I am not an alcoholic, but I’m the child of one, although I was well into my 20s before I realized it. Alcoholism is portrayed oddly in the media: you’ve got your disastrously drunk homeless people, your irritably drunk boss, maybe your abusively drunk parent. Alcoholics are not to be confused with people who just get drunk a lot, like kids in college rom-coms; Animal House wasn’t full of alcoholics, just kids wanting to have fun.
Contrast media portrayals of drug users: one puff, one snort, one shot and your life is inexorably headed for destruction. But whether or not drug addiction is more or less deadly than alcohol addiction, the media portrayals are starkly different.
The truth is that many addicts, maybe even most of them, are just people living their lives with addiction. The term “high functioning” gets bounced around, but it’s a real thing. For years I worked up the hallway from a guy who was known for starting work at 10 or 11 in the morning, but it was software and he didn’t really stand out. After he died, I learned that his friends had battled to get him into rehab repeatedly until he told them to leave him alone. And there was of course Alex, my college classmate, once my best friend. She was brilliant, and professionally successful until the alcohol killed her. She was never homeless, never ranting at strangers; she destroyed bits and pieces of her personal life, but had devoted friends and family until she died at the age of 50.
In the media, it’s a go-to character bit, often for men who want to be seen as brooding and deep: they need the liquor, you see, to blunt the pain of their deeply meaningful lives.
I wrote an alcoholic. Greg’s an alcoholic. But there’s a reason he’s essentially quit before we meet him in THE COLD BETWEEN. He’s been in control for most of his career, but shortly before we meet him he’s managed to destroy one of the most important relationships in his life. The recognition of that makes him stop drinking.
That’s 100% authorial wish fulfillment. I wanted to write a drunk who, when slapped in the face with a substantive loss he could only attribute to his own behavior, actually woke up and changed.
Real people are a different matter entirely.
I dated an alcoholic once, for 2-1/2 years. For 18 months of that we lived together. Like the alcoholic from my childhood he was high-functioning: outgoing, amusing, well-liked, professionally successful. But he was so much worse in every other aspect, and when I think of the abuse I endured and handwaved away, I’m shocked at myself.
I was trying to fix something. I was an adult, away from my alcoholic parent, and I wanted to love an alcoholic out of their alcoholism.
Which is not a thing.
It’s such an odd event to have in my history. I learned so much from that relationship, from my failure to change another person. At the same time it was a horrible experience I’d go back and avoid if I could. It taught me a lot about emotional abuse, gaslighting, my own deep need to believe someone else’s manufactured narrative, and yet I still fall into that trap, professionally and personally. To say I got anything positive from it would be a stretch.
I see writers reach for it sometimes, as I admittedly did. It’s the socially acceptable addiction. We’re allowed to love people with this addiction. We’re allowed to find them entertaining, to assume they can manage moderation, to assume that when they apologize they actually mean it. It’s quick-and-dirty depth, evoking both some kind of traumatic past and vaguely endearing weakness.
I don’t find it endearing. I can’t.
With Greg I completely glossed over the passing of the physical addiction. What was important to the storyline was the way he’d fucked up when he was drunk. (Elena, at one point, alludes to how often he’s used inebriation to excuse bad behavior.) What was important to his character arc was the realization that he’d done something potentially unforgivable. What was important was is willingness to take responsibility for it, even if it meant never regaining what he’d lost.
And I gave him forgiveness. I restored, at least in part, what he’d destroyed. That’s authorial wish fulfillment, too, and I suspect a common dream of children of alcoholics: not only can I make them quit, I can reward them with this beautiful intact life they’ve earned by defeating the monster.
One of the relentlessly cruel things about dealing with an ill parent is the realization that their illness doesn’t turn them into other people. It doesn’t make them see the error of their ways; it doesn’t give you the magic ability to set aside your own weaknesses and resentments. My alcoholic parent hasn’t had a drink in over a year, but that’s because he has a heart condition and his doctor told him it would probably kill him. The truth is, it might have killed him anyway; although science is still far away from understanding what triggers dementia, alcoholism is considered a risk factor. But even as his thought processes become more disjointed and confused, he remains himself, good and bad.
Which I suppose is a blessing, except that our relationship is the same, too. Good and bad. Only now I’m supposed to look after him, and what we are to each other makes it nearly impossible to understand what exactly that means.
I drink, now and then. Thanksgiving and Christmas. Sometimes when Spouse and I are out to dinner. The Kid says she can’t really tell when I’m drunk; I just seem a little slower and a little louder. I’ve been spared the affliction, although I suppose I’ll always be navigating the fallout of having been raised around it. Self-knowledge only gets you so far.
And part of the fallout is that I’m hypersensitive to how it’s used in narrative. It’s not that I want to read realistic descriptions of alcoholism (on that front, James Lee Burke, for one, gets it right); I just don’t want to see it pawned off as a not-so-awful character flaw. (Do as I say not as I do, I suppose.)
Of course not everyone needs to read about the harsh realities that often go with addiction, even for people who manage to function with it long-term. Some people want those familiar foibles, those easy, predictable, comforting tropes, and there’s nothing wrong with that. But when I encounter your endearing-drunk character, I’m always going to hit a speed bump. I’ve seen too much, and I’ve lost too many. And too much of me still wants to fix it.