Wired have a good discussion of how confusing the success of Alcoholics Anonymous is. I loved how they described the bio-chemical narrative of addiction:
Booze works its magic in an area called the mesolimbic pathway—the reward system. When we experience something pleasurable, like a fine meal or good sex, this pathway squirts out dopamine, a neurotransmitter that creates a feeling of bliss. This is how we learn to pursue behaviors that benefit us, our families, and our species.
When alcohol hits the mesolimbic pathway, it triggers the rapid release of dopamine, thereby creating a pleasurable high. For most people, that buzz simply isn’t momentous enough to become the focal point of their lives. Or if it is, they are able to control their desire to chase it with reckless abandon. But others aren’t so fortunate: Whether by virtue of genes that make them unusually sensitive to dopamine’s effects, or circumstances that lead them to seek chemical solace, they cannot resist the siren call of booze.
Once an alcoholic starts drinking heavily, the mesolimbic pathway responds by cutting down its production of dopamine. Alcohol also messes with the balance between two other neurotransmitters: GABA and glutamate. Alcohol spurs the release of more GABA, which inhibits neural activity, and clamps down on glutamate, which stimulates the brain. Combined with a shortage of dopamine, this makes the reward system increasingly lethargic, so it becomes harder and harder to rouse into action. That’s why long-term boozers must knock back seven or eight whiskeys just to feel “normal.” And why little else in life brings hardcore alcoholics pleasure of any kind.
I didn’t start drinking until I was ancient, by Irish standards. I was well into college before I realised I liked beer. It actually took me a few months before I would drink beer in a pub. Myself, Wife-unit, Teragram and the dis-approving ex-housemate would clink our bargain basement tesco beers at home but I’d stick to coke or even better ginger ale (the drink of kings!) when out and about.
The reason for this is because of drunkenness. I am, at heart, a total asshole. I am capable of being very mean and very acerbic and altogether unpleasant and I suppose I always figured that drunkenness would exacerbate that.
And growing up in Ireland, even though my parents role-modelled excellent attitudes to alcohol (although not so
excellent snobby palettes as the bottles of Blue Nun and various other Liebfraumilchen testified to in the earlier days of Zoomtard’s life) it took me 21 years to realise that it was conceivable that people in my generation could could drink without being drunken.
I once had to host a party of 20 teenagers in my house and a tragically large number of them got absolutely shitfaced drunk (they were all 18 – before you ring the cops!). Being able to listen into the conversation amongst these ambitious and apparently excellently (expensively) educated group was astonishing. Not a “Wow! That eagle just swooped down and picked up that rabbit while texting his falcon friends about a new nature reserve on his Android phone!” astonishing. Tales of drunken bravado, drunken fights, drunken thievery, drunken hook-ups and drunkenness prevailed. Classic one-liners included “You have no idea how hard it is to find the ingredients for cocktails on the streets of Beijing!” (I would have imagined the concept of delicious mixed alcoholic beverages had made it to the primitive Chinese by now) and “I have been banned from every bar in Temple Bar”.
Maybe it is a sign of how well Ireland is doing, in a big historical sense, that the prevalence of teen binging is so high up in my tragic experiences. Of course, in “real” terms, it doesn’t compete with heroin addiction or homelessness. But when you factor in the dichotomy of these bright young things who literally have the world at their feet having their horizons for fun and joy limited down to a paper cup filled with cheap bourbon and their concept of social interaction hinged on inebriation … well there is something heart-breaking in the gulf between what could be for these guys and what is.
They had no idea who they were.
I talked to my friend Breener today. She works with people who have AIDS. She can tell you stories about the real fringe in Ireland. Mainstream binge drinking is nothing when you actually rub shoulders with asylum seekers trying to get by on handfuls of euros and drug addicts who are trying to raise their kids in the face of full blown AIDS. But she was at a party this weekend with a group more representative of our age-group/peer-group. Late twenties. Supremely educated. I mean, these geeks will inherit the Earth educated. By the time she arrived, at 9pm, her hosts were “stocious” drunk. Many weren’t natively Irish. And yet the culture had spread.
Maybe we binge because we don’t know who we are? Breener says that she thinks that often the aim of getting drunk is that you can wake up the next morning and say that you can’t remember a thing. That is success – a great night. Because, Breener suspects, that is what people want – to not have to remember a thing. Then they can behave anyway they like.
We have a culture of literature and poetry second to none. And yet Ireland seems in some ways to be an emotionally mute society, utterly un-self aware. Without the tools, words or relationships to know what we feel, most of us find it a great relief to disconnect ourselves from what we feel, which is a pretty viable description of drunkenness.
I have a friend who is a stern Afrikaner. He is a wine connoisseur. He never gets drunk. Not because he is a Christian (although Ephesians 5:18 is fairly clear) but because it is, in his eyes, an insult to the grape. If God gives us something so rampantly complexly fantastic, he reckons we should be alert to its pleasures. I like his argument. Drinking when drunk is like an orgasm during sleep. It makes a mess, it isn’t much fun and you’d be kind of impoverished if you actually aimed for it.
Chesterton once said of the Cana miracle that the water beheld its Creator and blushed. Ben Franklin argues that beer is proof that God loves us and wants us to be happy. But there is something in the oblivion of (intentional) drunkenness that seems to reject the joy of alcohol in the first place. One of the kids yesterday actually said that they don’t like beer and as far as they could see, the only reason for drinking it (at an average of 4.5% alcohol!?!) was to get drunk.
I have seen drunkenness in other cultures. I once shared a room with two American soldiers in Munich who before breakfast one morning boasted of their ambitions in the face of Oktoberfest, to which they were headed. They were back three hours later, comatose and utterly worse for wear. Saddam didn’t need exotic weapons of mass destruction considering the way in which those fine young men were slain by a few litres of fermented German grain. I am aware that it is not a unique Irish problem.
But that doesn’t mean that the problem doesn’t express itself uniquely in Ireland. I suspect it does. In a society where the existence of transcendence is understandably doubted (since the churches are so inept as worshipers and so unworthy as witnesses), drunkenness expresses itself as a kind of inverse mysticism. A sub-scendence below the constraints of the ego and super-ego, down into a level where we cannot put words to our emotions or correspondence to our reactions. In the absence of transcendent freedom, we settle for the sub-scendence at the bottom of a nagin?
Your Correspondent, Always wants to sock it to you hard.