What's The Problem?

Christopher Thomas Schmidt

© Copyright 2004 by Christopher Thomas Schmidt


Photo of a group of young people drinking in a bar.

Without giving too much away, this story is as much an examination of self as it is an essay.  May those in
a similar situation find it enlightening.

 He hasn’t killed anyone, yet.  He has yet to pass out behind the wheel and wrap his car around a tree.  He has never attacked his girlfriend in a drunken rage.  Derrick hasn’t done anything calamitously appalling any of the great number of times he gets drunk in a month, and because of this he believes that his drinking is not a problem.  Those of us who know Derrick are not so sure.

Why does he do it?  Why does he drink so much?  Derrick—we’ll call him Derrick to protect the innocent—swears he’s not an alcoholic.  He also swears like a sailor at anyone who tries to talk to him about his drinking.  He, Derrick, insists he doesn’t have a problem, yet insists upon drinking himself into unconsciousness at every opportunity.  No one, much of all Derrick, knows why he does what he does, which makes his situation all the harder to understand or explain.

Derrick loves to drink.  More accurately, Derrick loves the sensation of being drunk.  He’s not stupid; he knows it’s bad for him, even beyond the hangovers and the missed work.  But how much influence does the threat of cirrhosis have over the behavior of the invincible youth these days, over any of us?  He doesn’t drink for the sake of drinking, he drinks to get drunk.  He likes beer, and vodka, and good tequila, and is developing a taste for wine, but what he really likes is getting drunk.  He drinks, he gets drunk.  Every time he drinks, he gets drunk, there is no middle ground.  But why is it so important?  Most of the time he can’t remember anything that happens, so why the great need for drunkenness?

Derrick relishes the freedom of being drunk. A high blood-alcohol level lends itself to much more entertaining, more juvenile behavior than does sobriety.  People are considerably more tolerant of drooling, shouting belligerence from a drunk than they are from a jerk.  At least they used to be.  Derrick doesn’t realize what his habit is doing to himself, and the people around him.  The phone doesn’t ring like it used to.  Without much recognition, Derrick has to work a lot harder to find something to do on the weekend.  The frequency of invitations to dinners and parties has diminished as well; something he attributes to the number of long term relationships blossoming within his quietly shrinking circle of friends.

 “I’m not an alcoholic, I’m a drunk.”  Derrick thinks facetiously arguing this distinction is amusing.  It may have been at first, when there was still doubt as to whether his drinking was a reason for concern, but not now.  Now, the drinking is an undeniable problem—in everyone’s mind but Derrick’s—and it just seems to worsen.  The ambition he once had as a youth is fleeting, as is his zest for life or anything constructive.  Whether alcohol is directly tied to Derrick’s loss of motivation is uncertain—he will argue that it is not—but there are few other factors in his life to which one could point.  He has a loving, supportive family, he has a job which he doesn’t hate when he’s not too hung over, he doesn’t have any extraordinary trouble with women, and drinking aside, he doesn’t engage in any other form of substance abuse.

“It’s not like I’m on drugs,” he tells himself, and others, as though this makes some difference.  Derrick’s twisted rationale is multifaceted.

“I don’t drink all the time.”

While true—Derrick reserves his heavy drinking for the weekend mostly; mostly—on the nights he does drink, he more than makes up for lost time.

“I don’t sit at home alone getting drunk.”

Again, true, though there was that binge after the messy breakup with his fiancée, but such instances are rare.

“I’m not drinking to escape.  Alcoholics drink to escape.”

Derrick doesn’t suffer from depression, at least not clinically, and he really only drinks during parties, nights out and other festive activities.

“I can’t be an alcoholic.  An alcoholic is someone who drinks all day, everyday, by himself, shut off from the world, in spite of the world, fleeing from problems, work, family and society, right?”  This distorted, though moderately plausible definition really doesn’t describe Derrick at all, nor his reasons for drinking.  So, why does he do it?

