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21 January 2006 @ 03:44 pm
Mixed feelings about alcohol  
My earliest experience with alcohol was watching the change that came over my stepfather, Homer Cook, when he drank. He turned from a basically nice guy to a raging asshole after a few beers. We went to taverns with him so I had many opportunities to watch this process and the arguments that resulted from it. I remember when he called my mom a 2-bit-whore. Mercifully my mom divorced him after a few years, but not before he tried to strangle my dog in a fit of rage. He terrified me.

My maternal family was not really into drinking so I didn't have much contact with it until I met my first mother-in-law. She was nearing the end stages of alcoholism, drinking a quart or more of vodka a day. She never quite got my name straight, choosing to call me Terrance instead of Terilyn, my birth name. She was kind of vague and looked run down. After we moved out to L.A. we got a call one day that she had been found dead in her car--liver and kidney failure, age 44.

My first father-in-law was also an alcoholic and regularly drove the van he lived in while drunk and/or high on pot. We rode with him at our peril. I remember one night he was weaving all over the road and I simply prayed. Now I would insist on getting out of the car, though that is also dangerous. He's been drinking for many years with an ulcer--not the safest of practices and in spite of great pain. He's ended up in jail on more than one occasion as well. He can't hold down a job and remains homeless in a van or car, sponging off friends and relatives, moving from place to place as he burns them out. Somehow he is still alive.

I didn't drink alcohol until well into my thirties, approaching it warily. I didn't much like my initial experience, and don't really like going beyond a light buzz, so I normally stop at one drink. I rarely feel like having one and I continue to be wary of ever drinking much. I count myself lucky that I didn't go through the stages of using alcohol when I was a teen and coming to associate it with having fun or being social. I can do both of those things just fine without the crutch. In fact, I feel more social if I don't drink--I hate trying to talk to people when my brain is fuzzy.

I had a close friend who seemed to me to have a problem, but when I talked to her about it she denied it and laughed off my concerns. A few years later she was in treatment for alcohol and cocaine use. I supported her through her recovery and heard a lot about the treatement programs. I remember her saying that they were told that if they couldn't succeed in remaining sober there were three end-results: incarceration, institutionalization, or death.

More recently, in late 2003 my husband evaluated whether his drinking had become a problem. He concluded that it had and stopped drinking. These days it only comes up when we entertain people who do expect to drink, when it's something of a dilemma to provide something for them and yet make sure we don't have anything left over that will sit in the house.

I don't think I'll ever be comfortable around lots of drinking even though I fully understand many people are safe to do so. Yet it's confusing to know when someone has crossed the line from social, nonproblem drinking to problem drinking that may escalate into full blown alcoholism. If someone is drinking frequently or in quantity do they necessarily have a problem? At what point should someone inquire if they are ok? How best to do so? How not to offend if one might be wrong?

Another issue that comes up is how to structure parties so that people don't get in their cars and drive home drunk. This has come up in relation to company parties as well as parties in people's homes. I remember some shocked responses as I put the alcohol away at a certain point in a new year's eve party I hosted. Yet I go to other parties and see people drink right up to the point that they leave in their cars. There is an issue of shared responsibility in my mind. Yes people are responsible for their choices, but their choice is being made when their judgment is impaired. They may be unable to remember how many drinks they had, calculate the rate of metabolization, realize how impaired they actually are, or make a good choice at that moment in time under the influence of alcohol-induced bravado. At this point the host says to them, "You're welcome to stay if you don't want to drive," and all they can think about is the comfort of their own bed. They think they are fine and they leave. This happens with such frequency that I'm amazed that there aren't more accidents. The guardian angels must work overtime.

In fact, my husband's choice to stop drinking was influenced by such an incident when he arrived home unable to construct a coherent sentence, having driven over one of the most dangerous highways in the area, a winding mountain road.

I suggest that any effort to stop such driving should be a joint one between host and guest before any alcohol has been served. Come up with a plan, have a designated driver that doesn't drink, take a cab, arrange to surrender your keys early and stay the night, agree on a cut off time and a departure time that allows for the alcohol to be metabolized, or whatever, but the decision should be made while sober. Almost no one is going to make the right decision when they are drunk.

I'm not against people having fun. I'm just against self-destruction or innocents hit by drunk drivers.