Last week on Monday night, a new HBO documentary debuted entitled “Risky Drinking.” I was excited to watch because HBO has put out some great documentaries over the years and I was interested to see what this one would say about addiction and recovery. The documentary follows four different people and shows how they drink and they talk about how drinking is problematic in their lives. The first thing I noticed was that all 4 of the people followed in the film are white, middle-class drinkers. Studies over the years have consistently shown that Caucasians consume more alcohol than any other ethnic group.
Kenzie, Mike, Noel, and Neil are all problem drinkers, but they fall into different areas of the addiction spectrum. Throughout the documentary, you hear from medical professionals and researchers commenting on types of drinking, frequency, health consequences and other effects of addiction. I was glad to see that they hammered home the idea that people fall on a spectrum of risk when it comes to drinking and they often cycle in and out. I think we are often given the “addiction is a disease and it deserves treatment” line as a type of black and white situation when it’s not always black and white. I do believe the science that addiction is a disease (plus science is true even if we choose not to believe it, right?), however, I think the traditional view of addiction is somewhat limiting. It often puts people into two boxes, alcoholic or non-alcoholic, and the truth is that there are many more boxes along the addiction spectrum.
Kenzie is a young professional in her late 20’s who lives in Denver and describes herself as someone who “works hard and plays hard.” She binge drinks on most weekends and holidays. The footage of her nights out count the amount of drinks she consumes and on some days she pushes 15 drinks in a night. You can see her demeanor change from social party girl to a blacked out woman with unintelligible words coming out of her mouth. They show footage from the day after one of her nights out where she says she doesn’t remember much of the previous night and her hangover is so severe she needs to partake in “hair of the dog” or drinking alcohol in the morning to lessen the effects of the hangover. Kenzie believes she only drinks 3 or 4 drinks a night using alcohol to unwind, but her relationship with alcohol goes deeper than that and causes her to argue with friends and cry in emotional outbursts. Her friend is quoted saying, “We haven’t gotten killed or raped yet!” when speaking about their drinking habits. Kenzie’s drinking looked a lot like my own drinking patterns and those of many young women.
Next we meet Mike, a 40-something drinker, and former radio producer trying to start a business on the Virgin Islands. He’s on a perpetual vacation in the Caribbean and has a rocky marriage and distant relationship with his 15-year-old son. You get to see his son’s spring break visit to the island to see his Dad, a trip filled with a teenager caring for his drinking father. At the end of Mike’s segment, he returns to the U.S. to seek treatment for his alcohol issues and tries to repair his tumultuous marriage.
Rhonda, a mommy blogger with a blog called “Mom who drinks and cusses” has mom happy hour socials where moms come to drink champagne and wine together. This segment wasn’t about Rhonda and her normalization of drinking. It was about having a friend who has an alcohol issue which is a common problem for many women. Rhonda’s friend Noel is a single mom who frequents her alcohol socials and is vocal about not being happy with her life. Her friends notice that her drinking has been out of control. Noel breaks down in one interview portion of the film where she eludes to having suicidal thoughts. At the end of her segment, she discloses to her mommy group that she wants to get help with her alcohol issues. They mention moderation management as an option, a program that doesn’t require total abstinence.
The last person we meet in Risky Drinking is Neal, an older man with end stage alcoholism. He has visible withdrawal symptoms – shakes, exhaustion, sickness, and an extremely high BAC level. At times he can barely walk. He is the father of two grown children who are seen at various points caring for him, as well as his current wife who has grown tired of his detrimental drinking. Neal has been through rehabs and detoxes over a dozen times in the last four years. In the documentary you see him detox once more, followed by him sustaining 30 days of sobriety. He then returns to drinking.
Just like HBO’s Heroin documentary from earlier this year, Risky Drinking lacked hope. You never hear about what happened to the 4 people who the documentary highlights. You don’t know if they’ve found recovery, moderation, or if they continue drinking. It’s a frustrating ending. The documentary does what it intended to do – showcases risky drinking among different types of people along the spectrum. It shows us that yes, anyone can have a drinking problem, even if you are a white middle-class young person, an old man, or have a heart of gold and a loving family.
Yes, addiction doesn’t discriminate. We know this, but what we need more of is a message that says “recovery isn’t selective.”