s, in which Husk gets drunk. Though Husk was, at the time, largely characterized as a workaholic with an eye toward doing the right thing, when she is confronted with something that shocks her, instead of writing about it or otherwise engaging it, as one would have expected an intelligent X-Woman to do, she gets drunk and talks to Chamber on top of a pool table.

This is a pattern, my teenage self noted at the time. Resorting to the Drink to allow difficult emotions to surface. I thought about other comics and movies and books. The angst-ridden glamour of a disheveled man, dangling a slightly-tipped glass of scotch, in which all of the ice had already melted. The jagged walk of a grieving woman, an empty wineglass in her manicured hand. A buddy handing another buddy a cold beer to help him drown his woes. Entirely necessary self-medication, said these scenes.

This contrasted with what my father said about alcohol. And yes, it contrasted with some of my favorite Cagney movies. But by and large, the major message to my teenage self about alcohol was that it was the Thing. It was powerful. It could help you lose your unnecessary inhibitions. It could lubricate social situations. It could help you through a breakup, or bring you back together. It was the major Forbidden Substance. It was a potion. It was magic.

It's bunk.

Now before I go any further, I want you to know that I do drink alcohol. I've tried many sorts, and sometimes it tastes better than drinking water. Often it tastes better than drinking Earl Grey (sorry, Picard). I enjoy going to wine tastings, and having beer at Dungeons & Dragons games. I greatly admire the craft of my brewing friends. And I find alcohol useful in cleaning my keyboard.

But the physical feeling you get from alcohol--call it tipsiness, sleepiness, warm tinglings, drunkenness, or whatever--I don't get why you'd want that on a regular basis, let alone NEED it.

When I went off to college, expecting, as many kids do, to learn how to Handle Alcohol, I got panic disorder. It came out of the blue. I'd have panic attacks in class. In my car. In the shower. Suddenly, I didn't have control of my body, and worse--it was a mental lack of control. I didn't have a broken leg, didn't have a heart attack--I had something no one could see and point to. I had something many people thought I could "snap out of." I had something some professors simply wouldn't credit, so I had Fs. And with this lack of control came depression. A numbness with my situation. A fear to display my lack of control where people could see me. Agoraphobia.

Fortunately, my parents were on top of things. Before the year was done, I had begun going to cognitive behavioral therapy. I went onto cocktails of drugs. And I met other people with agoraphobia online. Most of them had panic disorder. Some used alcohol as their "medication." When I read about agoraphobia, I read that many people would go undiagnosed or, once diagnosed, would slip into alcoholism and never confront the mental illness.

When I started going outside again, I used Klonopin, which, if you haven't had it before, feels the same as having several drinks at once. Heaviness, blurriness, sleepiness. It would cut the edge off panic. It was also highly addictive. I was aware of this, and over the course of getting better, weaned myself off. But I saw agoraphobic friends get addicted. Not only to the chemical substance, but to having a chemical substance within reach just in case of anxiety. Which, for us, was nearly constant.

As I got better, I found I enjoyed attending Classics events with my spouse. I guess I expected such events to have less drinking--especially at conferences--but I'd forgotten that this is the discipline that studies Dionysus. They had more alcohol than I'd seen as an undergrad. Some genuinely enjoyed the Drink, which was fine, but so many more seemed to need it in order to speak socially. And of course, once they'd gotten tipsy, they spoke more, but not necessarily with any more adroitness. I recognized the anxiety there. I also recognized the avoidance.

I eventually defeated agoraphobia, went off all panic-related drugs, and began to live a normal life--whatever normal is for me, anyway. It took a long time, and during that time, I aged and my friends aged, and all our parents aged. I've two friends, now--both surely earning a place with the angels--who are taking care of parents with dementia. I used to think that dementia was an unfortunate not-so-surprising end of a particular genetic arc, or perhaps the result of not enough mental engagement at the end of life, easily solved with crosswords. It surprised me to learn that dementia can be caused by alcohol.

Odd. I didn't see any of those movie and comic book people slipping into dementia because of the Drink. I didn't see them freaking out behind a door, taking shots so they could speak to people. I didn't see them drinking wine to avoid psychological help, as if somehow a counselor is worse than not having control of your mind.

Agoraphobia meant that I didn't have control of my mind. I worked for a decade so that I could control my mind. I know that eventually, age will probably rob me of some of my abilities to control my mind. Why I'd want to seek out the alcohol haze when I've gotten back those hard-won things is beyond me.

I know that the major reaction from those who drink on here will be to defend themselves. Please, don't feel you need to. I'm fine with whatever you do. I don't understand it, but you might not understand my need to play video games or dress up as an elf and go hiking. It's all cool, as far as that's concerned. I'm just trying to wrap my mind around the idea that something with which I expected to agree turns out to revolt me. I wanted to explore why. And I guess I wanted to do it publicly so you, too, could explore your reactions to alcohol and the culture of alcohol. What did you expect alcohol to be? How do you use it now?


  1. You don't hear much about alcoholic dementia because drinking that much alcohol usually destroys your liver first. Those with especially good livers or otherwise clean living graduate to dementia. The damage done to the brain is twofold: first, alcohol inhibits the absorption of thiamine, aka vitamin B1. Deficiency of B1 leads to Korsakoff's Syndrome, a kind of memory loss and the inability to form new memories. Fortifying alcoholic beverages with thiamine would likely prevent most of the incidences of this disease in the Western world.
    Alcohol itself directly damages brain cells. It's a small molecule and easily crosses the blood-brain barrier. The risk for alcoholic dementia is linear with total lifetime amount of alcohol consumed - the more you drink, ever, the more damage you do.
    Alcohol induces a physical dependence(and tolerance) in addition to being potentially addictive. Withdrawing from alcohol addiction without medical help can cause life-threatening seizures.

    Boxing and football also cause dementia yet I doubt they'll be banned anytime soon.

    I got a couple swallows of beer growing up, so I expected alcohol to be delicious. And so I found it. I like the feel of the mild burning sensation as well as the flavor of beer, barley wine, and mead. I think it complements many dinners. I also enjoy the slightly relaxed feeling from one or two drinks. What culture did not teach me is that drinking it most days is a road to ruin. I do not drink now, but might drink a little on holidays in the future.

  2. Good post.

    Kudos for writing about it. There's a lot of drugs, meant to help and heal, that are habit forming. To say nothing of their side effects. A lot of mentally ill persons don't take their meds for that reason. Hell, I was one of them.

    Huh. I can count on my hands the amount of times I have drunk this year. I'm a liquor person, and refuse to acquire the taste for beers.

    Here's to neurodiversity.