Alcoholism and American Culture

Last year, co-worker, who came to work still tipsy from the night before, asked me if I drank. What she was really asking is do you get drunk?

This co-worker frequently came to work after long nights of drinking or dancing or both. She often had a large mug of coffee, and because we performed in a public arena, in front of school children, managed to appear sober and alert. She got her job done. Most evenings, she’d go out drinking with friends again. At times, I wondered what she was using drinking to cope with — but didn’t ask because we were co-workers more than friends. Because it felt invasive to ask. Because I worried she’d consider me uptight.

With a former roommate, I watched a movie (Abduction) in which the opening scenes featured (among other potentially problematic things, like male possession of women) teen drinking — binge drinking. It wasn’t integral to the plot of the movie (it rarely is), and the protagonist never drank again in the film. The protagonist, however, passed out on the lawn as a result of drinking. I could name other shows and movies where drinking is a trope — symbolizing sadness, symbolizing teen rebellion (but is it rebellion if most people do  it and the larger culture generally accepts it?), symbolizing success, symbolizing hard decisions, symbolizing bonding between individuals, symbolizing failure, symbolizing the way to cope with family or the absence of family — but why bother? There are so many examples.

And there are so many examples because drinking — and excessive drinking — has been normalized in American culture. We maybe worry when someone finishes a six-pack of beer in one night if they fit our stereotyped visions of poor or working class. We don’t worry so much when they’re a college freshman. We maybe worry if we see our next door neighbor recycles a half dozen bottles of wine each week, but not about our three beers a night (only slightly less alcohol by volume).

Do I sound incredibly judgmental yet?

Because that’s how I feel when I bring up drinking.

Occasional drinking — binge or otherwise — doesn’t bother me. But I grew up in a family where I suspect alcohol was a problem. A managed problem, but nonetheless a problem. I grew up in a family where from time to time, I’d ask my parents about how much they drank. Overall, they drank nightly. They got upset if I questioned the several glasses of wine or bottles of beer or the mixed drinks. They got upset if I pointed out that if we were tight on money, we could cut back on buying liquor and would tell me some version of “don’t question our decisions.” I learned to stop asking about it. I might have thought it was a problem, but at least it wasn’t a big problem.

When I say big problem, I mean of course, the stereotypes portrayed on TV — abuse, adultery, missed work, drunk driving. These things didn’t happen in my family, at least not in obvious ways. Sometimes their filters broke down in the presence of alcohol. Sometimes they drove even when I thought maybe they’d finished drinking too recently. Mostly, not.

When I went to college, I didn’t drink, even though it seemed everyone around me did. When I was 18, a campus counselor suggested that maybe I should drink — just because that was what people in college did. It would help me make friends, the counselor suggested. And if I really didn’t want to drink, there were other people on campus who also didn’t drink. I just had trouble finding them, the counselor said, because like me they were loners.

Because apparently only loners don’t drink in college.

In college, I watched people blow a grand a month on alcohol and then wire their parents for more money. I watched this in frustration, because I worked during college. I watched this in frustration, because I went to a private school where most of my peers had guaranteed jobs waiting for them when they got out of college, regardless of what they did. I watch this in frustration because I didn’t understand why they’d want to make themselves numb all the time.

I’ve recently started to identify groups with folks who might introduce themselves by preferred gender pronoun, their eating style preference, their sobriety (or not), their subculture (for instance a friend of mine categorized a potential new friend as: “Whitney* goes by she/her, is vegan, sober, and a feminist punk prison abolitionist.”). This is refreshing for me, because it indicates ownership of oneself, and I’ve been thinking about my identity — both what I recognize as my identity and how people perceive me.

Sober is a funny word. It’s used for alcohol, but also for “drugs.” (In quotes because alcohol is also a type of drug and I feel weird making the distinction but don’t have the vocabulary to write that any other way.)

Sobriety is something I claimed for a long time that I can’t currently claim. Sometimes, it feels good to come home when I’ve had a rough day and have a glass of wine. Often though, the thought of a glass of wine makes me more anxious — because I associate it with empty calories (which is a struggle for me) or strongly with the idea of not coping.

My current roommate has talked with me a couple of times about this last bit — how drinking can be another form of coping. Sometimes I agree, because I believe we all need the option of occasional escape. Sometimes I disagree because it seems like we’d all be better off if we’d check in with ourselves and try to work on why we need that escape and change things if we can — take control over our own lives again. To accept the things we cannot change. To allow ourselves to hurt. He’s called me out for being proud of never having been drunk — and I don’t know how to explain to him part of this pride comes from actually trying to manage my shit (even when this hasn’t worked out). I don’t know how to explain that part of this is my way of differentiating myself from my family. I don’t know how to explain to him how often previous partners who have learned I’ve never been drunk have said some variation of “you can get drunk with me. I’ll keep you safe.”

I don’t know how to explain I’ve never felt safer after they’ve said that. How I haven’t trusted them. How the one partner I allowed myself to get pretty tipsy with used the opportunity to try and push me to have sex (they finally relented after I said no to several different things). How a different partner drank to drunkenness to feel comfortable in social situations “This is the way people like me,” my partner explained on several occasions. “They like me when I’m funny and I’m funny when I’m drunk.” The first time this partner and I spent the night together it was because I thought my partner was too drunk to drive home. How this became routine. How I started to fall in love with this person, because they were broken or in spite of it, and how knowing this and recognizing it now makes me sad for both of us. How I still care deeply about that partner and just want them to choose sobriety because not being sober is stultifying their life.

I don’t know how to explain cases like the victim-blaming surrounding Stubenville survivor (or countless other cases — including just what I heard in the hallways of my schools growing up about girls who drank) cause me to have trouble believing that I could really be safe with a partner if I was drunk. How this is something I want to believe, and how drinking with friends at all was a major step for me in trusting other people to respect me and my boundaries, and how I didn’t do this until several years after I turned 21).

For me, it feels extreme to say that American culture is an alcoholic culture. Plenty of cultures, after all, regularly drink and drinking starts at a younger age. But perhaps this is part of it. In plenty of cultures, drinking isn’t something that’s inherently secretive or rebellious. It’s just what you do. In American culture, drinking is still something people (especially people under 21) feel they need to sneak. Drinking is still something taboo (you’re drinking wine at noon, with lunch?? Hm…), rather than something that we accept and can talk about openly. Drinking is still glamourized in TV and movies.

And this is where I get stuck. I worry that people will assume I’m not recognizing the nuances of drinking culture in America if I write or talk about it in a way that isn’t full of praise or glamour. I worry that people won’t actually engage with me if I bring these things up and challenge my ideas or add new ones. I worry that maybe I really am being too judgmental. That I’m classifying a “normal” amount of drinking as abnormal, and as an indication of an alcoholic culture. That I’m taking a stance that prevents “normal” drinking from being a harm-reduction strategy, a coping mechanism, an occasional escape that’s healthy.

I worry too though, that people will continue to allow alcohol to be an excuse for victim-blaming. As a way to keep from working through their problems. That people, and relationships, I care about will be destroyed by drinking.


*Name has been changed.


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