I have long felt that a key sign of maturation is the willingness to appreciate and live with delayed gratification. A practicing alcoholic has no concept of that. The alcoholic understands only that booze solves the immediate, felt problem. If it hurts the booze anesthetizes the pain; if there is sadness, the booze can, for a while, make you feel, if not happy, at least indifferent and mellow.
I started drinking because I was hurt and angry. I felt trapped in a life I could not control. I was 15. But it was not my age that drove me to drink; it was my feelings, and my inability to “control” my life. Control is a big issue for the alcoholic, practicing or otherwise. And, while booze actually takes away your control, and releases your inhibitions, when drinking you feel like you are “in control”, right up to the point where you start the slide toward hitting bottom.
One of my strongest memories of my early drinking was leaving the house after my mother had beaten me with whatever she could get her hands on. It happened so often that I don’t even remember what she was screaming about, or beating me with.
I vividly remember sneaking out of the house after she went to bed, and going over to my friend’s house, which was on the property of a cemetery where his father was the caretaker. My friend and I went out to the maintenance shed, got a couple of six packs from an old refrigerator, and walked out into the cemetery to drink. He had several older brothers and his Dad let them keep beer in that fridge so it was easy to slip our beer into it and no one was the wiser.
We sat, leaning up against a couple of tombstones and drank, talking about everything we hated about our lives and what we were going to do when we were free to do what we wanted. We had big plans and ideas about how everything would be different, how we would make our marks on the world and show our parents that we were not losers.
After high school I went on to college, but he ended up working for his Dad in the cemetery. Some years later, I learned that he he had joined the Army and gone to Viet Nam. He came back dead. Some plans don’t work out.
But I remember thinking many times when I was climbing the success ladder in DC and NYC that, “This one’s for [him]” as I lifted my scotch in a silent toast. I was determined to prove that we were both right all those years before when we laughed and dreamed big dreams under the stars in that cemetery.
By the time I was in college I was a full blown alcoholic, but it never crossed my mind. That is not unusual in any way. Most alcoholics not only don’t know they are alcoholics in the early years of their drinking, but they look around and see others who drink too much and think that they are glad that they are not like this one or that one. The ability to lie to oneself is limitless.
I was 17 when I was kicked out of my house the month before my high school graduation. I went to live with my uncle for a while and then got a basement room I shared with another student near the college campus. I lived there for three semesters.
During that time I drank every day, went to school, and worked long hours first in a gas station and then a grocery store. Since my mother had taken, literally, all of the money I had saved for college by working construction the summer before my senior high school year, I had no choice but to work to have enough for tuition. Work was not new to me and I didn’t mind working since I had been working 30 to 40 hours a week since I was 12, turning most of my earnings over to my mother. That may seem harsh but I never noticed that part of it. To me it was pretty normal for a large poor family.
The summer between my freshman and sophomore years of college I joined the laborer’s union, and worked as a hod carrier for an brick mason who was a heavy drinker. We were helping build a Frito Lay plant on the edge of town. He always drank his lunch at a nearby bar and I went with him and did the same. I got into his habit of drinking beer with tomato juice in it for lunch along with eating a couple of boiled eggs. He called the drink a "working man’s bloody mary."
Carrying bricks up a ladder in sweltering heat was hard, dirty work but I actually enjoyed it. By then I was 6’2” and a wiry 160 pounds and was developing muscles I had no idea existed. The booze helped me feel adult, self sufficient, strong, resourceful, and able to conquer the world. And, at that point, I was still not feeling any really bad effects of my drinking. I had become a pro and knew both how much booze I needed to feel mellow and how much would make me feel bad the next day. I had begun my booze balancing act, at the age of 18.
College was something I had intended to do from the time I was a small boy. I always knew I would have to do it on my own because it was all my Dad could do to keep food on the table and a roof over our heads. But college course work took second to trying out my wings in the world. I was on my own.
And I really didn’t study much during that first year and a half of college. It was easy to slack off because learning has always come easy to me. I managed As and Bs in all my courses just by attending and listening, taking notes, and crashing the books the week before finals. At that point in my life, to me and my buddies booze and hanging out together were more important than good grades. I later changed my mind about that.
Looking back on those earliest drinking years some things seem clear to me when I think now about young drinkers.
First, Young drinkers always offer a “reason” (excuse?) for their drinking. The need to justify seems almost universal. Yet, in spite of what they may tell you, they seldom if ever start drinking for the “taste.” The fact is that I know few who actually thought that the first taste of beer was really wonderful. Beer is basically a bitter drink and taste for it, and most other forms of alcohol, is acquired. Yet I soon did come to like the taste of beer and quickly learned what brands I liked and did not like. But, even from the beginning, I think that if a Pepsi had the same alcohol in it as a beer I would have never popped the top on a can of beer. Beer was the drink that was easily available to an underage drinker. And it was cheap.
And, in spite of what they deeply believe is true, chances are about a million to one that no one “made them start drinking,” or “caused” them to drink. Yet there is a strong desire to blame their drinking on someone else, especially if it is excessive from the beginning. As you know, I blamed my drinking on my home life, and particularly on my mother who was abusive and had serious psychological issues.
But there is a truth that lies under all of these self delusions, and the attempt to delude others. The bottom line is that we start drinking for the effect that alcohol has.
So if someone tells you that they started drinking because wine tasted so good, or the bourbon was so smooth, or the scotch was so smokey on the tongue, well, I am sure that they believe that. But the truth is that if there were no buzz, they would not drink it. Likewise, if they tell you that someone or something “drove” them to drink, you know that most people deal with similar issues to theirs without pouring themselves into a bottle.
Second, whether they know it or not, they drink to escape, to change their “now.” They cannot see gratification coming soon, if ever, and they have no concept that delayed gratification can be worth the effort to wait. The pain is now. The hurt is now. The anger is now. The hatred is now. And alcohol offers a “now” solution.
Third, once they start drinking, pressure to continue drinking from drinking friends is enormous. It is not by accident that those who actually stop drinking must, to have continued success, not only give up the booze, they must give up their playmates and their playpens. It may work for a while to go back to the same old haunts and run around with the same old drinking friends, drinking Coke or Pepsi while your friends drink beer, wine and liquor, but, if you make a habit of that, you are playing with fire and you will get burned.
Fourth, as important as control of one’s life is to an alcoholic, once alcohol takes hold there is no “control” left when it comes to drinking. An alcoholic can no more control his drinking than he can control the amount of air he decides to breathe. Having one or two drinks is a foreign concept, not because the alcoholic does not want to only drink one or two in a social setting, but because s/he can’t drink only one or two.
The great desire for control can happen in other aspects of the life of a drinker. And that can go on successfully for decades. I could “control” how well I did in school, how well I did later in my career, how and where I worked, and most all other aspects of my life. But, from the first drink, while I was sure I was controlling my drinking, while I was balancing on that tightrope, the truth was I was slowly losing my balance and would eventually fall. Alcohol is patient and cunning and willing to wait for the fall.
To be continued.
Note: a number of readers who are not members of Open Salon have asked how to contact me. You can send an email to firstname.lastname@example.org.