Just a warning up front, if you suffer from alcoholism, this might not be the blog for you to read. This is absolutely a blog about drinking alcohol.
Did you know, in my field of work, there are vendors that will send you a drink kit if you attend their virtual presentations? It’s just like when we used to get together in person. Except instead of drinking together and laughing, you get to sit awkwardly on a virtual meeting and consume your preferred alcohol in front of your camera while listening to the sales pitch.
I’ve had a number of these offers cross my virtual desk. I don’t partake because I have a sort of love-hate relationship with alcohol. I’m sure you can relate: I loved drinking it and then I hated the consequences.
A couple years ago, seemingly out of nowhere, some switch just flipped inside me. I could only tolerate small amounts of alcohol and if I crossed that magic threshold, whatever it is, I’d suffer. All my health trackers would show increased heart rate, I’d have trouble sleeping, increased body temperature, and gastrointestinal distress. One glass of wine or three, didn’t matter. Same results. Changing to beer or liquor? Same basic results.
Ultimately, I mostly stopped drinking altogether. And, since then, I’ve been gaining some perspective.
Alcohol in the Conferences
I had the pleasure of traveling around for a company-sponsored conference late last year. Like all conferences, it followed a pretty typical format. There was some kind of happy hour the night before with vendor-supplied alcohol and terrible food followed by a day of talks and training and then ending with another sort of happy hour. For the clients, you know?
I don’t blame anyone for the format. I’ve seen both sides. Long ago, I would happily allow a vendor to spend as much money as they could to get my business. I’ve enjoyed lots of fancy dinners and plenty of fantastic drinks over the years because of that practice. Some of those people got our business, so I guess it worked out for them.
In more recent years, in consulting, I’ve understood the value of taking a client out for a meal and alcohol is usually a part of that. The client needs to feel valued and spending money on them is usually the easiest way to express that value. And you can’t very well take them to the local fast food joint because then you’re just cheap. I get why we do these things.
My experience in attending these conferences and attempting to be at the happy hour completely sober… well, it was different than I remembered from past conferences.
First, the food was terrible. Every time. Because the food doesn’t have to be good when everyone is focused on getting free alcohol. Second, it was loud. Too loud. Everyone trying to talk over everyone else. Third, it’s kind of lonely when you’re a sober introvert.
It’s just a conference, though. I’ve been told that these conferences are as much about letting people blow off steam as they are learning things. That’s why we party so hard at the conferences. That’s why everyone drinks so much. It’s because we earned it somehow.
So, what about a normal workday?
Alcohol in the Working Conversation
While I have known people to occasionally drink during working hours, it’s usually confined to conversation. There’s the longing for the drink you’re going to have as soon as work is done. There’s the back and forth about preferred drinks. Pictures are exchanged of your latest haul from the liquor store.
Everyone is a whiskey expert. Scotch is only good if it’s been aged a bazillion years. This type of beer somehow tastes less like garbage than that other beer.
It happens more than you might believe. Unless you are in the restaurant industry and then maybe you’re saying, “Hold my beer and cocaine.” I don’t want you to get the wrong idea about me, I’m not judging you. I’ve posted those pictures too.
Another thing that I’ve seen and done is outright ask people why they don’t drink.
I did this once, about ten years ago, at a conference. A number of us were out to dinner and wine was being passed around. One person at the table abstained and I asked something like, “Why aren’t you drinking the wine? It’s free.” Looking back, this was a very rude question to ask. I just didn’t know that it was so rude until the question was asked of me.
A prior manager of mine, someone that has since moved on, asked me what kind of drink I was going to have after a particularly stressful day. “Oh, I don’t drink,” I responded. He asked, “Why? What’s wrong with you?”
Oh… I get it now. That’s what it feels like to be asked a personal question by relative strangers.
It’s an odd thing to have such a casual relationship with this one specific drug. You wouldn’t very well ask someone, “How much heroin are you planning to inject this weekend, Billy?” Or make a statement, “I can’t wait to get off work and try out this new meth recipe.” This LSD is the best, it aged for years in a whiskey barrel.
It’s getting better though, right? I mean, the current trend is to talk about all the ways you are going to temporarily stop drinking alcohol and all the alcohol you’re going to consume as soon as that temporary sobriety ends. This is… better…?
I’ve read over the last few years about the movement to go sober. Dry January has become a big thing. Menus now have mocktails. I think there are even alcohol-free bars out there now. I don’t support these things. A cocktail without whiskey is not a mocktail, it’s just empty calories without a buzz. I don’t drink soda, either, so why would I drink this sugary garbage?
Dry January? A entire month of deprivation doesn’t make up for eleven months of overconsumption.
All of this got me thinking about what it means to be an alcoholic. I never considered myself an alcoholic because I’ve seen alcoholics. I always thought these were people that just lacked self-control. They made bad decisions. They made fools of themselves. They weren’t any fun. They were a danger to themselves or their families.
