where the writers are
Do Alcohol and Drugs Reveal Our Hidden, Genuine Selves?

Alec Baldwin 

Alec Baldwin, email/voicemail terrorist

For almost as long as grapes have been fermented or liquor distilled, many people subscribe to the ancient proverb, In vino veritas (Latin for "In wine there is truth").

That abstraction assumes human form when applied to the drunken acting out of Mel Gibson or Alec Baldwin in public. Is it Mel or the booze that's talking when Gibson erupts with anti-Semitic, sexist rants? The same question might be asked about what's behind Alec Baldwin's threatening, expletive-filled message the actor left on his 12-year-old daughter's voice mail.

It's a truism that alcohol removes inhibitions that prevent a sober individual from saying what he really thinks. The disinhibitive effects of alcohol may give an excessive drinker the courage to reveal his true self, and engage in behavior he would never dare to without the insulating armor of intoxication.

Excessive Drinking Puts Your Inner Censor to Sleep and Lets Your Inner Demon Out of Its Cage

Alcohol often kills the alcoholic's inner censor, and he says out loud what other people may also think from time to time, but are savvy enough to keep to themselves. I challenge anyone, no matter how liberal, to claim that he or she has never had a racist, anti-Semitic, or anti-ethnic thought.

The only difference is that the closet anti-Semite doesn't proclaim his bigotry except when only fellow bigots are present. That's one of the reasons it's difficult for researchers to ferret out prejudice when conducting surveys. Since most people have come to recognize the ugliness of bigotry without rejecting it, racists rarely answer honestly a direct question like, "Do you hate black people?"

Mel Gibson MUGSHOT

Mel Gibson's mug shot

If Mel Gibson hadn't been intoxicated when he spewed anti-Semitic slurs at the Jewish cop who pulled him over while driving, he probably would have kept his mouth shut about one of the worst kept secrets in Hollywood - the superstar's opinion of Jews.

His career-destroying behavior suggests that there is some veritas in vino, which has the power to pry open the mouths and reveal well hidden prejudices. Alcohol diminishes inhibitions enough so that the drunk's real character or personality is revealed after too much vino.

An Autobiographical Odyssey - My 30 Years of 12-Stepping at Alcoholics Anonymous

In the interest of full disclosure, I should note that I am a sober alcoholic with 30+ years of uninterrupted abstinence from alcohol and drugs.

I sought out Alcoholics Anonymous after I hit bottom, 12-Step Speak for reaching a point where alcohol or drugs have destroyed your life and career and you have no place to go, except further into the bottomless bottom of alcoholism. Actually, the bottom is not bottomless.

The bottom's final destination leads to one or more of three ultimate destinations of substance abusers who don't seek help: imprisonment, institutionalization, or death.

Fortunately, I'm also a hypochondriac, so I hit a very shallow bottom after realizing I was consuming an entire bottle of white wine every night after work. I characterize my bottom as shallow because I hadn't reached the point where excessive drinking began to impact my life in unbearable ways.

Since I only drank in the evening, after work, my alcoholism didn't affect my performance on the job. Absenteeism, an effective career killer, never caused me problems because I was never drunk during the work day.

I polled friends to confirm my self-diagnosis, which they all rejected, insisting I was not an alcoholic. Their usual explanation was some variation of, "I never see you acting drunk."

After years of drinking, many alcoholics develop such a tolerance to the intoxicating effects of booze that they don't exhibit the stereotypical behavior of a stumbling, falling down drunk whose belligerence leads to fights in bars or spousal abuse at home.

My reaction to alcohol after having consumed it since the age of 11 was the polar opposite of the stereotypical, mean drunk. That's why I hope in vino veritas is an accurate assessment of character, and that my drunken behavior revealed my genuine personality. I was a happy, friendly drunk who sat silently in the corner at parties, binge-drinking, with a smile so broad Bozo might have envied it.

Only one of the many friends I interrogated about my suspected drinking problem agreed with me that I was imbibing way too much booze. She had been sensitized and made aware of invisible alcoholism like mine because she had the misfortune to be in love with a sober alcoholic who kept falling off the wagon.

