Obvious pleasures aside, I suspect one of the darker reasons we love alcohol so much in this country is because the loss we take from it is far too great to suffer otherwise. It must be love, or else it can’t be justified.
Alcohol is responsible for 88,000 deaths and 2.5 million years of potential life lost, per year, in America alone.
Heroin, meth, fentanyl, and pain pills get most of the bad press these days, but when it comes to putting up raw numbers, alcohol is more insidious, more thorough and far more efficient. I use the words efficient and thorough because alcohol quietly kills more people every year in this country than heroin, pain pills, cocaine, methamphetamine, fentanyl, and methadone combined, and nearly three times as many as gun violence.* I use the word insidious because alcohol is also the only other drug (besides benzodiazepines, such as Xanax or Klonapin) that can kill you in withdrawals.
Meanwhile, our understanding of addiction – our pathetic incomprehension, our tribal fear, our hideous absence of compassion – continues to limp along, our chances amputated before they are grown, our hearts rendered phantom before they are full.
What inversion of a miracle has taken place inside this century of suffering so poorly understood?
We shake our heads, hold hands, grieve our dead. Keep watch, keep safe. Promise to keep this last word.
But there’s something else we keep. I can’t seem to find the name for it.
Certainly we keep heartbreak, misery and death in glass bottles and aluminum cans.
And yes, we stack heartbreak in boxes, and we stack those boxes up in glittering displays, and then we line the interstate with windows that reflect the lights so brightly as to make excruciating heartbreak, from some quiet night-time driving distance, look benign.
We pack it into gas stations and pharmacies and grocery stores, where the dying are forced to resist it day after day while they try to just get from the bread to the dish soap without seeing it, or from the office to the bed without seeing it, or from anywhere to anywhere else without seeing it.
While they try to get from the hell they are in to some kind of peace or relief that is always just another relapse out of reach, trying to understand: the magic trick of who they might have been if they had never touched it. Or the hope of what they might someday have, if they could just stop needing it. Trying to hold in their mind all of the savagery and humiliation of what they have become, the shame of all that has already been endured and must someday be done forever. Or else.
Even while the dread and the anguish of it is blaring full-blast like a siren behind their eyes, the dying sometimes pause their grocery carts in front of six-foot tall cardboard displays for Budweiser beer in limited edition Superbowl XXVIII holographic cans. Even the dying stare in awe at such colors and symbols, lights and signs, marveling at how the opposites we cannot see now seem not only reconciled but erased by something true, some shelter, some new desire it must surely be safe to entertain.
Let’s note how the things that hurt us always seem to come in the form of some new and greater revelation, some false new beginning that will surely be the right one, this time – because as we are dying we feel so robbed of time that we can’t imagine time could ever be a gift.
Let’s note down in our books beside our beds the date and time of starting over again, while we try to just stay sober from nine-thirty at night to nine-thirty-one at night without giving in to it, while we try to wade through a world that is drowning in it, knowing that we cannot let the surface of the river hit our skin, but unable to stop swimming in it.
Instead of learning to survive pain by loving, or learning to survive the pain of loving by embracing pain itself as proof that we survive – we kill the pain for killing’s sake until the only thing we’ve ever had a chance to love, kills us.
In this one way do we keep our word, and in keeping, commit our own involuntary suicide.
*Sources: NIDA (National Institute on Drug Abuse), as of 2016. 34,000 gun-related deaths; 64,000 total drug-related deaths; 88,000 alcohol-related deaths.
ADDICTION AND ALCOHOLISM RECOVERY RESOURCES:
Alcoholics Anonymous (Austin-specific): https://austinaa.org/
Phoenix House of Austin: https://www.phoenixhouse.org/
Austin Recovery Center: https://www.austinrecovery.org/
A comprehensive guide to all alcohol and drug treatment centers in Austin: https://www.recovery.org/browse/austin-tx/