I’ve developed a different view recently. Or, more specifically, I see all the ways I made a fool of myself.
In one case, seven years ago, I had a few too many
glasses bottles of wine with a vendor. It was at a tech conference so there was drinking on the vendor floor, then a salesperson took me to the hotel bar. We talked about all sorts of stuff, probably mostly politics given the time period, but I can’t remember specifics. I spent the next day in my hotel room, missing the conference proper. I had to call the front desk and ask them to bring me crackers because my stomach was too upset to leave the room. Hey, the drinks were free, so I couldn’t say no.
My partner probably has plenty of stories of three-drink John calling in the evening from some conference or another. Living his best life, laughing. Lots of funny alcohol-inspired stories. “Remember when you came home after being out with a friend and passed out on the bed, like a starfish, instead of coming back to play board games?” Ha, ha, ha. Fun times.
Not all stories are like that though.
There’s the story about an adult I knew as a kid that got so drunk as to fall into a bonfire. Or the family friend that had “just a couple drinks” and drove his car into the ditch, showing up to the house with a bloody face. Or the story of the bonfire adult who, later in life, got into a car after drinking and drove off the road and nearly died. There’s the old grandma, sitting in her chair, always with a can of Busch beer. I’m sure it was at least after lunch but, how can I know for sure?
There’s plenty of stories of alcoholics and the damage they do. I wonder if their stories started out fun like mine?
Even my own stories and memories lose their fun when I think closer about it. “Remember that time, in high school, where we were taking shots from the bottle while Person drove us around?”
“Remember all those times after you turned 21, when we went to the bars, got drunk, and then drove home anyways?”
“Remember when we were in the Navy and got to see Rome? So when we got there, we just replaced the orange juice in the carton with vodka and drank our way through the city?”
“Remember that time in Dubai when someone drank too much Hennessy and puked in the hotel sink? We had to call room service to come fix it! Ha, ha, ha.“
After the Alcohol Comes Clarity
I had worried that I was becoming an alcoholic for a while. So I would always enact some scheme or another to try to convince myself that I didn’t have a problem.
I’ll impose a limit, two drinks at most.
I’ll stop drinking on work nights and only drink on the weekends.
Okay, fine, I won’t drink wine because I always drink too much of that. I’ll just have gin and whiskey…
It was always something or another. But then, I’d show up for work and have a particularly stressful day. The people I talked to were also having stressful days. Then the talk turned towards the drinks people were going to have after work and, bam, off the liquor cabinet at 5PM I would go. I looked forward to those drinks. So much so that I would get irritable without them.
And the rules, they never worked.
I did mostly quit though. You know, after my stomach started getting uppity.
I say mostly quit because I leave the door open. If I want to have a drink, I will, but now I recognize the tradeoffs.
The main tradeoff being this: If I want to drink, fine, but then I shouldn’t expect to do anything else.
Looking back, I realize that alcohol never helped me be creative or relax. The drawings that I did after drinking? Terrible. The music I would make? Always ended up being cut out of the final release.
It was harder to control my stress levels or even recognize that I was getting stressed out by something.
It hurt my sleep. My memory suffered. Alcohol provided calories I didn’t need.
And I was quicker to anger.
Okay, This Was Nice, Was There a Point?
For me, going without alcohol has led to an increase in creativity and productivity. And, generally, I feel more level and better able to handle the stress of life. I still don’t consider myself an alcoholic. Maybe I am. Maybe it’s a spectrum and we all fall on it somewhere. You can do the research if you want. I didn’t.
I’m bothered by the drink kit offer.
I’m bothered that everyone is so comfortable glorifying alcohol. We don’t do it for anything else. We don’t actively encourage people to take drugs but yet, we’ll gladly push alcohol onto people. We’ll regulate smoking right out of existence because of it’s negative impact on society. But, hey buddy, here’s your free whiskey. Have as much as you want!
The problem seems clear to me. Stories like mine are ones you can tell in a self-deprecating, funny light. They are stories of that one time when I was stupid, made a bad decision, that ended in a way that didn’t hurt anyone. These are the stories most of us have, so alcohol must be amazing and if you don’t like it, it’s a problem for you and only you.
Our culture is okay with alcohol because we never stop to think about the real impact. We never stop to think about the bad stories. Whenever one gets brought up, we justify it. Something along the lines of: “Well, she shouldn’t have drank so much at the party. Of course this happened to her.” Or “it’s their fault for just not quitting. Have some self-control.“
These drink kit offers are probably landing with people that have real struggles, real problems. These offers make it easier to fall back into old habits or justify an existing habit. Worse yet… there are people struggling with alcoholism and will have to say no to these offers and miss out on something educational that could have helped their career. It could have helped make their lives better but they can’t be involved because their struggle is real.
Hey, I guess being pressured to drink all the time is just fine, even if it leads to falling in the bonfire.
Enjoy your free drink kit,
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