Why Do We Resist Treating Alcohol Like Poison?

Lisa Martens


Photo by Timur Romanov on Unsplash

I used to drink every single day. When I sold sunglasses and worked on commission, alcohol was my best friend. I could pick out the best shades for anyone, and I was excited to do it. Without alcohol, I felt dull...counting down the day, never hitting my commission.

My boss noticed, and provided free wine. The wine was technically for the guests, but he encouraged his sellers to drink. It was just good business. It made us fun!

I had a realization when I met an older performer who was an alcoholic. "Don't get used to drinking before you have to go on stage," she told me. "Then, the more successful you become, the more you need the alcohol."

She told me that she thought she could have been more successful if it weren't for the alcohol. Sure, it had made performing easier at first, but when she was expected to perform every day, it took its toll. She couldn't keep up. She couldn't both drink frequently and perform frequently. At the end of the day, the performances dried up, but the alcohol problem remained.

I realized then that I had to put in the extra effort to be fun, to be enthusiastic, without alcohol. But why don't we treat alcohol as the scary poison that it is, for body and soul?

The latest dietary guidelines sidestep the issue of alcohol. Throughout the pandemic, many people have turned to alcohol as a way to cope with stress and anxiety, and yet the prevailing, common societal "wisdom" is that moderate alcohol use is fine, even healthy.

1/3 people increased their alcohol consumption during lockdown. Alcohol consumption, even in moderation, can be detrimental to one's health. An increased risk of cancer has been tied to alcohol consumption.

So why do we resist treating alcohol like poison? Why is it so normalized?

1. Alcohol as identity

For me, quitting alcohol was difficult because I thought it meant I was no longer "young" or "fun." My favorite drinks seemed, to me, like a part of my personality. Young, cool people could drink every day. They can "hang." If you cannot drink a lot, and often, then you're somehow weak and old.

When I decided to drink less, I noticed how much more time I had...time I could spend doing something else. Writing, dancing, communicating with loved ones, budgeting.

Over time, I came to wonder why I spent so much time drinking and recovering from alcohol. It made no sense...and it was a huge waste of time.

I no longer considered myself "uncool" for drinking less, but I still see other people resisting abstinence from alcohol for this reason.

Drinking every day and managing to work doesn't somehow make anyone stronger. It just makes you weaker overall, because you have to work against your dulled senses, and because you're relying on a crutch for joy.

2. An idea of self-control

For some reason, there's a certain pride in "self-control" when it comes to drinking. I can drink, because I have control.

So if someone says they do not drink at all, we assume it's because they "lost control" or became "a drunk." We judge people who say they do not drink. We think it must mean there is something wrong with them.

As such, because I didn't want people to think that of me...that I had "lost control"...I resisted my inner voice's call to sobriety. I told myself that it was okay to drink, because it wasn't "that bad." I didn't do anything rash, I had never been in jail for something I did while drunk, and I still had a good job.

That meant I could drink every day. Right?

However, this is a weird sort of cage that we don't really put anyone else into for any other drug. No one claims it's normal to do a certain amount of cocaine or heroin every day, and if you can't without getting addicted, something is morally wrong with you. We see those drugs as dangerous, probably not lethal in small amounts, but overall, not worth dabbling in. And we certainly don't judge anyone too harshly for refusing to partake...in fact, we might consider that a wiser choice.

With alcohol, though, we expect people to be able to consume it, even though it's a habit-forming substance, and still keep their regular lives, jobs, and friends. We expect people to thrive while consuming this drug, and if they cannot, then they are morally deficient somehow.

3. Pop science tells us it's good for us

How often have we heard that drinking is good for us? How many of us have really researched this before shrugging and pouring ourselves a glass of wine?

The fact is, we are healthier when we abstain from alcohol entirely. But pop science and a kind of homespung wisdom ("My uncle drank a bottle of whiskey a week and lived until 100") prevail in our minds and tell us that alcohol is somehow "good" for us.

It is possible to drink for your entire life and still live a long time. However, length of life is not necessarily quality of life. Alcohol can aggravate conditions such as diabetes, leading to complications.

One can live a long time while drinking, but that does not necessarily mean that one should. Over time, the cumulative effects of alcohol can have a far more negative toll than a positive one.

4. Acknowledging we may have done damage to ourselves already

I knew someone who had diabetes who lost a leg due to complications that were likely caused by his excessive drinking. Still, he did not stop drinking...his logic being that he had already lost the leg, so why stop now?

It can be very painful to realize we have done damage to our bodies. We may even think "the damage is done, and it is not reversible, so what is the point in stopping now?"

There's a kind of "pedal to the medal" level of devotion to alcohol at times...that is irrational, but motivational nonetheless.

However, our bodies are amazing, and have a great capacity to heal. Just because we have done damage does not mean we are helpless to try to repair it, or to prevent further damage down the line.

5. Changing how we socialize with family and friends

A difficult part of drinking less is changing how we socialize with family and friends. As something that is culturally engrained, and since alcohol can be a part of one's identity, it can be hard to suddenly change into the "boring" and "sober" one. Old friends might pressure you..."Come on, be fun like you used to be!" and you might have to change jobs...I could no longer drunkenly sell sunglasses when I realized the worth of sobriety.

Actively lowering your alcohol intake might mean difficult conversations. It might even mean making new friends, or realizing your current relationships aren't as great and supportive as you thought they were. It can be painful to see people pressuring you into drinking less...and it can be difficult when they are people you love and care for.

Treating alcohol like poison is a lifestyle change.

We resist it because it's a drastic change. It means realizing the liquids in cool-looking bottles do not release magical powers...they hinder the ones you already have. It means that these are not health-inducing elixirs, but, rather, the poison in the vial of the evil queen.

Against medical advice and science, alcohol continues to be seen as a harmless addition to life. But what does it really add?

More importantly: What does it take away?

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