Health And Wellness

It Took Losing Someone I Love For Me To Finally See Alcohol For What It Is

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group of people cheering their with their glasses

He called at 7 pm on March 12th. I had just put the kids in the bath. It was an odd time for my friend’s husband to call from the East Coast, so I answered with a pit in my stomach.

“Meg, do you have a minute to talk?”

“Ya, let me make sure Scott can cover the kids. What’s up?”

“We got the autopsy. She died of a toxic consumption of alcohol.”

“What does that mean?”

“It means her blood alcohol volume was 4.0 and she probably asphyxiated.”

The world shut down on March 13th, 2020, which made sense. I wanted to stay home with my family. I wanted there to be nothing that existed outside of our house.

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I had been sober and curious for months since she died. Learning that alcohol had actually killed her left me clear that I was quitting.

Every day we went for the same walk. And every day I waited for the ache to stop. The worst part was feeling how badly I wanted a drink. I was mourning the death of someone I loved. Someone whose life and family were ravaged by her addiction. And my body wanted a beer to take away the pain.

We inherit the experiences of at least three generations of our ancestors in our DNA, and all three of mine are Irish Catholics and drank too much. Alcohol is what my body knew.

One day, somewhere between March 13th and March 438th, I was snuggling both of my kids in the rocking chair and it hit me. I’ve never been so deeply fulfilled and at the same time felt so much pain. And I think that’s how sobriety goes.

Living hangover-free is an intense form of self-perpetuating freedom, but that doesn’t mean life stops being painful.

By the time I quit, I was not a heavy drinker. By some standards, I might have even been considered a light drinker. For me, it only took one drink to stay tethered to the deep groove in my nervous system that was organized around alcohol. That groove didn’t just keep me stuck in a delusional relationship with alcohol, it extended to a lot of my relationships. When I stopped being gaslit about alcohol, I stopped being gaslit about lots of things.

I grew up believing that there are alcoholics who want to drink but can’t because there is something wrong with them, and normal people who can drink as much as they want and never have a problem. A family friend once said to me, “I can drink as much as I want to because I’m not an alcoholic.”

This kind of denial is an addict’s anthem, and I knew all the words.

Our culture has a strangely distorted relationship with alcohol, and I began to experience the subtle (and not at all subtle) ways this manifested in my own life.

No one smokes cigarettes or shoots heroin thinking it’s good for them. But somehow, in our culture, the only reason to not drink is if you are pregnant or driving. And even then, a little won’t hurt, right? Our culture views alcohol like the NRA views guns. They say guns don’t kill people, people kill people — the same way we believe there’s nothing wrong with beer, there’s just something wrong with you for drinking too much of it.

In the early 1900s, eugenics was a popular theory. The Tobacco industry was propagating a theory, based on eugenics and backed by leading scientists, that cigarettes weren’t harmful, it was just that some people were predisposed to use them in excess. It was their body that was the problem, not the cigarette. Sound familiar?

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During prohibition in the US, researchers studied the harmful effects of alcohol in earnest. After prohibition, they lost funding. Do you know where they eventually found it? The alcohol industry.

And that research eventually birthed the term alcoholic. It was a win, win. If alcohol is only harmful to a defective subset of humans, then the researchers could continue their good work proving the harmful effects of ethanol on those humans. And the alcohol industry could continue marketing its product and encourage the rest of us to, “Enjoy it responsibly.” When in reality, the overwhelming majority of alcohol sales are to people drinking in excess. The industry calls them “Super consumers.”

Alcohol releases dopamine in our brain, the feel-good neurotransmitter. Every time we reach for a drink for our dopamine, we become more dependent.

Humans repeat behaviors that release dopamine. This survival instinct has us susceptible to nonsense marketing, based on eugenics, that says something is wrong with you if you can’t control yourself. Otherwise, alcohol is good for you, and it’s fun — it’s what young sexy people do. What’s more, not drinking is what uptight, fun-killing people do.

Four years ago my friend drove drunk with her kids in the car. Her family called the cops and had her arrested. The next day she was released from detox and two grown adults — who loved her, and were heartbroken and concerned for her, ordered wine with dinner and drank it in front of her.

I’m guessing they drank in front of her immediately after picking her up from detox for the same reason I drank at her funeral. I was in pain. Everyone else was drinking and I wanted to belong. I didn’t know how to not drink. I thought I needed the dopamine.

I spent my first year newly sober in the pandemic without childcare, and it was not graceful, but the sturdy awakeness I feel now is worth every bit of struggle.

If alcohol really did make us happy, I’d be all for it. If the immediate effects matched the long-term impacts, I would definitely still be drinking, but what I’ve learned the hard way is that alcohol is an imposter. It is a highly addictive depressant cleverly disguised as freedom, fun, and frankly, relief.

Getting drunk and saying things we regret is not relieving. Waking up at 3 am terrorized by worry and insomnia is not fun. Experiencing regular hangovers, as if that’s a required part of life, is not freedom.

It’s easy to look back at magazine advertisements from the 1950s and be horrified knowing that Marlboro made so much money killing people. I’ve probably had that conversation with a beer in my hand — can you believe they did that?! It’s easy to enjoy a drink or two (or three) while watching the TV show Mad Men, be horrified by their day drinking at work, and feel completely civilized about drinking in the privacy of our own home after 5 pm.

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Alcohol is a toxic substance, despite the well-funded campaign to the contrary.

The myth that red wine is good for your heart is bullshit. (Red grapes are good for your heart, but alcohol is carcinogenic.) There is no amount of alcohol in any form that is healthy for a human. When we pull back the wizard’s curtain we find a staggering increase in liver disease and alcohol-related deaths in the US, especially for women and especially during the pandemic — because we are in pain. We have good reasons to want something to help us feel better.

But we need to be more careful about where we get our dopamine. The longer we rely on alcohol to feel good, the less resilient we become without it. The term alcoholic is entirely too effective at diverting our attention from the truth that alcohol is addictive, and addiction is progressive.

I don’t think my friend was suicidal. I think she was doing what she knew how to do to get free of her pain. I think she was chasing the euphoria of her first drink, in a way that’s not just culturally acceptable but aggressively pedaled. Like lots of us, despite all of the evidence otherwise, I think she was caught in the lie that drinking will be fun and make us feel better and that it’s not really that bad.

I think she died blaming herself too much and not blaming alcohol enough.

Most of us aren’t at risk for overdose, but that doesn’t mean alcohol is good for us. I want to vilify alcohol more because our culture doesn’t vilify it enough.

Advertisements of young, attractive, healthy people having fun drinking propagate a lie. Advertisements encouraging us moms to enjoy a drink to relieve our child-rearing burdens should be illegal. We don’t let cigarette companies do this anymore, and we shouldn’t be tolerating it with alcohol. This propaganda is hurting all of us, especially my friends’ kids who now have to navigate their life without a mom.

If you feel secretly worried or ashamed of your drinking, I really want you to hear that there is nothing wrong with you — it’s the alcohol. Alcohol is bad for us. All of us.

I’m not advocating for a return to prohibition, I just want our mainstream culture to stop lying about alcohol. I want our kids to look back on our alcohol commercials and feel as baffled by them as we are by old cigarette advertisements.

I didn’t want this lesson, and I would give anything to give it back. I would give anything for one more minute with my friend, and for her kids to have their mom back, but this lesson is what she left me. Her death is the most painful and precious gift I’ve ever received. So I will take it. I will take it and let it change me, and accompany me for the rest of my life.

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Meghan McNiff is a writer and a certified Integral Professional Coach who helps people feel more connected to themselves and everything around them.

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This article was originally published at Medium. Reprinted with permission from the author.