In today’s culture, being a teetotaler is about as uncool as it gets…and why such a labeling sits perfectly well with a non-drinker such as myself.Let’s talk about public health risks for a bit.
According to the NHTSA, an estimated 34,000 Americans were killed in motor vehicle-related accidents in 2012.
In 2010 alone, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention tallied up at least 38,000 deaths in the U.S. that were related to prescription drugs.
That same year, the CDC found that about 31,000 Americans were killed via firearms -- about 11,00 in straight up homicides and nearly 20,000 in additional suicides.
With the statistics mentioned above, one can clearly see why automobile safety, firearms and prescription medication regulation are hot-button issues in American society. As contentious as these issues may be, however, there is one aspect of American culture that absolutely dwarfs those afore-mentioned political footballs as a genuine public health menace.
I’m taking about the agent that’s responsible for at least 88,000 deaths in America per year -- good old fashioned alcohol.
The data here is pretty mind-boggling: behind being fat and smoking cigarettes, excessive alcohol use is indeed the nation’s third largest avoidable health risk, with a total annual economic cost (circa 2006, anyway) tabulated at about $223 billion.
And hey, those other public health risks mentioned earlier? Well, alcohol is apparently a factor in one out of every ten fatal U.S. traffic accidents. It’s also a component in at least 40 percent of all U.S. homicides and at least a quarter of all U.S. suicides. In terms of other crimes, roughly half of all sexual assaults committed in the U.S involve either intoxicated perpetrators or victims, while about 35 percent of all confirmed child abuse incidents in the U.S. involve parents or caregivers who were under the influence at the time.
All in all, about three million crimes in the U.S. are perpetrated annually by individuals who had been drinking, an apparent factor in 15 percent of all robberies and about half of all simple and aggravated assaults. You can chalk up about 70 percent of all drowning and and about 40 percent of all fire-related accidental deaths in the U.S. to alcohol over-consumption, as well. And those prescription drug deaths, you may be wondering? Per the CDC, many of them are the direct result of in-tandem alcohol use. Speaking of which, remember the “crime pandemic” that was brought about via the proliferation of crack in the 1980s? The real catalyst there may have actually been the combination of alcohol and cocaine -- a metabolic cocktail, known as cocaethylene, which researchers have determined results in nearly superhuman levels of hyper-aggressive behavior.
For all the hubbub we hear about the “war on drugs” and “gun control,” it’s crystal clear that alcohol is a far greater social threat than either -- indeed, one could argue that the presence of alcohol itself is quite possibly the single greatest "cause" of deaths related to both firearms and illicit and ill-obtained drug use.
Of course, we all know how Prohibition turned out; a supposedly “failed” act of government regulation, which since has resulted in a $400 billion a year mega-industry…and of course, with that, a national populace of only about 100 million or so that, at some point in their lives, experience severe drinking problems. Alas, you can see the arithmetic here: alcohol may cause a good $230 billion in social havoc each year, but it at least generates close to $200 billion annually in profits. Hell, Anheuser-Busch pulled in a cool $43 billion all by itself last year, which makes it a more profitable enterprise than Walt Disney, FedEx or even Goldman Sachs.
Psychosocially, Americans live in a culture that encourages mass consumption as essentially a religious duty, and the alcohol beverage industry holds a special place within this framework of constant ingestion. It’s impossible to watch any kind of sporting event without being bombarded by dozens of ads for pilsner, and popular entertainment -- from high school comedies to sitcoms to animated programs -- more or less sanctifies the act of drinking, partying and bar-hopping as social necessities. There’s not a whole lot of overlap in terms of thematic content between hip-hop, country, punk, pop and metal music, but the one commonality they seem to share is a fondness for distilled and brewed substances: listen to any popular hard rock, rap or southern-tinged ballad, and you’re almost certain to hear at least one reference to Cristal, Jack Daniels or the overt act of binge drinking itself.
Drinking -- and the various euphemisms for binge drinking -- seem to be equally celebrated as popularized gender constructs. Hard drinking is seen as a trait of manliness, with all kinds of testosterone-soaked brands and products equating regular (and sometimes, heavy) alcohol consumption as emblems of masculinity and vigor. Among females, drinking is displayed as a mature, therapeutic pastime, a “social lubricant” of sort that leads to oh so many a “Sex and the City” plotline and Katy Perry music video. The pop culture machinery is ceaseless in its message: where there’s alcohol, there are good times, and where there isn’t? Dullsville, my friends, Dullsville.
