Many of you know that I rarely drink, and never in large groups. I’ve been a non-drinker for more than thirty years, so I hardly think about it any more. I spend a huge amount of time at bars—it’s part of life in the writing and publishing world—but no one has ever blinked at my request for a cranberry juice and soda.
But I was not always this way. When I was a kid, the drinking age was eighteen and bartenders didn’t care if you were fifteen as long as you had some kind of vaguely passable fake ID that they could say they’d looked at. I graduated from high school an A student and a blackout drunk. And I wasn’t the only one. My friends—both male and female—had been drinking as long and as hard as I had.
Some people seem to believe that alcohol fundamentally changes your personality. It doesn’t. I was depressed before I started drinking and I was depressed while I was drinking. I was paranoid before I started drinking and while I was drinking. I was ashamed of my body before I went to parties and I continued to be ashamed of my body while I was at those parties downing tequila. I wasn’t going to be the girl who pulled off her top at a party because I wasn’t the kind of girl who repressed a desire to to do so until alcohol loosened her inhibitions.
Which is what alcohol does. It releases the constraints of the super-ego. The things that are embarrassing, the things you long to say and do but never would for fear of consequences, those are things you do when you are under the influence. In vino veritas, as they say. Your tongue runs away with you, spilling the things you’ve held in for fear of being judged. Secretly a bigot? Yeah, that will pop right out. But if you’re not a bigot, alcohol won’t suddenly force you to make racist remarks. If you’re the kind of person who wishes she could dance on a table but is afraid to do so because people might make fun of you, you’re going to dance on the table. If you hate the very idea of being the center of attention, you’re not going to dance on the table no matter how much you drink.
Alcohol doesn’t stop you from understanding the difference between right and wrong. I promise you, it doesn’t. “Why do people drink and drive, then,” you ask, because surely they know that’s wrong? They do. They just don’t realize, when drunk, that they’re drunk. If you stop them and say “is drunk driving wrong,” they’ll still say yes. But they’ll also say “I haven’t drunk enough to affect my reflexes.” That’s an error in judgment based on alcohol. Because, yes, alcohol damages your judgment, but it doesn’t change your basic desires or personality.
For two years of college, I maintained a 4.0 GPA at a competitive university while drinking myself into a stupor two, sometimes three times a week. How is such a thing possible? Because getting good grades, succeeding academically, was so ingrained as a priority in my life that I would do nothing to endanger it. And that’s despite five years of drinking heavily. In those five years I screwed up a lot, but never academically and never in a way that made me the center of attention. I would have continued drinking forever, more than likely, but I had my first seizure at twenty and the first thing the doctors told me was no more alcohol. If you have enough alcohol to cause a hangover, you have enough to cause a seizure. Since I had no control over how much I drank (I might have one drink, I might have six), I went completely dry for about ten or fifteen years before allowing myself the occasional drink and only in places where, if I did have six (like at home, or on vacation with my husband while we were somewhere we didn’t have to drive), it wouldn’t matter.
So when I hear someone say that they were drunk, and that caused them to commit a horrible crime, it infuriates me. If your hold on not being a violent criminal is so tentative that alcohol can make it slip, there’s something fundamentally wrong with you that needs to be addressed. Some fundamental disrespect for not only everyone around you, but also for yourself. People with self-respect don’t desire to take whatever they can get however they can get it. That’s arrogance, not self-respect. It’s an attitude that says “I should get whatever I want,” and that attitude is dangerous. It makes you dangerous, and not only when you drink.
I have known women who have said to me in all seriousness that their partners only hit them when they’re drunk. That’s not the alcohol causing violence. It means that those guys are violent to start with. In fact, most of the time, “only when drunk” isn’t even accurate—the abusive behavior continue even during sobriety. I have a friend who was married to a man like this for years. First he was a drunk. Then he was a dry drunk, and the physical abuse stopped but the emotional abuse continued. Only after the underlying cause was treated with years of therapy did he become a decent person. Because the abusers don’t see anything wrong with emotional abuse, but the outright violence is something that might get them caught, something that they have to admit to, that they know society disapproves of, and that the super-ego prevents until alcohol disables it.
Alcohol causes a lot of problems, it’s true. Health issues, property damage, drunk driving deaths…and with the rise of social media, the potential of ruining entire futures because of the photographs and videos taken in embarrassing situations being posted to the Internet, which is forever. And alcohol abuse on college campuses needs to be addressed. But alcohol doesn’t cause rape. It doesn’t cause violence.
And it’s time to stop pretending that it does.