Thursday, October 13, 2011

What makes drunks act the way they do?

Elizabeth Zelvin

As in life, there is a lot of heavy drinking in mystery fiction, so much that readers as well as agents and editors sometimes claim they don’t want to hear about one more alcoholic cop or private eye. They may even complain that they’ve seen too many recovering alcoholic characters, despite the limited number of protagonists with plausible sobriety. (I’d like to call a halt to the endless parade of serial killers and violent psychopathic sidekicks with hearts of gold, but that’s another story.) Nowadays, there’s a lot less excuse for ignorance or misinformation about alcoholism than there was when I became an alcoholism treatment professional more than twenty-five years ago. Yet I still hear the same old questions—about drunks in real life—from people who still don’t get it, even if they think they do.

Don’t they know how inconsiderate they’re being?
Don’t they realize how inappropriate their behavior is?
How can they think that being drunk is cute?

I’ve heard all these questions or variants many times, and they’re the wrong questions. Alcoholism is an addiction, a compulsive disorder that defies common sense and self-preservation and sends the alcoholic on an increasingly self-absorbed journey in which everything but gratifying the craving for alcohol and the desire to blot out pain, discomfort, and awareness is blotted out. Consideration is irrelevant to addiction, so don’t expect it when you get between a drunk and his or her drink, a smoker and his or her cigarettes, or a compulsive eater and his or her pint of ice cream.

Appropriate behavior is a matter of knowing what society or other people expect and having both the will and the self-control to apply this knowledge. What does appropriateness have to do with addiction? Nothing. What other people expect? Who cares? A desire to behave in socially acceptable ways? Such desires come from awareness of how others see us and the capacity to control our behavior. On the level of brain chemistry, judgment and inhibitions are among the first faculties to go when humans, not only alcoholics, start drinking. As for embarrassment, shame, and guilt, all of those get blotted out too. And don’t forget that once alcoholics start drinking, they can’t control either the amount consumed or the behavior, whether it’s dancing with a lampshade on their head, assaulting their loved ones, or driving down the wrong side of the road. The damage they can do is immeasurable, and if they want to avoid remorse, guilt, and shame, they’ve got to keep on drinking.

The hallmark symptom of alcoholism is denial, which consists of rationalization, minimization, and outright lying to oneself and others. Alcoholics don’t drink because it’s cute—though a host of enablers may perceive them as funny and charming. The alcoholics themselves may fear that not only their charm but any ability they have to please and relate to others will vanish if they stop drinking. This belief isn’t necessarily on a conscious level, and it can’t be reasoned with. But never doubt that there is shame and terror underneath the bravado and grandiosity of alcoholics. We know this thanks to the courage and honesty of recovering alcoholics, who tell us all about it when they stop drinking.


Julia Buckley said...

A very interesting post. It's always shocking to me, when people have a wedding reception without alcohol, for examples, how many guests are angry or even refuse to attend. As if the event is about the booze and not the couple.

And I see that same attitude in many other contexts.

Elizabeth Zelvin said...

Julia, people who can't function without alcohol are the ones who have a problem.

JJM said...

Definitely an interesting post, but it left me with a few questions all the same. You say: "Nowadays, there's a lot less excuse for ignorance or misinformation about alcoholism than there was when I became an alcoholism treatment professional more than twenty-five years ago." I infer you mean: Nowadays, people have the internet. What, then, on the 'net, would you consider a reliable source? --Mario