If there is indeed truth in wine (or in the case of my friend's alcoholic lover, tequila, straight-up), alcohol revealed that my friend's boyfriend was a monster underneath the charm that surfaced while he was sober.

His ingratiating personality when not under the influence had caused my friend to fall in love with him. His alcoholic incarnation, revealed over time, made her fall out of love. Tequila caused a Dr. Jekyll/Mr. Hyde transformation in this charmer and turned him into a spousal batterer when liquor liberated his inner Mr. Hyde.

His physical and emotional abuse sensitized my friend to the ugliness of alcoholism. Instead of dismissing my worries about drinking too much wine as hypochondria, she gave me the phone number of AA's hotline in Los Angeles.

As soon as I got off the phone with my friend, I called the hotline. It was midnight and I expected to get a recorded message. Instead, a live voice answered and listened while I described the amount of alcohol I consumed and my behavior while under its influence.

The hotline counselor answered my question by reading out loud John Hopkins University Hospital's famous 20 questions, "Are you an alcoholic?" The test is designed to identify alcoholic behavior. Schick Schadel Hospital offers a similar test for drug addiction.

Taking the test is easy if you're honest with yourself, which is rare since one of the identifying traits of alcoholism is being in denial about having a problem. An identifying trait is the inability to identify the trait, in this case, alcoholism.

Scoring the test is simple, but more frightening than SAT or GMAT results that arrive in the mail. If you answer yes to only one of the 20 questions compiled by Johns Hopkins way back in 1939, you may be an alcoholic. If you answer yes to two questions, you probably have a problem with alcohol.

And if you answer yes to three or more questions, you definitely are an alcoholic and need to seek help because it's impossible to get sober on your own. And you need treatment sooner rather than later because alcoholism is a progressive disease, which means it never gets better on its own, only worse.

My score was the scary part. Out of AA's 20 questions, I answered yes to 19.

Question #8, "Do you turn to lower companions when drinking?", was the only one I answered no. The question puzzled me until I did a mental review of the people I got drunk and stoned out of my mind with during college and graduate school. Somehow, I had managed to hold on to my friends from school days, and after graduation we continued to socialize, i.e., become sloppy, falling down drunks.

I  was my friends' lower companion.

Only 10 or so years later, my overachieving friends from school days had lived up to my characterization of them as overachievers. Three were attorneys, two of whom were eventually elevated to the bench. Another friend was a gynecologist and a medical school professor. Rounding out this group of functioning alcoholics was the chairman of a corporation.

A decade after finishing grad school, I was on my way to becoming a successful writer, but my income and lifestyle were nowhere near as grand as my friends' resumes and bank balances.

After reviewing my drinking buddies' socio-economic status, I no longer found question #8 mystifying because I had the ego-deflating epiphany that I was the "lower companion" my alcoholic friends, the doctor, the judge, the CEO, etc., sought out "when drinking!"

2 Comment count
Comment Bubble Tip

Frank, Forthright, insightful


Forthright, insightful and authentic-sounding personal narrative.

You "nailed it" on the questionable  validity of survey findings.  One would have to be a veritable  deluded Candide (before  his learning the wisdom of  "cultivating one's own garden") and hopeless ingenue NOT to do some harmless feigning in the "face" we present to the world in survey answers and numerous other public interactions [see my blog, "Being Authentic vs. Faking It"].

As for "characters" like Mel Gibson and Alec Baldwin, breathing the rarefied air of the celebrity world, as you undoubtedly well know from your professional experience as a journalist, often gives them an inordinate and insufferable sense of self-importance, reminding one of the wise counsel, "Pride goeth before a fall."  And what a "falling off there was!"  Right?


Comment Bubble Tip

What is an alchoholic?

Thanks for that very honest view into your life. You surely must have drank more in your drinking days. One bottle of white wine in the evening hardly amounts to a deadly addiction. I think you beat yourself up too much. Still it is good that your life is on track now. I don't think though that you could ever be anyone's "lower companion".