Shaming the Drunk

Guess what? You can't. They're already there. Whatever you can come up with to say, "Look, this is why I am upset with your behavior and the way you have been interacting with me," they will be there first, telling you how they are working on things and you should stop badgering them and putting them on the spot. Even if you've known about their drinking for years, going on decades, without having said anything (although they often assume that you have because they know you know and are there to accuse you of trying to shame them before you even open your mouth). Even if you've heard from people close to them about how they've come home drunk, wrecked cars, missed appointments, gotten into fights, and have never said anything (out of cowardice, not wanting to interfere, feeling yourself part of the problem). They will be there to tell you that you are the one with the problem because "can't you see I'm busy trying to save my life and my family? Stop, please, with all the accusations." About, let's see, the reasons that they even need to be working on things like apologizing to their spouse, reorganizing their finances, looking at the ways in which they have used alcohol to avoid dealing with the very things that you have been so callous to have brought to their attention.

This is what Clancy Martin says in his essay out just this week in the January 2011 issue of Harper's ("The Drunk's Club"), or rather his wife, a "former Al-Anon junkie who still goes to meetings whenever she's seriously stressed out," on the difference between A.A. and Al-Anon: "Stand in the hall between two meetings and listen. From inside the A.A. room all you hear is laughter; from inside the Al-Anon room all you hear is tears." Drunks (we will not dignify or insult them at the moment with the label "alcoholic," for reasons too complicated to explain parenthetically) are experts at what anybody who has ever watched Fox News will recognize as Tea Party techniques. You say something that touches on how they have misbehaved, broken trust, taken advantage of your compassion in order to do whatever they want, and they throw back insults and accusations to distract you from any real discussion about the matter at hand.

You, to the Drunk: "You've borrowed more money than you have the resources to repay." The Drunk: "Well, you did drugs in college" (twenty-plus years ago). You: "You just wrecked a car that you borrowed from one of your family." The Drunk: "You are supposedly the Christian, but are very unforgiving. Luckily I have met several Christians who are and who are teaching me to be so. Trying to be now, but wow, what is up with you?" You: "We need to talk about how you are going to repay the money that you borrowed." The Drunk: "Stop being angry at me. I'm not angry, I'm trying to do better in many ways, it's really hard and you're not helping by badgering me in this way. You're the one with the problem, not me. If you could just see how many ways you've messed up, you would have more compassion. Why are you shouting at me? And don't talk with my family about this, they've suffered enough, they have nothing to do with what I need to fix." You: "One of the things that you need to fix is your finances." The Drunk: "Stop, please, I'm trying to rebuild my life right now and you're not helping."

I feel guilty just trying to represent even a part of the email exchange. See how good the Drunk is and how awful I end up looking? I am sick to my stomach with this situation. I wish I could just not care. I wish that there were a way to let go and never have the above conversation again. But would that, in fact, be Christian, as my Drunk has insisted I pretend to be? (NB the classic Tea Party technique: we were talking about finances and suddenly I'm trying to defend myself for being Christian.) What is there to forgive other than anger and lies and distance and more anger? The Drunk has, in fact, done nothing to me personally, even though I feel personally involved. But this is what Drunks, again, are expert at: making everything circle around them, being the center of attention. They drink, get themselves into trouble, get everyone's attention by blacking out and being picked up by the police. And then they blame you for saying, "Maybe you're drinking too much, do you think?" Because, of course, they're already there before you, quoting Nietzsche. Even Clancy Martin quotes Nietzsche, in the second column of his article.

"Nietzsche wrote: 'Memory says: "I have done that." Pride replies: "I cannot have done that," and remains inexorable. Eventually, memory yields." And so Pride wins, yet again.

