Ours is a society with a deeply conflicted attitude towards drinking. We are far more cognizant than previous generations of the disease of alcoholism, of the dangers of drunk driving, and of the vulnerability of young female drinkers at parties or nightclubs. “Please drink responsibly,” chide the ads. Yet we continue to romanticize hangovers and hair of the dogs; we nurture increasingly rarefied tastes in craft beer, single malt whiskey, and Australian shiraz; and we keep measuring successful social gatherings by the amount of alcohol consumed. For all the cautions we’ve placed around it, drinking is still considered a mark of sophistication, a symbol of maturity, and a universal form of entertainment.
The matter is relevant at this time of year, with millions of fresh high school and university students rushing to prove their adulthood with kegs, bottles, and shots. Some rites of passage, like medicine dances, First Communions, and fire walks, are too impractical or too tribe-specific to be widely practiced, but nearly everyone recognizes the milestone of the first drunk. I can still remember how my own collegian years, roughly two centuries ago, echoed with the Monday-morning boasts of classmates: “I was so wasted last weekend,” “We were like totalled,” et cetera, as if the whole point of drinking was not its physiological influence on the individual but its social cachet within the group (David Letterman once read a Top Ten list of “Rejected After-School Specials,” including “The Boy Who Drank Too Much and Was Very Popular”). Today, on campuses everywhere, groggy nineteen-year-olds are waking up as men and women of the world, at least in their own minds.
Even into moderate middle age, alcohol serves as a kind of social oxygen for many people. The boasts are no longer about the depths of intoxication but the pleasures of the palate (“This Riesling is delightful with that brie”) and the wisdom of experience (“Never mix the grape with the grain”). Yet while that adolescent bravado is outgrown, there remains a self-congratulatory element to drinking, a sense that drinking represents an inclusion, a fellowship, or a ceremony which only initiates can appreciate. Some of that is indeed an age-old tradition – how alcohol has been used since antiquity. But some of it is just a contemporary pretentiousness – a flattering fiction we maintain to mask an underlying habit. The familiar “Why Mommy Drinks” podcast, the online communities of “Wine Moms,” and other supposedly daring celebrations of domestic indulgence, stagger a line between half-felt guilt and shameless narcissism.
Those of us who have been touched by alcoholism or who have seen up close its effects on others are not inclined to glamorize drinking as something cool or edgy. As with any kind of substance abuse, true addiction to drink is not something the truly addicted ever brag about; nor will really chronic drinkers bother proclaiming how drunk they were at a party, or pontificate on the subtleties of Scottish peat or Californian grapes. In a way, the hardcore alcoholic is just being honest with him- or herself, deliberately imbibing to get loaded, rather than nervously imbibing to fit in (as at twenty) or reflexively imbibing to play charming host (as at forty). I have far more respect for people who have got sober, or who are trying to get sober, or who should get sober, than for people who haven’t yet got to the point of confronting sobriety. Drinking doesn’t need to be a moral or personal problem; it is not an evil to be banished. But nor is being a drinker a dependency to easily disguise, or a status to proudly achieve.