Alcohol is not an Excuse.
Drunk people do terrible things. We’ve all experienced this. Whether because we’ve done something stupid and horrible while drunk, or because we’ve been harmed by a drunk person whom we know. And we know these people, or we are these people, and so we also know that they, or we, would never do such things sober. It must be the alcohol. It makes us do terrible things, when we drink too much. Alcohol is the problem.
I don’t believe that alcohol is the problem. I don’t believe that alcohol is my problem. Yes, I’m an alcoholic and because I’m an alcoholic there is no safe amount of alcohol I can drink, because I can’t stop after a safe amount of alcohol. I will keep drinking until I can neither walk nor see. But before that, I will drive, brawl, insult, harass, or do any number of other terrible things that I know are wrong.
Alcohol is not the problem, because I know all those things are wrong, and I know that I don’t do them when I’m sober. And yet, knowing that, I chose to drink. Alcohol didn’t make me do bad things. Alcohol allowed me to do things I know are wrong. It allowed me to slip off the constraints of social propriety and say what I wanted to say, do what I wanted to do, express my desire for instant gratification and consumption, despite knowing that those things were wrong.
I do not believe that any habitual drunk is under any illusions that the things we do when we’re drunk are wrong. Not just later when we sober up and look back (or are told, because we don’t remember) and cringe at the messes we’ve made. But immediately. In the moment. We know what we’re doing is wrong, is injurious, is insulting, but we don’t care. And we knew that we would be brought to that state by drinking, and we drank in order to get to that state.
The matter of choice and compulsion in alcoholics is strange and delicate. There’s a duality that is not entirely reconcilable. I drank in a way that was utterly out of my control. I had no capacity to moderate or abstain. I knew what I was doing. I made the choice to drink every time. I enjoy the effects produced by alcohol. I knew the consequences of my drinking, and I drank anyway, fully aware of the choice I was making, and its effects on others and risks to my health and liberty.
But alcohol is never an excuse for bad behavior. It is not exculpatory. If anything, it is aggravating. When habitual drunks drink, we are doing it precisely because we like how being drunk makes us feel. We like that more than we dislike how our behavior hurts others. But we are not blind to it. We may be in denial about it, but denial is not unwittingness. We are not deceived by our denial.
Alcohol is an aggravating factor rather than mitigating because we know how we behave when we drink. We know it hurts others, and yet we continue to drink. We drink on purpose in order to put ourselves in the situation where we can behave badly, and use the alcohol as an excuse. To say, “I’d never do that sober, I wasn’t me! You can’t be mad at the real me.” To have a convenient scapegoat for our misdeeds.
But that is alcoholic insanity perfectly encapsulated: we know how we hurt others, and yet we drink again. It is not insane that drunk, we commit crimes, we harass women, we endanger ourselves and others. That’s what drunks do. The behavior isn’t the insanity. The insanity is that we see that, we suffer the humiliation when we sober up, and then we drink again. Because we prefer our intoxication to the rights and agency of others.
Recovery must include a genuine recognition of this behavior. Of our choice to harm others rather than to modulate our own actions. And we cannot simply apologize, again, for our drunken destructiveness and expect to return to our position in our community. Even if our change is real, it takes time to rebuild lost trust. Apologies are not amends. And sometimes our drinking costs us permanently. To be sober, we must accept and even embrace that. To regain stature anywhere, we must be willing to accept that we may have permanently lost it elsewhere.
We don’t recover in order to regain what we’ve lost and erase our humiliations. Recovery from alcoholism is about deciding that the way we’ve been living is bankrupt, and we need to become people worthy of respect. From ourselves. From whatever we believe in. When our own acts are objectionable to us, not because they cost us stature, or cause us humiliation, but because we cannot live as persons who place our own indulgence above others’ welfare. Then we may recover. Not only ourselves, but among those we’ve harmed.