Thinking About

Love, Loathing, and Alcohol

Our complicated relationship with booze

Photo: Terry Vlisidis / Unsplash

I wonder if anything we put in our bodies (on purpose) gets as black-or-white a rap as alcohol seems to, particularly in America.

Depending on the hour, the company, and the circumstance, booze is either the elixir of delight or a scary poison. I fall prey to that same dualistic thinking myself. On a cold night in a busy kitchen, a glass of pinot noir is my best friend. And yet, on the heels of a particularly healthy, calm stretch of days, one whiff of an open bottle can turn my stomach. Plus, I’m the parent of teenagers, which leaves me on high alert against Tito’s and White Claw showing up before the law invites them in.

Simply put, I love and loathe drinking.

To unpack the hate, I look at facts. It’s a useful beginning as there’s no arguing with science — hard or soft. The truth from every known corner of medicine is that too much alcohol can detonate livers and lives. The dangers of addiction are acute, as are the delusions that alcohol buoys mental health (though it might seem to for an hour or an evening). Even the decades-old recommended safe limits (one drink a day for women and two for men) have come under clear scrutiny and gone are the days of reassuring ourselves that wine is a necessary vitamin. Yikes, not a lot of upshot there.

The arc of fraught choices in my own family tree also swings toward booze, which offers a lesson about detonated lives on a visceral level. My paternal grandmother drank too much. My maternal grandfather drank too much. Their spouses did as well, until they didn’t. My paternal grandfather dropped the stuff when my dad was born; I knew him sober, but felt his scars. My maternal grandmother raised five kids, the five went on to raise 12, and I think it’s fair to say nearly all of us cut our teeth on the sanctioning of booze as a steady salve. Alcoholism has a wily way of passing itself down and silently spawning adjacent, erosive behaviors even in those who “don’t have a problem”.

And yet, the love.

Despite all the hard truths that swirl in the highball, I see no end in sight to the ways in which booze keeps company with joy. Bottles dwell in happy, connected moments as commonly as they lurk in yucky, hard ones. Lately, I find myself defining ‘healthy drinking’ as a disruption of that equivalency — a willingness to go the extra mile to keep the yucky or idle moments sober while deepening appreciation for the beautiful moments marked by the warmth of chatter and the clink of glassware.

There is undoubtedly something elusive and enduring to the relationship between human beings and alcohol — moderation or no, health guidelines be damned — particularly in moments designed to mark progress, or moments that in the rear view we come to see as pivotal. For so many of us, the social benefits, the pleasure, and the ritual of booze on our life path effectively trump the risks. It’s as though we stop seeing the hazards of the road because we’re too attached to the awe the view provokes — or maybe we just prefer to travel numb?

By evolutionary standards, this makes alcohol something of a wild card, as Edward Slingerland explains in his book Drunk: How We Sipped, Danced and Stumbled Our Way to Civilization. Generally speaking, things that are bad for us are eventually — by force, death, inertia, or innovation (to mention a few) — removed from our environment. As a species, we solve for agents that pose grave risk, effectively adapting our way beyond or around the danger.

Not so with alcohol. It’s been with us for centuries and it’s with us still — today in even more potent and evolving ways. Two that Slingerland points to as most concerning include our tendency to drink alone (in the consumerist, overworked, privacy-oriented U.S. in particular) and the intensity of modern distilled spirits, which means today’s booze is all the stronger. As he writes, “it should puzzle us more than it does that we have devoted so much ingenuity and concentrated effort to getting drunk.”

Mind you, Slingerland is a professor of philosophy. That centers his lens on why people do things — not whether or not we should do them. He’s not in the business of unraveling all the ills of alcohol (though doesn’t hesitate to acknowledge them). Instead, he’s keen to shine a light on how intoxication, and our pursuit of it, is woven into the very nature of human history. He argues it is actually part of our evolution, not an accidental hindrance.

Whether consciously or not, we’re driven to drink to ignite creativity, bolster social ties, and make meaning by way of ritual. Slingerland writes, “Our ability to think outside the box is enhanced by one or two drinks.” Where we need to watch out is of course when we blow right through one or two, reach for the bottle every day, or hit the point where cocktail hour stops delivering functional benefits and instead becomes a release valve to fuel addiction or ease a bigger ache (loneliness, depression, a disassociated sense of self).

It seems my dualistic love/hate approach to alcohol is softening, maybe even expiring. I have no plans to renounce delicious wine but I also know I need to keep a close eye on my level of comfort with it. Though I trend toward praising abstinence and scorning excess, it feels shortsighted to reward myself for drinking little without understanding with compassion and realism what compels me (or anyone) to drink more.

I thank age and mindfulness — and the insight both produce — for that shift. As science keeps revealing, the latter can alter our behavior in far more meaningful and lasting ways than the old fashioned (and arguably outdated) brawn of sheer will power. I also thank Edward Slingerland, whose sharp historical takes and more nuanced looks at why alcohol is so woven into human behavior have enriched my self-understanding.

As he writes, and as we all know, the love of drink is here to stay, as are the risks we each swallow every time we imbibe. I suspect most of us keep this pairing of truths running in the back of our brains. Perhaps if we pushed the intricacies into the forefront, beer in hand or no, we’d evolve our relationship with booze. Cheers to that possibility.

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