What if we’re ALL alcoholics?

CALLED TO THE BAR–Some of us are FAR too enamoured with our own sense of good taste. (Daniel Gawthrop photo)


Dear Alcohol,

We need to talk. With the holiday season now in full swing, you and I have been seeing more of each other lately—but I feel our relationship needs re-examining. You see, now that marijuana is legal in Canada, I can’t help noting how easy a ride you’ve been getting in the court of public opinion compared to other mood-altering substances, including cannabis. Since the end of prohibition, really, society has found no end of ways to make you seem sexy and sophisticated. And all that marketing spin has worked: despite voluminous evidence of your inherent dangers (or, some would argue, because of it), you are now a multi-hundred-billion dollar industry. As mainstream as it gets.

I find it odd that people still worry about legalized weed—how all those stoners and potheads will take over our neighbourhoods, loosen our morals, corrupt our children—while you’ve been getting away with murder all along. Yes, we know how you wreak havoc in social settings, destroy relationships and ruin personal health; how you lower productivity and increase absenteeism at work; and how you alter behaviour to such an extent that even well-mannered fellows (including future U.S. Supreme Court justices) become maniacal rapists under your influence. But apart from drunk driving, where there is consensus on the unacceptable, popular culture seems to have let you off the hook: we make excuses for, if not give a free pass to, some of your more insidious ways. As Frank Sinatra famously put it: alcohol may be man’s worst enemy, but the Bible says love your enemy.

The fact is, you are sexy. You can be sophisticated. Like many people, I am all too easily seduced by your charms. And, like a smaller but still significant number, I have to remind myself now and then not to get too carried away with you. So far, I have managed to avoid the chronic addiction that plagued my grandfather and other family members. But the fact I even feel a need to contemplate “risk factors” for beverage dependency has got me thinking: why, dear Alcohol, is marijuana such a big deal when everyone knows that you are the much greater menace?

All of which brings me to that tipsy old elephant in the room: alcoholism—or, as today’s health professionals prefer, alcohol use disorder. Many people who are not diagnosed as chemically dependent still have drinking habits that could be described as “compulsive” and that can, now and then, have negative impacts on other people’s lives as well as their own. In other words: behaviour we would normally associate with alcohol use disorder. So if the average citizen who smokes recreational marijuana can be regarded as a “pothead” simply for enjoying a little wake-and-bake with his morning rituals (or “druggie” merely for growing her own herbal remedy in the back-yard garden), then why should recreational drinking be exempt from similar critiques? Why should the casual tippler be spared the moralizing innuendo so often heaped on the casual toker just for lighting up?

A little more self-reflection—a little less hypocrisy—is in order for those of us who enjoy our liquids. For who among us has not shaken our head in dismay at the sad drunk for having an addiction that requires intervention while smugly patting ourself on the back for being able to, you know, “handle” our drinks? If chemical dependency is a variable concept—something that exists on a continuum rather than a single point at the end of a scale—then it follows that all habitual drinkers are, to some degree, alcoholics. Taking account of risk factors, I have come up with a handy, zero-to-five scale that categorizes each of us:

0—“Zeroes” either don’t drink at all or enjoy a single glass on special occasions: champagne at New Year’s, wedding toasts, the obligatory shot of hard stuff after closing a deal, that sort of thing. These folks are so low on the alcoholism scale that their risk factors are negligible. “Zeroes” are to be congratulated—and somewhat revered—for they belong to that mysterious category of human beings who manage to get through life completely impervious to your seductive appeal.

1—“Ones” are people who occasionally join friends or colleagues at the pub after work, or enjoy a drink or two on the weekend. These folks imbibe on a more regular basis than “zeroes,” but it’s still only moderate sipping. Their preferences are limited—beer, wine, perhaps one of the spirits—and they never get drunk. “Ones” nurse their drinks and observe the medically recommended maximum per week.

2—“Twos,” arguably the largest proportion of the drinking population, are weekend partiers who enjoy the occasional weeknight “happy hour” or wine with dinner. Some attend wine festivals, their knowledge as amateur sommeliers a harmless point of pride, while others enjoy a wide range of spirits. “Twos” exemplify the Oscar Wilde maxim: “There can be nothing more frequent than an occasional drink.” But they are also highly functioning: at some point in their drinking lives, the “two” discovers that all-important behavioural check known as the “off switch”: the moment when they know it’s time to stop drinking, especially if driving’s involved.

3—“Threes” still have an off switch—but it’s several drinks after a “two”’s. For the “three,” everything is a special occasion: finishing a project, winning a sports wager, seeing off the in-laws after too long a visit. How could one not celebrate with a glass (or five)? “Three”s get drunk now and then, and when they do they can be loud, argumentative, or inappropriately affectionate. Perhaps aware that they need to dial it down, they tend to congratulate themselves for spending two weeks on the wagon (as if that’s an accomplishment), fudge the truth when their doctor asks how many drinks they have in the average week, or say things like: “I’m not an alcoholic—I only drink beer and wine.” Yes, when it comes to you, dear Alcohol, “threes” are on a gin-soaked cruise down That River in Egypt.

4—“Fours” are people who no longer have an off switch and whose drinking has become the topic of others’ conversation. This is Bette Davis territory (“There comes a time in every woman’s life when the only thing that helps is a glass of champagne.”). “Fours” guzzle to excess and their behaviour when drunk can have consequences for their personal relationships. It begins with their partners scolding them for visiting the liquor store but forgetting to buy the groceries—or with their employers taking note of their liquid lunches. When a “two” says “I need a drink,” it usually means “want.” But when a “four” says it, the intention is literal. Intervention is a good idea for this level of juicer, because the slope from “four” to “five” is a slippery one, indeed.

5—“Fives” are people who surrender all control of life to the bottle or have to stop drinking to avoid that possibility (which explains why there’s no number on the scale after this one). “Fives” can drink any time—morning, noon or night—and often do, stashing bottles and consuming quarts per day. This is the Tom Waits category (“I don’t have a drinking problem—’cept when I can’t get a drink.”). Lying to friends, loved ones, colleagues, and—most of all—themselves about their addiction, some crash and burn: they lose their families, careers and homes because of all the wreckage left in their wake. “Fives” include everyone from A.A. members to alcoholics who resist the Christian dogmatism of “Twelve Steps” but want to quit, dissolute debauchees and hedonistic dipsomaniacs who have no intention of quitting but are on a Keith Moon-like joyride to the abyss, and functioning inebriates who somehow manage to keep it all together until their livers give out. Other “fives” haven’t touched a drop in decades—because they know they’re “fives.”

Where do I place myself on this truth-telling scale? I’m a 2.5: not quite enough of an alcoholic to qualify as a solid “three,” but somewhat more of an alcoholic than a “two.” My pledge, as I move further through middle age and stare down my senior years, is never to slip into the bottom half of the scale.

I mean, I love you and all that, but—you know—boundaries, right?

Happy Holidays (but not too happy!),


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