Regarding the cultural acceptance of drinking and binge drinking, it appears to be one of the rare American experiences that transcends class delineations. Multimillionaires, trust fund babies, mechanics, unemployed roughnecks, museum patrons, wannabe thugs and actual thugs all live within respective social stratums that not only give the A-OK to regular alcohol ingestion, but also regular intoxication. While the long-term health impact of smoking cigarettes has led to a culture-wide jihad against tobacco manufacturers and users, the long-term health impact of drinking and binge drinking are all but ignored aspects of modern society. Similarly, the negative upfront impact of methamphetamine and street drug usage is all but agreed upon in regular U.S. discourse, but the upfront impact of alcohol -- all of the statistically verified traffic accidents, crimes and even fatalities -- remain nearly verboten subjects. For whatever reason, we choose to view mass-drinking rites like St. Patrick’s Day and Mardi Gras as “good times” instead of the statistical reality in front of us -- periods of gargantuan crime spikes. We all know that alcohol ingestion leads to many, many social negatives, but we just can’t come to state the obvious here.
Now before you write this off as the out-of-touch musings of some Straight-Edge Mormon fundamentalist or something, I myself, was at one point in time, a drinker. In fact, I was what you would probably call a “heavy drinker,” which is really nothing more than a polite way to say “alcoholic in the making.”
I grew up in the Southeast, where next to college football and being ignorant of science, there is no greater cultural unifier than the love of getting hammered. Literally my entire childhood neighborhood was crawling with alcoholics, individuals that would crack open a Busch at nine in the morning to compliment their Egg McMuffins. Cruising up and down the country backroads, my ma and pa used to toss back bottles and cans of Bud Ice like they were casually nursing frappucinnos. Where I come from, “drinking” meant having an alcoholic beverage every four hours, and “partying” meant blood poisoning.
Good times were had by all, I assure you. Like that time my step-dad got lit on moonshine and threatened to go on a shooting rampage at work the next day. I recall sleeping underneath my bed that night…with a bookcase wedged against my bedroom door…because I was all but certain he was going to go Chris Benoit on me first. And there was also that time my mom got absolutely blitzed on vodka (which she snuck to work, of course), passed out, and almost set herself on fire. Now, I don’t know how drunk you have to be to NOT notice the smoldering Marlboro incinerating an inch-deep layer of your skin, but it’s probably “quite a bit.” And for the record: my mother’s burns went all the way down to her adipose tissue.
Now, with such a history shone before my delicate adolescent eyes, perhaps you’d think I would, I don’t know, steer clear of even the shadow of alcoholic beverages. Well, being a good old Southern boy in high school, that little program didn’t last long at all. I got drunk for the very first time when I was 16, and for nearly two years afterward, I spent every Friday night getting torn up. And it’s not like I was out partying or being sociable, to any extent: I meant it was just me, listening to Outkast and playing Xbox, while pounding Heinekens one after another. From there, I went from drinking like a maniac on Friday nights to drinking like a maniac on Saturday nights, as well. During football season, I would get smashed on Sunday evenings, and pray that I would be able to make it to First Period geometry class without a hangover. Eventually, I got to a point where I was basically hammering my liver into pink, stinky Play-Doh from 8 PM Friday night until Monday morning. And then, of course, I started drinking as soon as I got in from school. I can’t tell you how many times I did trig homework, with a cup of Vodka and Dr. Pepper as my study buddy. And if that wasn’t enough, my final semester in high school, me and my pals used to sneak drinks into homeroom. As in, actual cans of beer, which we popped open and casually chugged in the back corner like we were sipping on Slim Fast.
Of course, knowing what I know now, it was pretty clear that I had a drinking problem. It got worse in that limbo phase between high school and college, when I would find myself drinking at 1 PM while playing Gamecube offerings like “Puyo Pop Fever.” I got to a point where I “realized” that I was only myself -- my true self -- when I had alcohol running through my veins. It was at that point -- in hindsight -- that I realized I was *this close* to becoming a full-blown alcoholic.
I’m not sure what my catalyst to stop drinking was, but by the time I actually turned 21 and could legally purchase alcohol, my interest in beer and various liquors was already on the wane. I recall my first semester in college, and finishing off an entire 12 pack of Dutch brew while playing “Guitar Hero 2.” It wasn’t even 4 pm before I was completely out of cans; ever in a lowly state, I found myself not only drunk dialing exes, but drunk dialing my exes' parents, too.
I suppose I always knew that the alcohol ingestion was nothing more than a cover-up mechanism to mask the pain I felt from having a lack of social acquaintances, but sometimes, it takes a copy of “NBA Street Homecourt” and a $6.99 bottle of tequila to truly grasp your failings as an individual. I just strolled into U.S. History one morning with a hangover, stared at the chalkboard, and said to myself, “you know, there’s got to be a better way than this.” And that was the last time I touched an alcoholic drink for well over a year.
