Tuesday, July 22, 2003

Functional Alcoholism

From Saturday's Globe and Mail

Most of my friends are alcoholics. I say this without judgment or
emotion, simply as a fact.

Drinking alcohol is what we do for fun in a group. We drink more nights
than we don't and we generally drink to get drunk. And in patio season
the imbibing often starts before noon. We think of it as drinking to
relax, wind down, get the social juices flowing or go to sleep, but
really this is just a roundabout way of saying we are drinking to get
drunk. According to every addiction pamphlet quiz I've ever filled out
in a waiting room, this qualifies all of us as alcohol dependent.
I once told a psychotherapist that I crave a cold martini after a
stressful day at work and she told me I'd probably be better off
medicating myself with a mild antidepressant like Zoloft. But Zoloft
apparently dampens the libido, so I decided I'd rather drink. In much
the same way that other people join volleyball leagues, prayer circles
or attend illegal dogfights at three in the morning in underground car
parks, my friends like to get drunk and talk.

For years I flattered myself into believing our conversations were
interesting, but my one or two abstaining (read: pregnant) friends tell
me this is not the case. This is the dirty trick of alcohol: It
encourages you to engage in the very activities it prevents you from
doing as well as you could two hours ago, i.e. before you absorbed four
vodka tonics into your bloodstream. These include conversation, dancing,
sex and driving - usually in that order. The point is, the sloppy
conversations I have with my friends are interesting to me, which, all
my good friends assure me (tipsily), is really the only thing that

But before you dismiss us as a bunch of hopeless dipsomaniacs - we do
exercise restraint. Most of us are well aware of the serious
consequences of drinking far too much on a regular basis, particularly
in the morning and at lunch. We call this a "drinking problem," the
biggest problem being, of course, that in the long run you will have to
either quit drinking or flush your life down the toilet - two equally
depressing options which, if you think about it, are tantamount to the
same thing.

And so, as with most recreational pastimes, there are strict rules of
engagement when it comes to functional alcoholism. Anyone who repeatedly
breaks a rule will, over time, find him or herself socially ostracized,
for the only thing a bunch of functional alcoholics resent more than the
company of a pious non-drinker (pregnant chicks excluded) is the
presence of an out-and-out drunk. Don't take it personally; it's a Ghost
of Christmas Future thing.

The major rules of functionality are as follows:

1) No throwing up, or at least not in public. No one wants to see their
friends puke, but rest assured that if you do, a true friend will hold
your hair away from your face and get you a glass of water. This is a
pretty easy rule to abide by, as most regular drinkers have, by their
mid-20s, discovered which drinks agree with them and which don't. This
is why most seasoned functionals demur when the tray of Jagermeister
arrives - shots are for amateurs.

2) For the sake of your companions, try to remain at least marginally
coherent. If you find yourself pissed to the point of slurring or
repeatedly repeating a "sooo funny" story no one is laughing at, it's
time to start staggering bedward. The problem is less that you're too
drunk, more that you're too boring. Boring drunks are about as uplifting
as the smell of overboiled cabbage in the hallway of an old age home.

3) Don't regularly initiate or get drawn into physical fights. As
entertaining as violence might seem in the moment, remember: Bar fights
are tacky. Better to verbally abuse your enemy, or, better yet, make out
with his girlfriend on the dance floor, though admittedly this approach
can often backfire and lead to a bar fight in the end anyway.

4) Don't drink and work. Unless you happen to be a bus driver, the
problem with drinking on the job is not so much an issue of performance
as self-defeat. The whole point of being a functional alcoholic is that
you are able to function remarkably well under the influence of alcohol.
Most British journalists I've met insist that alcohol makes absolutely
no difference to the quality of their work, and I tend to believe them.
The real problem with drinking on the job is that it obliterates the
reason for stopping work at the end of the day - so you can have a drink
- thereby ensuring that if you keep it up, you will undoubtedly
degenerate into a raving workaholic.

5) Respect your TUDs - pick them carefully. The TUD (totally unnecessary
drink) is an experience most non-Muslim, non-Mormon folks can relate to.
Things are going so well at the party, why don't we just go out for last
call? Now that we've closed the bar, why don't we stop into that
underground dance hall on the way home with the $20 door fee and the
terrible bar band? Now that we're here, we really ought to buy a bottle
of moonshine from the old lady with the hockey bag in the corner. Mix it
with a can of Pepsi and presto - a perfect TUD!

A friend of mine recently remarked that the point of the TUD is for
functional alcoholics to see what it's like to be a real drunk for a
night without descending into a prolonged fit of debauchery - sort of
like addiction tourism. The downside is that the TUD is a complete
experience: The morning after you will find out what it's like to be a
non-functioning alcoholic with a hangover. Ain't pretty.