December 8, 2008, 10:00 pm

It’s the Holidays. How About Just One?

had my last drink nearly 16 years ago, so you’d think I would have
assimilated pretty much every bit of unpleasantness associated with
clean and sober life in a society that remains thoroughly sodden with
alcohol. But I still can’t quite handle the holidays.

It’s not that I’m driven to drink; just to a certain uncomfortable
distraction that doesn’t leave until the holiday season thankfully
does. And it’s not just that the holidays seem to have been invented
for the express purpose of promoting — no, necessitating —
irresponsible alcoholic consumption.

There’s something in the alone-in-the-crowdedness of the holiday party
circuit, the forced pleasantries and laughter, the charge to be
friendly and engaging — but only in a trivial and superficial way —
that is very much like the existential condition of the alcoholic
psyche. So the holidays not only remind me of drink; they remind me of
how it felt to be a drunk.

In fact, I have frequently been overheard to explain to the sort of
person who still finds it good sport to ask me how I came to be
addicted to alcohol and what it’s like now to be stone cold sober, “You
know how you feel at Christmas at the umpteenth family gathering or
company cocktail party. You really need that drink, right? That’s the way I used to feel all the time.”

And as with one’s first adolescent love, a certain euphoric recall
about the drinking life remains lodged in the psyche of any drunk no
matter how many years he has remained sober. Even after 16 years,
especially at holiday time, a tiny voice still occasionally visits,
asking, “Why can’t you just have one?”

Addiction scientists have puzzled over what distinguishes the
alcoholic psyche from the “normal” one, or even, the mentally ill one.
While some association between abusive drinking and both bipolar
disorder and depression has been found, your garden-variety drunk does
not go on manic flights of fancy or hear voices or hallucinate; he
isn’t even all that prone to clinical depression. The best I can say
from personal experience is that we all tend to be afflicted by a
low-grade dysphoria, a sort of constant melancholy that causes feelings
of unease, isolation and dissatisfaction with life — an “inexplicable
ache,” I once heard it called.

But is this nature or nurture? I personally have come to believe in
a construction proposed by Dr. Mark Willenbring, director of the
division of treatment and recovery research at the National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism,
which says it’s both. Willenbring argues that the main thing that
alcoholics share is a natural tolerance for alcohol, which leads them
to overindulge without knowing it. Repeated overindulgence, in turn,
changes their brain chemistry and literally creates the inexplicable
ache by altering the activity of two systems: the brain’s “reward
system,” which sends the message that drinking feels good; and the
excitatory and stress response systems, which become “recruited” and,
over time, produce an elevated anxiety when one is without alcohol in
his system.

This would pretty much track my personal experience. It always took
more to get me drunk, and the irony is, I always thought that was a
good thing. Particularly during my 20’s, when everyone was drinking
pretty heavily, I could still drink my friends under the table and
inspire compliments from them for it. On one occasion, a bunch of us
gathered at a friend’s apartment to watch a Dallas Cowboys football
game. The drinking was heavy and mixed — from beer to scotch and back
again, as I recall. At one point late in the fourth quarter, I noticed
that all of my buddies had passed out — leaving only me to watch the Cowboys lose while I happily mixed a nightcap.

My natural tolerance is probably why, in the mid-80’s I was able to
score a nice book contract to write “The View from Nowhere,” a fairly
shameless nationwide pub crawl in search of America’s best hard
drinking bars. My appearance on the “Today Show” in 1987 to hype the
book was proof positive, as it were, that this particular metabolic
capability was a boon to my writing career, and would make me less, not
more, prone to developing a drinking problem.

But over time, drinking twice as much just to “get there” and
feeling proud that I was still not slurring my words took its toll.
Without realizing it, I crossed over from mere psychological addiction
(a problematic, but self-manageable condition) to physical addiction,
which involves blackouts and dangerous withdrawal symptoms, and for
which medical intervention is necessary.

It was the under-the-radar aspect of my addiction that still amazes
me. I know this is a sensation shared by other drunks because every
time I enter an Alcoholics Anonymous room, I am struck not by the
expressions of guilt or defiance or even boredom that I see. I am
struck by a more or less uniform look of cosmic bafflement on the faces
of my fellow addicts. How in the world did this happen?

If you are among the 80 percent of people who drink “normally,”
think of your relationship to booze as a minor friendship that strikes
up at certain times of the week, or even the year. Think of the drunk’s
as a torrid, reckless and self-destructive affair. Whiskey she is a bad
lover, and all that. It is a decidedly adolescent affair, a kind of
puppy love that overtakes all good judgment and reason. In that sense,
I’ve come to understand that, if compulsive drinking is about different
genes, it also about a certain arrested development that can’t be
liberated until the addict takes the cure.

So how about that one holiday drink? Should I?

The current drift of public thinking about alcohol dependence
suggests that perhaps I could. Among the many victims of the Internet
age is the notion that anybody with a drinking problem is an alcoholic,
period, and needs to go to treatment for 28 days and A.A. thereafter.
Today, largely because of the exchanges of addicts on line, there is a
growing lobby to treat at least some problem drinkers with more
lenience. Google the term “moderate drinking” and you’ll find a fistful
of Web-based organizations like Drink/Link and Moderation Management
that preach a slightly more liberal message than AA: that a lot of
drinkers who overindulge can be taught to moderate their drinking.

So if I were sobering up today, I suppose I would have more options
than I did 16 years ago. But I don’t think that my common sense
decisions would be any different.   ……continue ……