Why "drunk" and not "alcoholic"? The lessons that I have learned about alcoholism in the past week! According to Martin Seligman (not, as far as I know, a drunk, although he does talk about being overweight), there are a number of reasons why it may not be accurate to label "alcoholism" as a disease: there is no physical pathology, it does not seem to be heritable, and by calling heavy drinkers victims of a disease "we magically shift the burden of the problem from choice and personal control, where it belongs, to an impersonal force--disease. This move erodes individual responsibility and even lends an aura of moral legitimacy to drunkenness. It magnifies the problem, making change less likely." Somewhat paradoxically, Seligman himself, however, prefers the label "disease" to "vice" or "sin" because, he says, thinking of oneself as sick is more optimistic than thinking of oneself as sinful or vice-ridden. Even better, however, are some of the other labels that modern society tends to use: "A 'habit disorder,' a 'behavioral problem,' even a 'human frailty' are ways a more sophisticated alcoholic could explain his failures now."*

F*ck that. Drunks drink because they like drinking. And while they are drinking, they don't really care about what anybody else is thinking. They're not sorry, they're enjoying themselves. It's being sober they can't stand, so as soon as they get the chance, or Memory starts trying to nudge them to remember the things that they did while they were drunk, they drink again so as not to have to remember anything other than the soothing taste of the alcohol running over their tongues. Just as I feel happier when I am sitting on the porch smoking a cigarette, feeling the nicotine coursing through my blood, the world all happy and calm in a way that it can never be when I'm straight (which, by the by, if you're worrying, I still am--Hail, Mary!), the drunk drinking feels himself or herself lifted out of the present into a world where people listen, everything he or she says is brilliant, nobody is asking him or her to do anything other than be there, elbows up on the bar, telling a story about how hard his or her life has been in which, naturally, he or she is always the hero and everyone else a villain.

Which is why, Clancy says, drunks who aren't drinking enjoy going to A.A. meetings so much. This is the way, according to Clancy, one speaker ("Rob M.") told it at a Kansas City A.A. meeting: "You know, these meetings are a lot like being in a bar. You sit there with your buddies, the world's a long ways away. Ain't nobody gonna get you in here. That's what I always loved about a bar. Long as you're in the bar, you're safe. It's what's outside the bar waiting for you that's got you scared. 'Cause you can't stay in the bar forever. You got to get outside and get to business. These meetings here are the same way. You come in here, you're safe for a while, but then you got to get out there and get into motion. As long as you're here in a meeting room you're still halfway in the bar." "'Tell it, brother,' someone else says."

And what is out there in the world that the drunk is so scared of? Life. Everything that terrifies all of the rest of us: keeping our marriages healthy and happy, making enough money to pay the mortgage and our children's tuition fees, figuring out what to write for that next article or book, negotiating with our colleagues at work. After one meeting, Clancy says, he fell into talking with a woman who was just six weeks sober and missing her drink. "I told her, trying to help, 'Listen to your psychiatrist. I know people tell you to just get clean. But my first year I took a handful of drugs, and I still take Valium and an antidepressant. It can make it so much easier.' She eyed me dubiously but hopefully. The alcoholic is, we tend to forget, an addict. And addicts like to take things. We are seriously and chronically dissatisfied with our ordinary brain chemistry. Why that is the case is the interesting question. Most of us have a tough enough time getting through the day. Is the alcoholic just more impatient that other people? More sensitive? Weaker? Why does it take hold of certain people and destroy their lives and let so many others be?"

Well, why? Here is Bill W., the founder of A.A., describing his own experience with starting to drink, back in 1917 (quoted from Clancy). He was twenty-two, at a party: "Well, my self-consciousness was such that I simply had to take that drink. So I took it, and another, and then, lo, the miracle! That strange barrier that had existed between me and all men and women seemed instantly to go down. I felt that I belonged where I was, belonged to life; I belonged to the universe; I was a part of things at last. Oh, the magic of those first three or four drinks! I became the life of the party. I actually could please the guests; I could talk freely, volubly; I could talk well."

I think of my Drunk and I pity him (yes, it's a he--most alcoholics are, interestingly enough--and not that he wants my pity). Is this what he has been suffering all these years? Terrible shyness? A world coming at him so fast that he can only bear it once he has taken that third drink? An overwhelming desire to speak loosed only with the magic of alcohol? How terrible to ask him to give this up, for what? Bleak, soul-crushing sobriety? Another quotation from Clancy, this one from William Styron's memoir Darkness Visible, about his own involuntary sobriety (his body rejected alcohol after forty years of heavy drinking): "It is my conviction now that alcohol played a perverse trick on me when we said farewell to one another: although, as everyone should know, it is a major depressant, it had never truly depressed me during my drinking career, acting instead as a shield against anxiety. Suddenly vanished, the great ally which for so long had kept my demons at bay was no longer there to prevent those demons from beginning to swarm through the subconscious, and I was emotionally naked, vulnerable as I had never been before. Doubtless depression had hovered near me for years, waiting to swoop down. Now I was in the first stage--premonitory, like a flicker of sheet lightning barely perceived--of depression's blackest tempest."