Derrick drinks primarily when he’s out on Friday and Saturday night while merrymaking with friends or coworkers.  If there is a party during the week or a ballgame on Sunday, he’ll drink then, too, but he doesn’t drink as a means for something to do.  He drinks for fun, which isn’t terrible, right?

Actually, it is pretty bad.  As much as he drinks, it’s bad.  He’s not a violent drunk, never has been, he just loses control.  When he drinks, he drinks too fast, always in some inexplicable hurry to get drunk.  The faster he drinks, the sooner he’ll get drunk, the sooner he’ll capture that sweet elusive intoxication.  Manners and common sense are the first to go.  Not shy by any means, even while sober, drunkenness allows him to loosen up to the point of absurdity.  A few hastily consumed beers, a double Stoli-cranberry (alcoholics don’t cut their drinks with cranberry, right?), perhaps a shot or two—probably a shot or two—and it’s a rapid transition on the short road from entertaining to obnoxious behavior.  Another drink.  Another.  He’s getting drunk, but he doesn’t feel it.  Too many nights, too many drinks.  The mind lies to itself.  Derrick lies to himself.  Gotta get drunk.  Gotta make sure.  What is he doing?  Why is getting drunk so important?  And why so drunk?  Another drink.  Two more.  People are laughing.  People are happy.  People are having a good time.  Is that it?  Drinking, laughter, happiness, good times, they all go together?  Nonsense.  He is plenty happy while sober, and can have a good time without drinking.  So what is it all about?

 Another drink.  The night loses its clarity, becoming like all the others.  If he drinks to achieve this feeling, he can stop now, mission accomplished.  But he does not stop, he never does, he doesn’t even slow down.  He keeps drinking, hard.  Why?

Another drink.  The night is a blur.  He will not remember the rest of the evening, and has already forgotten the past few hours.  He will continue to drink until he gets cut off, or sick, or kicked out, or any of a number of similar disgraces.  When cut off, he will beg someone else, a friend or complete stranger, to get him another drink.  A drink that he does not need, a drink he will not enjoy or remember, but one that he must have.  Why?  What is his problem?

Another drink, or perhaps the same drink, he doesn’t know, and the night goes black.  He will not remember passing out.  He will not remember getting kicked out of the bar.  He will not remember the fight he started with his friend.  He will not remember spending every dollar he has, won’t remember borrowing more from his friend—the one with whom he would later start the fight—then spending that.   He will not remember whose car he got in.  He will not remember passing out again at the taco shop.  He will not remember the drinks he spilled, the girls he upset, the nights he ruined.

The morning brings pain.  Headache, tortured stomach, sore limbs, disorientation; familiar morning-after agony.  The brain struggles for clarity.  He can not, will not remember the details of the previous night, but he has a good idea that whatever happened it was likely something bad, and something for which he will again have to apologize to someone.  Based on past experience—which apparently teaches him nothing—and the nausea and incapacitating headache, Derrick knows what has happened.  He did it again.  He drank too much, again.  Without even opening his eyes he is aware that he has, again, fallen asleep—passed out—in someone else’s home, on someone else’s couch with all his clothes on.  Without checking, he knows that his wallet is surely empty, and, along with his watch, keys, glasses, and car, is going to be difficult to locate.  Dread accompanies the ritual of trying to piece together the last twelve hours.  Dread gives way to shame as flashes of the previous evening begin to surface in his beer-clouded brain.

 What is Derrick’s problem?  What causes a young, active, reasonably intelligent, outwardly-happy individual to engage in such blatantly destructive behavior?  Is Derrick an alcoholic?  When all of the classic diagnoses break down, how do you explain an inexplicable drinking problem?  And how can someone continue to act this way?

How?  Because Derrick doesn’t realize that he has a problem.  Most tragically, he is convinced that he does not.

 “I’m not an alcoholic, I can’t be.  I don’t drink that much.  I don’t drink that often.  I don’t have a drinking problem.”

I hope he’s right, ‘cause Derrick’s real name is Chris.

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