It’s Up To You

I love a good beer or a nice, smooth bourbon over ice.  I’m not a huge fan of mixed drinks, but I won’t say no to a Long Island Iced Tea or a Manhattan.  When I watch Mad Men I sometimes battle cravings to pour myself a strong one and put my feet up on the table.

I used to love eight or nine beers; I used to feel unsatisfied if I didn’t need to start including my toes to count shots; throwing up and blacking out became an expectation.  Mornings were awful.  When I realized that the weekend started on Wednesday I erased homework from my planner and penciled in “drunk”.

The word “alcoholic” is riddled with social stigma.  So is the phrase “binge drinking.”  We throw them around playfully, laughing about nights of lost memories and trying to outdo each others’ drink totals.  We associate alcoholism with weakness, a lack of self-control; we look in the mirror and see strong, motivated, passionate young students staring back at us.  The grizzled, wild-eyed old man with the piss-smelling torn pants – he’s an alcoholic.  So is the grandma who always fell asleep in the middle of Thanksgiving dinner.  But they’re weak – not like us.  “Binge drinking” ought to inspire revulsion – but to “boot and rally” is a measure of pride.  We are told to stand up for ourselves – and we let others do the same, offering a noncommittal “you do you” and a shrug.  We are empowered and by definition can’t be alcoholics or binge drinkers.  We are outside the influential sphere of our own stigma.

We aren’t unaware of the problem, either.  We have meetings where we learn how to pour “one drink” and recite the confusing mantra “strive for point-oh-five” (At point-oh-five, do we know we’re at point-oh-five?  Do we want to know?).  If the police catch us we are sent to a counseling meeting where we talk about our mistakes in a bizarre ritual of self-denial.  The charts and graphs we receive are passed scornfully at the lunch table and then lie crumpled on the floor under a pile of last semester’s books.  On Saturday, we’re at it again.

Flyers and pamphlets aren’t bad ways to promote safe and healthy habits.  But again our strong personalities – the drives that got us here – get in the way.  I had that problem.  I joked about my drinking with friends, who halfheartedly suggested that I stay in before admitting, “Come on, it’s you – you’re going to be drunk.”  They didn’t want to take that responsibility – I can’t blame them, either.  It’s a lot to ask from teenagers, to play counselor to each other.  Why not encourage us to use our personal determination and drive to solve these problems?  We can be honest with ourselves, set achievable goals, and see them through with our well-conditioned urges to succeed.

When I stopped binging and left alcohol abuse behind for the most part, it was a personal decision.  It was the same with smoking.  One day, I woke up and realized that I didn’t like what I was doing to myself.  Drinking was making me fat, slothful, and apathetic.  Smoking was discoloring my teeth, giving me jitters, and distracting me.  So I stopped.  It was the hardest thing I’d ever done.  For a while, I couldn’t go to any parties – none.  I knew that if I went out, I would drink one beer, then another, and then I would lose control.  Cigarette smoke gave me headaches.  I thought about snatching the cigarettes from the lips of smokers standing outside and drawing the smoke into my lungs.  Trying to control uncontrollable cravings feels impossible.  By definition, it should be.  I realized that I had to tell my body that it wasn’t craving what it thought it was.  Every time I wanted a drink, I did pushups.  Every time I wanted a cigarette, I went for a run.  I thought, “There’s no way this is going to work.”  On a few occasions, I gave up, setting my progress back by weeks.

Last week, I found a cigarette in my drawer.  I looked at it for a while, shook my head, and went to class.  But I didn’t throw it away and when I came back, there it was.  I couldn’t – but I did, slipping into my sandals and walking outside, feeling sheepish.  I lit it and for a moment felt a rush of adrenaline.  I took the first draw and instantly started coughing, so hard I thought my lungs were going to tear out of my chest.  I threw the cigarette as far from me as I could and watched it spark along the pavement as it rolled away.  And then I went for a run.

If I complained about drinking or smoking, my friends were quick to tell me that I should take it easy, that it was bad for me.  But they didn’t really mean it – how could they?  We are taught to say “Do you” because that’s what we want to be told as well.  We want to make our own choices.  And when it comes to addiction, to substance abuse, we have to.  I still love a nice drink and I still smoke in some of my dreams.  But I know that my “controlled addiction”, my weekend-warrior approach to drinking and smoking, was a farce.  Nobody told me that – I had to figure it out on my own.  If you really want to limit your drinking or stop smoking, so will you.