I fell off the wagon, so to speak, about a year later, when I started working at this one place where EVERYBODY was a problem drinker. And then, I started dating this girl who I knew was a full-blown alkie, but since I was on the rebound, I just didn’t give a shit. Going through a particularly heinous depressive period, I started hitting the bottle again, which was quite possibly the stupidest thing a nearly-suicidal human being could do. A near-DUI and a near exit from the mortal coil later, I still hadn’t learned my lesson quite yet.
I think the main problem with alcohol dependency is that, so many times, you never actually pay for your misdeeds. Of all the times I drove while drunk, not once did I get pulled over. Of all the times I got hammered at the local sports bar, not once did I get into a fight, or make out with the wrong girl, or barf in front of the barmaid I kinda’ had a crush on. Really, any negative consequence of the like probably would’ve had me rethinking my ways a lot earlier, but since nothing truly negative stemmed from my drinking escapades, why bother? Besides, I was out, having fun, with other people now. If you’re looking for the world’s most dangerous equation, here it is: “lots of alcohol” plus “the illusion of socialization” minus “punishments for excessive drinking and being a total dick while inebriated.”
Over the last five years, though, I haven’t had a sip of alcohol. I never really decided that there would be a certain point when I “stopped” drinking, it just kind of happened. If there was ever a “catalyst” event, so to speak, it would probably be hitting up the Athens, Ga. club scene for an entire weekend, and not once feeling the want for an alcoholic drink. I was able to go into social situations and NOT feel the need for alcohol to be “normal,” or “enjoy myself.” Sure, I could probably have one or two drinks now and not worry about anything, but that’s the thing -- I don’t want beer or liquor at all anymore. I don’t need the buzz, I don’t need the lightness, and I certainly don’t need that really, really hard piss first thing in the morning anymore. I realized -- long, long, LONG before most alcoholics do -- that all alcohol is is a prop, this fraudulent armor that doesn’t protect you at all. I found myself becoming comfortable with my own existing, and me being exactly who I am as a person. And -- coincidentally or not -- that was around the same time that I no longer felt like drinking.
As a dude that is somehow on the verge of turning 30, I get so disheartened when I look at all of these kids in their 20s -- and especially all of the people older than I am -- that are still doing the same shit I used to. They’re out, getting hammered, multiple times a week, thinking they’re having a good time when all they are really doing is running away from themselves. The fog of a three-beer buzz simply masquerades one’s longings for self-acceptance, which in and of itself, is hardly a social issue at all. Perhaps the allure of being among others who fear their own internalized self is some sort of mass psychosis -- or, it would be, if it wasn’t something that’s been beaten into our brains as “cool” and “hip” and “normal” since we were old enough to watch a James Bond movie or “Dawson’s Creek.” Show me a drinker, or a hard-partier, or someone who embraces alcohol use as a major lifestyle component, and I’ll show you a person who is utterly terrified of what lurks within their own souls.
It is amazing to me what some people will do to avoid addressing their own unhappiness with who they are as individuals. If that means getting meningitis from a keg stand, or going into a near-comatose state at a frat party while encircled by ravenous opportunists, or turning your liver into hepatitis-flavored beef jerky, or even tempting the very auger of death itself, so be it. Nothing, nothing we are told, as is awful as turning the camera around on ourselves, and exploring our own infernal failings, sufferings and worries as lone human beings. That little number right there more or less explains why alcohol is a $400 billion a year industry, and perhaps why we’re so quick to turn a blind eye to all of its beyond obvious social consequences.
If you’re looking for a boiler plate statement on why I reject any and all alcoholic substances, it’s pretty simple: I don’t need something to help me forget who I am. At heart, that’s pretty much the raison detre for all forms of substance use and abuse, and in case you forgot it, alcohol is far and away the nation’s favorite method of self-shunning.
Now, do I automatically look down upon people that are alcoholics, problem drinkers or even casual consumers because of this? No, and indeed, I believe far, far more could be done to help out the 30 percent plus of the U.S. population as a whole that does experience problem drinking episodes. The thing is, we live in a cultural vacuum where the idea of getting shit faced -- that is, chemically altering one’s brain to the point of stultification for simple amusement -- is at worst, celebrated, and at best, typified as normal (albeit periodic) behavior. The mass media consumer culture machine has us believing that alcohol is some sort of good times juice, and as such, oh so many of us fall into excess…not for amusement, of course, but to simply avoid facing ourselves and our own internalized foibles and faults.
At the end of the day, I just decided that I didn’t need alcohol to enjoy myself. And then, over time, I realized that I didn’t want to get drunk, or even buzzed.
That, more than anything, is why I don’t drink: I really don’t have a reason to avoid myself anymore.