January 23, 2020

Drunken Nation

By Isiah Smith | Feb. 16, 2019

“First you take a drink, then the drink takes a drink, then the drink takes you.” ― F. Scott Fitzgerald 
Life told in anecdotes:

You enter a dark cave, shadows dance upon the wall, twisted dark figures pass around brown paper bags containing ethanol. Slowly, reluctantly, you join them.

Alcohol is the only dangerous drug that, once refused, raises questions, concerns, and disbelief.  “You’re not drinking — why?” “Is there something wrong with you?” “Are you on a health kick?”  “To stop drinking, you must have really had  problems! How much were you drinking, anyway?”
No one asks why you’re not shooting up heroin, ingesting cocaine, abusing opiates, or popping prescription drugs.  And if you were, most people would prefer that you kept it to yourself. Nobody asks, “What’s your favorite narcotic? I want to make sure we serve your favorite dope at dinner tonight. Do you use red or white needles?”

Drinking alcohol is not only accepted, it’s expected.

You still remember that first time you drank to excess (oh, drop the euphemism; you got drunk).  You had turned 19, and to celebrate, your Aunt Erma and her sister Fronny took you to a club in Fort Lauderdale, Florida. You think nothing of it when she orders you a Johnny Walker Red over ice. The first sip of the amber liquid tasted exactly like what it was: poison.
But you persevered and quickly lost count of the number of drinks you consumed. The demon brew had never before touched your teenage virginal lips; but now, on that fateful first journey down the rabbit hole, you drank as if to make up for your 19 years of sobriety. The world turns dark; you lose all conscious feeling. The next day your memory is a black hole from which nothing, not even light, can escape. Jackhammers obliterate your brain, your stomach turns counter-clockwise, and nothing is as it was before you voluntarily introduced poison into your 19-year-old body.

You learn, as Leslie Jamison recounts learning in her drinking memoir, “The Recovering,” that you can lose a night entirely. It was a revelation that failed to reveal any hidden truths. In your callow youth, flushed with newly discovered powers and not a bit worried about one’s mortality, you discover the myth of infallibility and the belief that everything and anything is possible.
Turns out that you were neither infallible nor very powerful. In the South Florida that existed back then, turning down any substance, legal or otherwise, that altered one’s consciousness was considered rude, and your grandparents had raised you to be polite.

The men in your family were marathon drinkers who worked assiduously to lower their times. By the time most of them reached the age you are now, they had been dead 5 to 10 years. You used to think that you had been born without the longevity gene. Then you remembered that your grandfather’s sister, Aunt Lillie Mae, had lived to be 100 years old. She had been unique in your family, sui generis, in that she never drank nor smoked. Hmmm. Your old granddaddy, too, had ended his bondage to the bottle when he turned 45; approaching 85, he was still very much alive.

What were you missing here?

You will learn that the pain alcohol creates vastly exceeds the pain it erases.

The Buddha, Siddhartha Gautama Shakyamuni, said, “When the student is ready, the teacher will appear.” Sometimes the teacher comes disguised as a diversion. Such was the case when a copy of “The Naked Mind,” authored by Annie Grace, fell into your sweaty palms.

Grace provides such a trenchant analysis of the dangers inherent in consuming legalized poisons that your blood runs cold. The analysis is so disturbing it makes you want to drink even more than you drank before you climbed out of the bottle.  Read and cringe: “Drinking alcohol increases the risk of cancer, whether you drink it all in one go or a little bit at a time.” Moreover, Grace points out, alcohol contains ethanol, the same substance you put in your car. Are you a car? And where is your carburetor located?  

From “The Naked Mind” you reluctantly conclude that the safest amount of alcohol is no alcohol!
And what does it do to your ability to produce and excel?  That question is best answered by bastardized words from Oscar Brown’s Tone Poem, “A Ladies Man”: “You look back on the life you have led, what great ideas might have filled your head, if you had not drank so much instead?  But time has not completely fled.”

Because finally, after too much time, and too many brown bags full of ethanol, fear, and painful trauma, you move toward the exit of the dark cave in which you’ve spent too many lost weekends, too many dark nights. Shadowy hands reach out, clutch your arms; claws dig into your muscles and sinew. The pain is immense, but you pass from the darkness into the light.  You take deep breaths, savor the fresh air you have spent too long avoiding. Luminous rays of sunlight dance upon your face. Free at last, free at last!

Isiah Smith Jr. is a former newspaper columnist for the Miami Times. He worked as a psychotherapist before attending the University of Miami Law School, where he also received a master’s degree in psychology. In December 2013, he retired from the Department of Energy’s Office of General Counsel, where he served as a deputy assistant general counsel for administrative litigation and information law. Isiah lives in Traverse City with his wife, Marlene.


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