So perhaps drunks are sick after all. Sick with demons that come after them and leave the rest of us alone. Sick with fears and anxieties and worries that come from the desert of the psyche to plague them with night terrors and shame unless they can find some way to silence them. Sick with the angst of being human, adrift on a sea of consciousness in a life without intrinsic meaning, the consummate pessimists, able to see life for what it reallyiswhenallissaidanddone. How dare we lightweights in the combat try to take their only weapon from them, the only substance that they've found that can keep the demons at bay? Sure, sugar helps a bit, and some medications seem to be able to damp down the fires. But alcohol, ah, alcohol drives the demons completely away. No wonder drunks lash out when we come between them and their drink. It is as if we are siding with the demons that they insist are there and that we, in our optimistic blindness, simply cannot see.

Clancy himself rejects the idea of alcoholism "as a disease or an allergy or a condition." Rather, he thinks that alcohol is "a very effective and potentially addictive medication for a whole host of psychological and neurobiological problems." Which sounds a little bit like a disease or, at least, a disorder to me. The problem, as Clancy points out, is that alcohol, unlike many other potentially addictive medications is also used socially. "If you're prone to overdoing it, the fact that you're self-prescribing (and choosing your own dosage) doesn't help." So what does? Nobody, it seems, knows. Not the drunks, not the sponsors at A.A., not the expensive clinics, not the tearful family members at Al-Anon. Even A.A. on its good days can claim only a 30 percent sobriety rate (if that; I've read numbers that are even lower). Seligman's research suggests that there is no difference in recovery rates between those who go to treatment and those who simply grow out of their abuse. Long-term (as opposed to the much rosier short-term statistics, say, 6 months out of treatment), "about one in five [alcoholics] will recover completely; about half will die prematurely or remain alcohol-dependent; socially stable alcoholics have about double the chances of recovery; [and] very severe and very mild symptoms most suggest recovery."

And that's it. I've told my Drunk I don't f*cking care (sic) how much he drinks, and I really don't. Because I know that a) what I think is irrelevant; and b) I don't know the answer any more than anybody else does. But it still hurts. And I'm still capable of being sucked in. Look, I've spent something like two and a half hours on this blog post and I'm supposed to be grading papers. I spent hours on the phone and writing emails yesterday (I only stopped because my cell account ran out of minutes!)--and nothing has changed. Perhaps there is nothing to change (except to make sure he can't drive). I would say that I don't know any more, but then I never knew. My father drank until the day he died (well, nearly; he died in hospital of an embolism, but I suspect he was drinking before the stroke). He knew he drank. We knew he drank. Half of the people at the funeral were from A.A. But would his life have been significantly better if he had never drunk? I don't know. Perhaps he was fighting demons I couldn't see.

*What You Can Change...and What You Can't*: The Complete Guide to Successful Self-Improvement. *learning to accept who you are (New York: Vintage Books, 1993, 2007).


  1. I enjoyed your intimate response to the Clancy Martin piece in Harpers and passed your blog along. My ex wife was a "functional alcoholic" as they call it, and my best friend is a, well, just an alcoholic (as they call it), so I read the Martin piece with interest. After finishing it, I read your blog entry with interest. Again - thanks for sharing your intelligent, thoughtful and heartfelt response. Peace

  2. Thank you, Giovanni, for letting me know! This is not an easy topic to write about, as I am sure you appreciate. I hope very much that both you and your friend find peace, too.

  3. Your writing has so much true art and humanity and expresses such profound humility in wielding the truth in the face of doubts we all have, that it doesn't need lame-ass political analogies to get your point across. You are better than that.


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