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Does america have a drinking problem?

A few months ago, my husband and I visited the Caribbean and stayed in an all-inclusive resort mecca of sorts, where food and drinks, including unlimited alcoholic beverages, flowed without question or hesitation.

Among us were vacationers drinking throughout breakfast, lunch, and dinner- an entire subculture of patrons who never ventured beyond the hotel, much less the pool bar, during their entire visit. Surrounded by white sand shores, turquoise waters, and the ever-perfect tropical breeze, this was the pinnacle of relaxation and enjoyment. This was the absolute definition of natural indulgence, of beauty in one of its purest states. And, yet, by the number of people inebriated from their colorful, boozy drinks, it was clear that even paradise needed to be enhanced. 

Alcohol is everywhere. Everywhere. It is in business meetings and brunches, restaurant dinners and barbecues, sporting events and children birthday parties, bowling alleys and paint nights and movie theaters and coffee shops and hair salons. It is a curated hobby, in beer pong tournaments and home-brew kits, in wine tasting weekends and Pinterest boards with recipes boasting alcohol-infused popcorn, ice cream, and fruit salads.  Most recently, it was even in the networking event I attended for a prestigious drug and alcohol treatment center. What had been proudly featured on their invitation? Yep, an open bar. In every edge and corner of existence, alcohol remains the social lubricant of modern society. 

Drinking seems so pervasive that avoiding it tends to categorize a person in one of three ways: alcoholic, some kind of prude, or a literal alien.

How many people do you know, outside of those in recovery, who just don’t drink? Without necessarily having a life-or-death reason? I can’t think of many, but the people who do come to mind often suffer incessant questioning, analysis, and even criticism for their decision. 

This speaks to the multidimensional, complicated, long-term relationship society has with alcohol. It plays a feature role in nearly every life stage, from high school students experimenting at parties to bingeing in massive quantities on college campuses to receiving the infamous message, if you remember your twenty-first birthday, you’re doing it wrong. This centerpiece of alcohol progresses into the young adult dating scene, into working professional happy hours, into weddings and vacations and celebrations for essentially any day of any week. Alcohol is in paradise, it is in the dive bar, and it is everywhere in between. Wherever we go, alcohol is sure to follow. 

Not only do we drink, we applaud excessive and dangerous forms of it. Comparing drunken stories and spectacles is entertaining; we laugh while tallying blacked out nights and joke about about the mistakes made when under the influence. We offer hangover remedies and advice, provide lucrative tips for pregaming- we even have the audacity to tease people for being lightweights, for literally having less physical tolerance than their peers. 

But, this is all innocent fun, right? Just the way we unwind and socialize and celebrate, right? But what exists beyond the outskirts of mainstream society, beyond the limits of recreational drinking, beyond just getting drunk and partying hard? Because for the majority of the clients I work with, underneath all that humor and happy-go-lucky play, there is a very obvious message that if you exhibit even a smidgen of dependence, you cross over into the stigmatized threshold of now having a problem and you better control yourself. 

Once crossing this line, you are suddenly irresponsible. You suddenly lack willpower and discipline. You are embarrassing and irritating, and although many people exhibit poor decisions and impulse control when under the influence, you have gone overboard, and that is unacceptable. 

What is gathered is this: drinking and even drinking too much is perfectly acceptable, embraced even, as long as you aren’t an alcoholic. 

There is this murky expectation to somehow exist in an undefined gray area teetering between having control and losing it entirely. This message can be confusing for those who casually drink, but it can be especially disastrous for those in active recovery for alcoholism. Time and time again, clients share how loved ones,  who know they are in treatment for substance dependence, tell them that, if they could just control their drinking, they wouldn’t really have a problem. If they just stuck to beer, they wouldn’t really have a problem. If they just drank on the weekends, they wouldn’t really have a problem. Note that none of my clients with heroin problems are told to just “control their heroin use.” Note that, while illicit, “harder” drugs are often subjected to this no-tolerance policy, society typically garners alcohol with more lenience.  Indeed, we exist within this strange hierarchy of permissible drug use, with alcohol being the most  acceptable- while simultaneously the most deadly- of them all. 

This is not an attack on alcohol or those who drink; rather, it is an exploration of greater modern culture and the messages we portray around alcohol, losing control, and spending our recreational time. After all, what does it say to live in a society when forgetting the night is synonymous with having a great night? What does it say about the person who avoids drinking, for whatever reason, and often faces subtle peer pressure, rationalization from others, an undertone suggesting that one drink isn’t gonna kill you? What does it say about that increasingly fine line between wanting alcohol to provide some kind of relief or relaxation and needing alcohol to provide some kind of relief and relaxation? And, finally what does it say about the most horrifying statistic of them all- that despite the rise of illicit substance use and despite the legal nature of drinking- alcohol continues to cause more deaths than every other drug combined?