Substance & The Wrong Question

Prohibition Lady Spiking Her Coca-Cola With Bootleg Whiskey Hidden in Cane Flask*

My blog posts often start out as random riffs on some topic percolating in my head. Sometimes I’ll venture pretty far down the rabbit hole before ultimately deciding to nix the idea without posting it.  Maybe its too personal.  Maybe its too much of an incoherent rambling.  Sometimes it’s both.  Anyway, 90% of the following post has sat dormant in my computer… or, actually, in this thing our IT dude calls “The Cloud”… since 2012.  I happened upon it this week, cleaned it up a bit, and posted it. Here we go…

Work with teenagers and families for a living and you can’t help but bump into the issue of alcohol and drug (ab)use.  I am approached often by parents concerned about their children, students concerned about their parents,  one spouse concerned about the other, and so on.  I might not be able to prove it, but my money says that despair beats out happiness when substance mixes with families.

In any case, I have come to one conclusion: Too many folks spend too much time, energy, and anxiety trying to figure out whether or not they are alcoholics (or addicts). 

Much of that wasted time can be linked to another conclusion, one I often tell our seniors at Hyde before they head off to college: “Man is the only animal in the forest who bullshits himself.”  And bullshit can really get in the way of trying to analyze your use of alcohol… especially when you’re trying to make it look like you’re trying to analyze it.

“A Happy Home in Danger from the Bottle”

The problem with the question “Am I an alcoholic?” is the inherent human failure to discount the extent to which you hope that a particular answer will turn out to be true — i.e., No.  So, people tend to pay close attention to the signs that tell them they are not (an alcoholic) while giving short shrift to those signs suggesting that they are.

Therefore, I recommend a different tact.  First, put aside the idea of whether or not you are indeed an alcoholic or a drug addict.  Instead, imagine what your life would be like if you were truly excelling physically, academically, professionally, personally, spiritually, etc.  Recall the biggest dreams you have had for yourself.  What would your life be like if you were living those dreams?

Get the idea?  OK, once you have that vision in your head, ask yourself two questions:

  1. How closely does your life today resemble that ideal version you have just imagined?
    2.  Is alcohol (or drugs) a force that is currently moving you toward or away from that vision?
“Busted” After a Car Crash During Prohibition

I possessed a limitless capacity to BS myself whenever I was looking at my own use of alcohol.  (Actually, “looking” is an overly generous characterization. “Passing glimpse” would be more accurate.)  I remember (and chuckle at) those ubiquitous tests with questions like: Do you ever drink alone?  Do you ever drink before 5:00?  I freely answered “no” or “yes” at will.  For example, in the early 80s, I did a fair amount of drinking in classic Boston establishments such as the Beacon Hill Pub and The Red Hat (RIP) where there were at least 50 other drinkers at any given time.  (So, Hey… Even though I was not interacting with any of them, I was definitely not drinking alone!)  As for the second question… Well, it’s 5:00 o’clock somewhere in the world, right?

So, as I routinely gamed the softballs served up by those self-assessment tests, I also knew fully well that the life I was living was a far cry from the dreams I had as a younger version of myself – and this was despite an Ivy League master’s degree, a wonderful wife, a Beacon Hill apartment, and an enviable job at a nationally respected corporation.  I also knew fully well that alcohol was indeed a force that was moving me away from my personal best.


Hidden Prohibition Stash

When I decided to quit drinking – Not the untold number of false starts, but the time I made a true commitment on May 15, 1985 – I soon realized that I was not going to Lone Ranger this particular ride.  The more I opened my mind and heart, the more wisdom seeped in.  For example, there was the guy who said, “When the drinking starts causing problems you wouldn’t have if you weren’t drinking, then the drinking is a problem.”  That shoe fit.

It also dawned on me that every time I drank I didn’t get in trouble, but every time I was in trouble I had been drinking.

I also discovered the perfect antidote to the aforementioned line about BS – “If you stand for nothing, you’ll fall for anything.”

As much as all that wisdom helped, it was the desire to take another shot at my best self that ultimately motivated me to get the help I needed to put the drink aside… and do so with grace.  Prior to that, all those years I spent trying to determine whether or not I was an alcoholic never proved all that useful to me.  In my professional life, I have not seen it be all that useful to the many students, parents, and colleagues I have encountered who carry any level of angst over the matter.

“The Sins of the Father Are Visited on the Heads of the Children – A Thief and Woman of Shame Visit Their Father in the Criminal Insane Asylum”

So, am I an alcoholic?  My first response causes me to sigh, So little time… So many definitions… My second acknowledges that I am quite certain that I would qualify given any definition one might offer.  However, here’s the main point: Not only have I come to question the question, I have come to believe that the pursuit of the answer might fuel just as many problems as it solves.

Onward, Malcolm Gauld

*Special thanks to the Library of Congress for these awesome photos and posters housed in Public Domain.